15 Things Socially Awkward People Need To Know
According to the news, we're building an entire society out of antisocial loners who are crippled by anxiety and are devoid of interpersonal skills. Well, I put in some time as a socially anxious loner myself before becoming the golden dynamo of charisma you know today, so here are some things I wish someone had told me back then. If all of the below is old information to you, please take a moment out of your day to ponder how incredibly lucky you are.
Note: the new David Wong novel Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick is up for pre-order now.
You Don't Know Yourself Without Constant Feedback From Others
Right now, there are things you don't realize about yourself that are glaringly obvious to anyone meeting you for the first time. The weird way you make eye contact, or don't. The way your voice always sounds like you're mad. The way your pants look OK from the front, but in the back, just, not at all.
It's impossible to know what impression you're making on others without gathering a bunch of data -- seeing how people react, using them as your mirror. Even the freakiest, most off-putting shit you do seems fine in a vacuum, so becoming personable while avoiding contact with people is like trying to cut your own hair, in the dark, while wearing fuzzy mittens. And instead of scissors, you're using a lobster.
The Rules Of Human Interaction Make No Sense, And You Can't Just Intuit Them
It doesn't matter how smart you are. Unless you get tons of practice being around people, you'll be shit at it. The reason for this is both obvious and largely unacknowledged: The rules of human interaction are nonsense by design, to give a leg up to people who spend a lot of time socializing. It's a whole secret economy that trades in an invisible currency called "status" which is governed entirely by a series of passwords and secret handshakes.
"But that's unfair!" you might say. I know, and I'm sorry. But the fact that you expect things to be "fair," as if this is all a game with referees who'll intervene on your behalf, only demonstrates how out of the loop you are. "But doesn't this create a death spiral in which being friendless makes it harder to make friends?" Yes. Yes, it does.
Social Anxiety Can Be (Somewhat) Healed By Socializing
"So what in the hell do you do?" There's only one option, as far as I know: You have to force yourself to endure bad face-to-face interactions. That's not my opinion, that's science. You can overcome fear of social situations by exposing yourself to them over and over. To my knowledge, that's the only way to do it without getting good and drunk every time you leave the house.
It's also common sense. Everything from cooking to combat gets less scary the more you do it. "But what if I do something embarrassing?" Good, that's the exact thing you need to happen. A lot of social anxiety is just an extreme fear of embarrassment that rises to the level of an irrational phobia. You have to go out and endure embarrassment, and do it enough times that you stop treating it like the end of the goddamned world. Then maybe you'll stop beating yourself up over social missteps that happened years ago that nobody else cared about even then.
You have to understand that other people aren't grading your ability to avoid embarrassment. They're grading you on how well you react to embarrassing situations. But that is a learned skill, and you just have to get practice.
Pop Culture Is A Horrible Teacher
Movies and TV are bad at teaching interpersonal skills for the same reason that porn is bad at teaching sexual technique. It's meant to be enjoyed by a third-party observer, not to be satisfying for the participants. That's a problem, because if you're not interacting with people in real life, pop culture is where you'll probably turn for "experience," observing fictional interactions to find things to imitate.
This one hurts to even think about, because I did it myself and inflicted untold damage as a result. Sitcoms granted me a great ability to snap back at people in a way that made bystanders laugh and the target hate me forever. Yeah, it turns out that a glorious, sarcastic smackdown will win an argument in a TV show, but never, ever win one in real life.
Simply Avoiding People Isn't An Option
If you have a small support system of peers who know you're not a "people person" and accommodate your social anxiety, that's great! Also, you will absolutely hit a point where those accommodations end and the real world begins.
If you are the rebellious type and decide you'll just sit this game out, well, that's up to you. But being bad at talking to people will cost you jobs, relationships, and life opportunities from now until the grave. It doesn't matter if your awkwardness isn't your fault. Nobody gives a shit. They don't want to work with somebody they can't talk to. So you can either push through the anxiety and learn those skills now, on your own terms, or wait until the world forces the issue.
Just know that the latter can have horrible consequences for other people. It's very easy to wind up in a Michael Scott situation, where you have some kind of power over others but no understanding of how to wield it. I mean, I've heard this happens. To other people.
If You're Never Around, People Will Invent A Fake Version Of You In Their Minds
... And you probably won't like what they come up with.
As a kid, I actually struggled with the idea that other people were thinking or talking about me at all. I just assumed that they forgot about me when I wasn't in the room. It's hard enough to wrap your head around the fact that other people exist at all, even harder to realize that 99% of the conversations pertaining to you occur out of earshot.
So, one day you'll find everyone is giggling as you pass in the hall, even though you did nothing of note to deserve it. Congratulations! Due to an anecdote shared at a party you weren't at, you have become someone else's inside joke. It's easier for them to do this if they don't see you as a real person, and they totally won't if they rarely interact with you directly. In fact ...
Related: 6 New Kinds Of Anxiety The Internet Gave Us
You Will Be Assigned A Social Role, Whether You Like It Or Not
You know how in reality shows they'll shoot dozens of hours of video and then just create a hero and a villain in the editing process, by cherry-picking specific moments? Well, real life is kind of like that. Humans can only function if they put their chaotic lives into some kind of made-up framework, usually as some kind of story full of obstacles and twists. That means they need the other people in their lives to perform certain roles.
You, therefore, might get the role of "nerdy punching bag" or "arrogant jerk" or "luckless loser" purely because they need that in their story. As with the reality show, it's easy enough for them to only retain the incidents that conform to your role, especially if you're never around to prove them wrong.
Your Abuse Is Their Bonding Ritual
Some people know why they're being bullied -- their race, their gender identity, their disability -- but for others, it seems like they were picked out of a hat. That's because from the bullies' perspective, the target often doesn't matter. They torment you as a group activity to make themselves feel closer to each other. You're just the prop in their ceremony.
This is why you can, say, shit your pants at age seven and still have a shit/pants-based nickname up until you head to college. The mockery doesn't need to be justified; they need you to serve the role as the mockery receptacle one way or the other. I realize that this doesn't make it better or easier, I'd try to figure out how to sugar coat it better but society keeps rewarding me for being blunt.
Everyone Is Playing A Character At All Times
The world in general will never make sense until you truly understand this: Everyone's actions are the result, not of what they want to do, but of what persona they are trying to project to the world. I would emphasize the word "trying" there. Their decisions are ultimately the result of a bitter conflict between:
A) The person they are;
B) The person they want to be;
C) The person they think society expects them to be.
For example, if you don't socialize much, on the rare occasions you try you'll be shocked by how often people just don't show up to your thing, even after repeatedly saying they would. That's the conflict between the person they are (someone who prefers to stay home), the person they want to be (someone who says yes when invited to things), and the person society expects them to be (someone who follows through on promises).
If that sounds stupid and impossibly convoluted, well good, it means I've done a good job of explaining it. In fact ...
Related: 5 Everyday Situations That Wrack Us All With Anxiety
Everything Is A Subtle Game Of Intricate Lies
These nonstop lies are usually to protect someone else's feelings and/or status, but I'm not talking about the obvious stuff, like answering "No" to "Do I look fat in these pants?" It's an incredibly complicated dance that involves communicating intent in a way that both makes the intent clear and unclear at the same time. Confused? Here's an example that will confuse you even more:
Someone will say some words that are a declaration of intent to form a closer relationship with another person ("What are you reading?"), but those words must be constructed to give both themselves and the other person plausible deniability if the latter doesn't reciprocate the desire, yet also doesn't want to inflict the pain of rejection. This way, they can simply answer the question in a way that doesn't invite further conversation ("Just some horror thing I got at the airport.")
So these aren't lies in the sense that they're just stating incorrect information, but they are obscuring your true feelings and intentions to make interactions more comfortable for the other person. Once again, this convoluted dance is a learned skill that requires thousands of repetitions to perfect. But just to be clear: if you don't know exactly when and how to lie, you don't know how to function as a human being.
The Ability To Spot And Call Out These Lies Is An Empty, Pointless Skill
If you're intelligent but bad at people, you can make yourself feel above it all by pointing out this everyday obfuscation and subterfuge. "You know that guy is only offering to help with your homework because he wants to have sex with you, right?" or "They didn't really like your poem, they just said so to be nice! Now allow me to grace you with the precious truth."
I spent years expecting everyday interactions to operate according to the rules of my robot logic, and thought I was a genius for pointing out when they didn't. Instead, it just exposed my inability to pick up subtle social cues and made me unpleasant to be around. At that point, the best-case scenario is that you parlay it into a career in comedy.
If You Think Someone Is Perfectly Good Or Awful, You Simply Don't Know Them
You know that thing I said earlier, about how people will just invent a character for you if you're not actually there? Well you're doing the same right back to them. The overwhelming majority of what you think you know about other humans is, in fact, just details your imagination filled in upon glimpsing their shadow.
We often get blindsided by this when one of our personal heroes lets us down ("You mean you were obscuring your true intentions that whole time???"), but the reality is that it's also very possible the opposite is also true, that the bully is a hero to everyone but you. In fact ...
Related: 5 Things Normal People Don't Understand About Panic Attacks
"People Are Trash" Is An Immature, Naive Worldview
Obviously, a thing can only be good or bad compared to another thing. "People are trash" makes no sense, because collectively, these are the only people who exist. So they're trash compared to what? What better version of humanity are you using as your standard?
All you're revealing about yourself with this worldview is that you've spent so little time around actual, flawed people that you've set a standard for behavior that makes sense only in your imagination. It's the equivalent of a guy getting upset that his real girlfriend doesn't live up to the anime girl on his body pillow.
In my case, the biggest barrier was getting so disappointed in people when they didn't live up to my expectations that I had a "one strike and you're out" standard. Every failure was a bitter, unforgivable betrayal. It turns out that knowing how to react when real people disappoint you also takes practice.
If Your Relationship Is 100% Free Of Friction/Conflict, It Just Means You're Not Close
No two humans in existence want the exact same things or see the world in the exact same way. These incompatibilities can stay safely hidden as long as your only interaction with each other is at a safe distance -- maybe in the form of an online game or fandom, perhaps with occasional generic words of support offered in times of crisis. It's only when someone is actually there in the crisis with you that you A) realize how fundamentally different you are and B) have to perform the awful task of working through those differences to resolve said crisis.
What we discovered in the era of social media is that loose/distant friendships are more comfortable than tight ones, in the same way that a tent is easier to construct than a house. You may not even see the problem at first -- it's got walls and a roof, right? -- but you'll see it when the storm comes.
No One Is Perfect At This
The bumper sticker version of this that's wrongly attributed to Plato is "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle you know nothing about." In this case, it's a matter of realizing that no one is able to see through all of the tangled mess of human psychology and social structures like they're viewing the code of the goddamned Matrix. Everyone screws up.
The biggest mistake the socially awkward make is in the assumption that everyone else finds it easy, that their every offhand word or joke represents perfect intention and strategy. Being good at this means understanding that very few people are great at it, and most people are just muddling through. Sometimes there is no more powerful people skill than the ability to just let shit slide.
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