What do half-baked lists of healthy lifestyle factors, odds ratios on “all cause mortality”, and research on longevity have in common? They all identify the importance strong social networks. Put another way, isolation and loneliness are deadly sins. Ha! Does an introvert like me, who treasures a day alone reading, give up all hope? Doctor, how long do I have? Is being socially awkward a terminal diagnosis? Or like me, do you just skip onto the next, possibly feasible, item on the list (anyone for ultramarathons, or cryogenics?)
As a wee tocker, I vividly remember the existential shock when my primary school teacher told me I was not the centre of the universe and other people also want to go first. It had not occurred to me that others were also the centres of their own universes, entire galaxies, of swirling reflections, ideas, concerns. Wow. Maybe I was a late starter in the social awareness race, but it does seem that some people have grown up without learning that lesson. You are no more nor less important than others – that’s called being “right sized”, treating others as neither more nor less than you.
As a teen, I’d rather be eaten by ants, than do ‘small talk’. At parties I would bury my face in the bookshelf, the dance floor or the kitchen, anywhere but where people were aimlessly looking for conversation partners or worse, groups. A tattered copy of the old classic, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was a lifechanger, a revelation. It’s still a great read. Don’t judge a book by its cover, or its age. Its less than a dollar on Amazon Kindle at a 4.5 star rating; it could be in your local or e-library, second-hand copies are cheap; it might change your life too.
1. The first revelation was that when someone listens to you, really listens, they are giving you a gift beyond measure. In return, in normal conversations, you should return the favour. To hog the conversation is like showing up to a dinner party without wine, or showing up at the Christmas tree with your hand out but no gifts.
When people listen to you, they’ve given you the gift of their attention. Common courtesy demands you return the favour by listening to them. Mind officially blown. So that’s the structure of conversations: giving and receiving gifts of courtesy and attention.
Socially competent people learn this secret by osmosis from their upbringing, but they will never tell you because you’re just meant to know. If you hog the conversation, they will just not invite you to their next dinner party.
2. The second big revelation is, people like to talk about their interests. They’ll talk all day about (insert something you don’t know about: Pokemon Go, quilting, fly fishing, or restoring classic cars). All you have to do is find that thing that sets them on fire. “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
3. Bored? Dale Carnegie says Get Over It. It’s a learned skill to be able to bring curiosity to any subject. If it fascinates the other person, there must be something in it. Try it out; consciously adopt an attitude of curiosity. You might find a new interest and new friend.
You’d be surprised how often you stumble on common ground, when you both get lost in the conversation. Even if you don’t, it’s an amazingly good feeling when you empower someone; because you listened well, another human walks away feeling enthusiastic, motivated and happy. Either way, life’s too short to spend on small talk.
I love that book, and think its still well worth a read. If nothing else, for the reminder of a gentler more gracious time, but for true social dweebs its insights are just as relevant today. People haven’t fundamentally changed. So I reckon, go get that book it’s the only one that I know that tells the basics. You’re not an idiot, you’re not a hopeless case, you just were never taught how to do something commonplace, never role modeled it, and its not all that hard. Like if everyone learned to read at home, but you didn’t, and wondered how everyone knew what those squiggly things meant.
The blockage for me was that second part: asking those first tentative questions. There’s a well-known marketing book that tells us that Questions are the Answers (Allan Pease)…but what questions? Questions are scary. Introverts like me are very risk averse. I knew to use open questions(How was the party?), not closed questions (begets monosyllabic grunts: Did you have a good time? No). But I worried they might resent me prying, feel put on the spot or be offended by the question.
My worst fear happened t’other day; I asked an innocent question that threw the person bam! into uncomfortable territory. Gulp. Silence. Looks to heavens, looks like they consider bolting. I see the decision :what the heck, and blurt out something deeply personal. Respect. So brave. (Methinks: Oh earth, swallow me up now, they must resent me putting them on the spot). But no, they moved graciously past the End of the World, and became one of my precious allies.
I also had an unreasoning fear that there would be awkward SILENCE. Silence was the consummate faux pas. If I let silence descend, it’d be the death blow to friendship; I’d be found out as socially inadequate and be shunned everafter. Figuring ‘offence is the best defence’, I’d preemptively fill with noise any shadow of a hint of silence. I’d free associate from topic to topic and try to be entertaining or flattering. Not a strategy I recommend – see points 1 and 2: common courtesy to take turns, and finding their interests. I spent half an hour telling someone on how to teach music, before I discovered they were a music teacher. Cringe.
I was so dorky I actually needed simple workable scripts: step by step examples of gentle questions, like ‘how’s your day going’, or “what’ve you been doing lately”? General enough that someone can avoid tricky topics, but open ended enough to avoid a monosyllabic answer. And point 3 hone the curiosity skill; drop the idea of “boring” and really listen to the answers. And let there be silence; to start with, give them even just 3 seconds to come up with their answer. It’ll be OK.
I did an NLP course that suggested people have different rhythms; and to watch for the other person’s rhythm. I talk fast; my (then) love interest talked slow. If I wanted them to talk I had to adjust my rhythm to match. So this NLP exercise turned into how we spoke. I say something, I wait (mentally count to 3; face the dread abyss of silence), get a response. Been married for decades, worked a treat, one on one.
But to truly madly deeply acquire an actual circle of real friends, cue again the good ole 12 step programme (thank you again, Dr Manejwala). Part of dealing with Cravings is focusing on something outside yourself…and giving service is core to these programmes. Making amends, mutual support, reaching out. “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of (programme) always to be there. And for that I am responsible”
And making (yes) telephone calls is part of the deal, thank you sponsor.
Being kind, building people up, doing things without thought of yourself, doing the right thing…this is the path to freedom. And also, it turns out, the path to a circle of close friends. The Steps, the programme, the sponsor, grrr forced me to (heh heh “suggested” I) pick up that detested telephone, dial the scary number, say hello, how are you? And forced me to report back (yes, those meanies. “Let me know how that went”. Accountability, damn.)
I’d like to say, it got easy. In truth I quickly switched each person to text, email, Facebook, WhatsApp…anything but phone. These turned into coffees, walks, common interests…daily contact with several diverse thoughtful individuals. They ask me for help and give me help. And yes, I can now pick up a phone. I called old school friends, and it was …shudder…fun.
Who’d have thought? One day in a phantasy (thank you Marlene Halpin) I saw my previously isolated “tree” is all of a sudden populated with birds, squirrels and other happy wildlife, all eating little crumbs I’ve been scattering each day. I’m not alone with my own thoughts switched into Radio FK-U (that shouts nasty bully lies at me all day) now my phone is filled with “Have a lovely morning” “You’re awesome” and crazy happy stuff. After resigning myself to never knowing how, I had unwittingly made my first ever bunch of friends. So I share the process with you people of the interwebs; even if you feel isolated, suffering delusions of genetically-determined social inadequacy, it is just another thing that you can learn. If I can do it, after decades of awkwardness, then so can you.
If this inspires you to try out a 12 step group, my advice is, go with an open mind; and hunt around, don’t base it on the first (they’re all different peeps). There’s even online, phone or recorded poscasts. You’ll know if and when you find a group that’s ‘home’: it’ll be life-changing in more ways than you expect.