Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Skills Require Practice

EnergyVanguard's post about Nerd Verses Geek verses Dweeb got me thinking.

There is the stereotype of the brainiac with appalling social skills, often who suffers in lonely sadness because he just can't get the girls.

The sad truth is that for someone with poor social skills, it's not just lack of potential mates one has to worry about, it may also be lack of meaningful friendships and community, the absence of which can be very damaging to self-esteem. If only very or mundanely brainy but not MIT brilliant, in reality poor social skills often translates to a lack of meaningful job opportunities as well, because despite all our claims at being meritocracy, if you can't get yourself liked and noticed by the people who recognize merit, well, your merit probably won't get recognized.

The other sad truth is that even though the stereotypical nerd is nearly always male, girls, brainy or otherwise, can also suffer the same problems with lack of social skills.  Boys will either ignore them, make fun of them, or else take advantage of their low self-esteem, while other women?  Sometimes the treatment that socially skilled women vest upon socially unskilled women is psychological bullying of the most brutal kind.   Whether or not women naturally have more social skills, women are expected to care more about social pursuits and so do seem to learn them younger and to greater detail than men, so often use their advanced understanding of social nuance as weapons to assert their dominance over other women.  To be a woman with poor social skills is to be both invisible to popular culture because women are expected to have them, and to be something of a failure as a woman and thus a person, because women are supposed to have them.

The good thing for the socially inept of all gender identities is that social skills are learned skills.  They can be taught, even self-taught, and just like every other skill under the sun, they improve with intentioned practice.  Some people may be better at them naturally, just like some people are better at hand-eye-coordination or algebra.  But the more you try over and over again to hit that ball with a bat, the more times you do math problem after math problem, with an eye for learning you will eventually get at least marginally better.

Having the intention to learn; however, is crucial.  Defeatist attitudes are so easy to adopt and yet don't get anyone anywhere.  You aren't really trying if you don't entertain the idea that somethings besides abject failure is a possible outcome.   This is as true for social skills as it is for mathematics, another field where I have observed people hindering themselves by prefacing all of their endeavors with "well I'm not very good at this so I'm probably not going to be able to get it."  I'm not saying that gee whiz a smile is all you need for magic and butterflies to issue fourth, but I do assert that an optimistic outlook removes a very significant block that gets in the way of even starting to learn.

In my life I've been someone who thought, "well I'm just not very good at that," both about math, and about social skills.  (Also about hand-eye coordination.) I had unhelpful high school teachers and years of torment by dominant girls in middle school to reinforce those notions.

Here are some tips I've gleaned from years of trying to practice and learn something I never felt I was naturally all that good at:

1. Do make small talk, even especially if it is painful to you or seems pointless.  Remember that practice makes perfect.  Try to be cheerful and warm--if you don't feel that way, then fake it til' you make it.  The purpose of small talk is to break the ice, to set the stage for bigger talk later.  If you aren't easy to talk to for the small stuff, why would someone want to trust you to talk about the bigger stuff?

2. Be reciprocal.  Listen as much as you speak.  Ask folks about others as much as they ask you about yourself.  Invite as much as you are invited.  Offer to drive, to pay, to run to the store for the last minute beer and snacks, as often as others offer to do the same thing.

3. Don't be afraid to take the initiative if you think others aren't inviting or asking you to thinks.  It might just mean they are busy or failing to be properly reciprocal themselves, rather than all those fears that they don't like you or don't want you around.  People appreciate the dependability of someone who both gives and takes, and want to be around that kind of reliable person.  And if they say no, so what?  Try again or move on.

4. You don't always have to accept invitations, but refusing too many in a row might mean someone stops inviting you and moves on---you aren't worth their time if you keep refusing everything.  And that's not personal, it's just logistics.  Try a counter-invitation if you really can't make something:  "Sorry, I can't go to that concert, but let's meet up for coffee next week instead to catch up." 

5. Don't obsess over one person or one group.  Some bit of friendships unfold naturally if it makes sense to, and won't otherwise--so find someone else with whom you have better chemistry and don't sweat it. Why waste your time on people whose personalities, temperaments, schedules or hobbies don't mesh well with yours?  You'll just waste energy and feel down. 

6. Have interests, and cultivate them.  Find others with similar interests, and take part in that community.  Contribute, participate, and find ways to give back to that community.  There's really nothing for social self confidence like feeling like you are part of a community. 

7. Listen.  Let other people make their points and finish speaking, and then respond in reference to what they said.  Don't derail the conversation by taking the subject all over the place, at least not until you've responded to what the other person actually said first. 

8. If you think male-female friendships cannot exist or that every friendship-like interaction between men and women has romantic undertones, you're missing out on a rich set of experiences, denying yourself a host of opportunities to practice social skills, and potentially setting yourself up for a lot of romantic disappointment.  The world might have worked that way at one time, but it doesn't anymore--thank god.  It takes some time and practice to start to tune into the subtleties of romantic interest, and you need practice to get there, so don't deny a chance to practice because its only going to the "friend zone."

9. Take opportunities to practice speaking up if speaking up is hard for you.  This benefits social skills by making you more comfortable having attention on yourself and communicating anyway.  Answer questions in class,  bring up points in meetings, even and especially if it makes you worried you're wrong or people will think you are stupid.  These worries will recede with practice at this skill, and it makes you more confident in participating in conversations in group settings, where you could meet new people.

Social skills are something I still feel like I'm learning, especially navigating the difference between "school" and "adult world" friendship-forming skills.  Advanced topics include How to Have Friends as a Couple, How to Balance Friends You Have Singly with Friends You Have as a Couple, How to Have a Social Life Without Having to Spend Tons of Money on Activities, How to Be Friends with People Who Have Kids When You Don't Have Kids Yourself, How to Find New Best Friends After All Your Best Friends Move Away, and Maintaining the Long-Distance Friendships That Matter to You.  I'll report back on these issues as a learn them.

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