Speaking Up And Shutting Up: Feel Less Awkward About Talking to Others

2009 August 12

Dear GenMeh;

I don’t know what to say or how to keep a conversation going when I meet people. I even have trouble with friends and that awkward silence, not to mention my paranoia that everybody thinks I’m a loner loser. Are there any tips on better social interaction for dummies?

-Tongue-tied

At first glance, I’m a poor one to ask. As I recently declared loudly to a friend, I have neither an affinity for nor an interest in conversational foreplay. When it comes to chatting it up, I’m most definitely a hit it and quit it kinda girl. I can be verbose, but it depends on my mood and whether I have an interest in A) the subject matter at hand and B) my fellow conversationalist. If I find both you and the topic fascinating, it’s Algonquin Roundtable go-time.

All that to say that you should look elsewhere for tutorials on open-ended questions, probes, using “feeling” words or mirroring body language. Talking to fellow human beings isn’t rocket science and I’m not about to pretend it’s so.  I will, however, tell you to take a deep breath and read the following. All this reassurance can be yours for the low, low price of $19.95.

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Photo by Sarah and Mike …probably

How to Feel Less Awkward About Talking to Others

  • People (other than me) like to be asked questions about themselves. Unless they’re complete narcissists, they will eventually feel self conscious about dominating the dialogue and will lob you a few softballs to even the playing field.
  • Conversation isn’t always required. Many times, a smile, nod and a “hey” get the job done. The world is a busy place and most people are relieved not to have to take time out of their self-imposed VIP schedules to make inane small talk with casual acquaintances they aren’t particularly close to in the first place. By opting not to push the inanity on them, you’re actually letting them off the hook. They will appreciate you more for this than if you  buttonhole them into a mind-numbing 10-minute chin wag about the many historical precedents behind this summer’s unusual humidity.
  • Unless you ask profoundly inappropriate questions, have a severe autism spectrum disorder or violate their personal space by, say, humping their leg, no one will  notice that you aren’t Charlie Rose or Barbara Walters. Seriously, most of us have a hell of a lot more going on in our headspace (like worrying if we secretly suck at interpersonal stuff, too) than to devote time to dissecting whether or not the person we exchanged a few words with while waiting in line at Starbucks lacked the appropriate level of small talk finesse. I think uncharitable thoughts about folks all the time, and “Man, that guy is such a crappy conversationalist.” doesn’t even make the top 20 when it comes to my most frequent mental gripes.

Speak when you have something to say or when someone asks you a question. If you don’t feel like talking, don’t sweat it. Smile politely, nod and move along.  And give yourself a break; awkward is (quite literally) just a state of mind.

Have a career/life/love problem you’d like help with? Drop me a line and we’ll see what we can do.

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