On the last post, someone asked me to write a guide to social skills. I don't think I can do a full guide, because I'm still in the learning process myself, there's still things I don't understand, but I'll do some bullet points. Succeed Socially is also a good resource for socially awkward people.
Helpful Metaphor 1: Drawing.
I can't draw very well. And I used to think that people who were good at drawing simply had an ability I didn't. They think of what they want, put pencil to paper, and they somehow know what to do. I figured it was just a natural talent and that I could never learn to draw.
Then I worked with CC, who was an artist. He told me about art school; about drawing thousands of straight lines and perfect circles and shading exercises, about learning anatomy and perspective, about studying composition starting with the simplest shapes. Drawing for him was not talent but technique, something he had to learn and work at intellectually. It was no use for me to say "I just can't draw, it's not my thing," because I know that I could learn to draw if I put in the years of effort that CC did.
Likewise with social skills. They're not "you have it or you don't," they're something you consciously learn and practice. Socializing isn't an instinct; it's a skill, and how you socialize is not "just who you are" but what actions you choose to take.
Helpful Metaphor 2: Directions.
When I first moved to this town, I was lost all the time. I was used to the grid system in Seattle, and this place is all goddamn cowpaths from 1729 that wind around in strange directions and change names every few blocks. When I was trying to find the supermarket, I had to Google it and write down every turn: "Left at Elm, right at Main."
After a few trips with my written notes I had the directions memorized, and I started using landmarks instead of street names. "Left at two blue houses, right at the cemetery." And after a whole lot of trips that stopped being conscious, and I simply drove to the supermarket, going left and right just because that's the way to the supermarket.
Likewise with social skills. They feel hopelessly forced and artificial at first, and you have thoughts analogous to "shit, am I going to have to write down all the lefts and rights any time I go anywhere?" But after enough practice you'll learn them so throughly that they come to feel like instinct. What feels like tremendous effort initially will, in months or years, become just how you act.
Okay, now some specific skills.
*When in doubt, be nice.
This is the number one rule that's helped me develop social skills. People will put up with a lot more awkwardness if you say kind and generous things. Don't suck up, but be positive, especially when you don't know people well or you're not sure how to respond to something. Even stock-phrase politeness--"nice to meet you," "that's very interesting," "have a nice day,"--while sometimes awkward in its own right, beats the hell out of silence or negativity.
Being sardonic and cynical is fun, it's funny, and sometimes people will be entertained by it, but it's risky to do when you're on shaky social ground. You might insult something the other person likes, or you might come off as someone who just hates everything. (Something I worry about doing on this blog, actually; I'm not nearly so hypercritical in real life.) I wouldn't say "don't ever be negative," but I would say "when in doubt, don't be negative."
In particular, resist the urge to debate. Most people don't like being disagreed with, especially if you give the impression of finding fault with every statement. If something's important to you, of course speak up, but don't debate minor points just to prove how smart you are--"winning" wins you nothing.
Don't forget your "hello," "goodbye," "please," and "thank you." Offer to help the host clean up after parties, offer to get people a snack or a drink when you get up for one, and if people are moving furniture or setting/clearing dishes offer to help with that. If people are visiting you, guests' preference for entertainment count above your own. Being polite and helpful gets you a lot of points even if you're awkward, and sitting there looking like you're being served by someone who's supposed to be your friend can come off jerkish.
*Observe and copy.
If you're not sure what's appropriate to do in a situation, look at what everyone else is doing. If everyone else came in and sat down on a chair or couch, plop your butt down; if everyone else is standing around with a drink in their hand, get to the punch bowl and find a little conversational circle to join. Listen to the direction the conversation takes and follow it there--if they're making jokes, if they're telling stories, if they're debating a subject, chime in with your own contributions in kind. Listen to how other people are talking to tell if it's appropriate to use swear words or share personal things (when in doubt, don't) and which topics are interesting to them.
*Observe and react.
When others are talking, listen. I used to have tremendous difficulty knowing when it was my turn to speak, but I found that following along closely with the speaker, rather than waiting for my turn, helped fix that. It also helped my responses be true responses to what they were saying, rather than "now let's talk about me." Make it a goal to be able to paraphrase whatever someone just said to you.
When you're talking, watch. People's faces and body language will tell you whether they're interested or disinterested, pleased or put off. Whether or not you're able to salvage the current interaction, the information will help you improve in the future. And if things really go south, just stop talking. This is another situation that's awkward, but not as awkward as the alternative of turning it into a monologue.
*Try to be average.
Average doesn't mean boring or generic. It means in the middle--not the center of attention, not hiding in the corner, but mixing through the area (physical and conversational) where most people are. Don't talk constantly and don't be silent; talk sometimes. Don't demand attention; don't exaggerate accomplishments or experiences or put on strange affectations to be different. By all means, show off your unique personality and interests, but don't try to be super-cool, just try to be normal and unique.
That's not an oxymoron; socially normal people are still all different. Every "airhead blonde" and "frat boy" (two groups that aren't that dominant in the mainstream anyway) has their own personality and history and interests. Seeing the mainstream as stupid or bland "sheeple" is a grave mistake and you cannot be really socially skilled if you look down on normal people.
Not on people, and not on one topic. Fandom babble is uninteresting to someone outside that fandom, but more importantly, any specific topic can tire people out if you go on too long. Talk about your interests, by all means, but if people seem bored or the conversation moves on, talk about something else. Likewise, don't take a joke too far; if a Monty Python quote cracks people up, don't go on to re-enact the whole scene. (Also, keep this in mind.)
*Don't apologize or excuse your awkwardness.
When you say "I'm sorry I'm awkward," or "ha ha! I'm so awkward!" it draws attention to the awkwardness and it doesn't help. Better to act like you're doing fine and need no excuse.
Nothing puts people off like being grossed out. There's no need to change your body or style, but you do have to present it well. Shower and brush your teeth every day and if you get sweaty take another shower before social events. Your clothes don't need to be "fashionable," but they should be clean, in good condition, and fit well. (This isn't a firm rule, but a button-down shirt or nice top can make a better impression than a geeky logo or slogan tee.) If you have facial hair, trim it neatly. Pay attention to your smell--BO and Dragon Breath are very serious social handicaps.
This is one area where it's important not to be a perfectionist. Don't think "I'm fat, so it doesn't matter if I dress well" or "I'm really ugly, who'll even notice whether my beard is shaggy." People know what you can and can't help, and putting in effort where you can counts for a lot.
*There are no exceptions to social skills.
Don't "let your guard down" and revert to weirdo mode when you're with family or close friends, and don't think there's an entirely separate set of skills for dealing with people at work or people of the opposite sex. It's all one thing. People who are close to you may tolerate and understand your weirdness, but they still appreciate it when you remember to say "thank you" or you stop talking when they get bored. And there's no special tricks for special situations; the very same behaviors that make dudes at a bowling alley want to talk to you will please your boss and interest the ladies. (Well, not the very same behaviors, burp-wise and all. But the same underlying concepts.)
*Put up with a little, but don't put up with a lot.
If there are a couple people in a large group that you don't like, or the conversation turns briefly to something that bores you, say nothing and deal. If someone says one mean thing to you, calmly tell them that it was rude and move on. But if you just don't like a group of people at all, or if someone's repeatedly mean to you, leave. Don't make a scene, don't try to change them or call them out, just walk away. No one, no matter how skilled, gets along with everyone.
*Invite people to be your friend.
If you'd like to spend more time with a particular person, the best thing to do is just ask. Most people will say yes if they can, especially if you suggest a specific (inexpensive and time-flexible--maybe getting coffee or going for a walk) activity. Or if you hear that a bunch of people are going to do an activity together, don't be afraid to ask if you can join in.
*Fake it 'til you make it, baby.
If you play the role of a socially comfortable and likeable person long enough, it'll grow into you. It might feel entirely like a role at first, but just keep plugging. If you want to be liked, it's worth it.
Wow. That got long. I hope it's not too preachy or condescending, and I'm sure there are big things that I missed. But these are some useful things that I've learned.