10 Tips for Real-Life Socializing (for the Internet-Poisoned Brain)
Allow me to be your crash-test dummy for social awkwardness
* Find verbal exchanges to be so emotionally draining that you prefer texts to calls, even from friends?
* Go out of your way to avoid real-life conversations with strangers?
* Feel a flood of relief when a planned social event gets canceled?
* Have fewer than three real-life friends, and generally find it far less stressful to interact with online acquaintances?
* Wish you weren't like this?
Then this list might help you but also it might not. I lived through a doom-spiral of avoiding people out of anxiety and then becoming more anxious due to my lack of practice...
...and if you're looking to break out of that cycle, here are 10 things you should know about real-life socializing, a five-minute course catering to people who, like me, suffer from Acute Internet Brain:
1. Accept That You Don't Have a Choice
I don't mean, "Learn to socialize or die alone", I mean you are always communicating whether you want to or not. "I'll simply stay home" isn't choosing not to play the game, it's choosing to play it in the worst possible way.
Nothing you can do at the party will send as strong a message as failing to show up at the party. Yes, people are talking about you behind your back. If you're there, maybe you'll come off badly. But if you're not there, their opinion of you will be shaped by rumors, inferences and second or third-hand anecdotes.
And, sure, there's a tiny chance it'll be fine - maybe you'll develop a reputation as a cool, mysterious stranger! But their image of you will definitely be wrong, and it'll be whatever they need it to be. If your classmates/co-workers/etc need a punching bag, then they'll latch onto your most embarrassing mistake and make that your whole personality, sharing that anecdote over and over in your absence.
Being around, even if you're not great at socializing, is almost certainly better for you long-term. If all you did was show up, pat yourself on the back and know that you're already ahead of the game.
2. Social Anxiety is Normal (and Gets Better With Practice)
Mental health awareness is one of the great advancements of our generation, but a side effect is a tendency to self-diagnose mental illnesses without ever seeing a professional. That's... not so great. I see lots of people, usually in a certain age range, who assume they have a disorder and/or an unusual personality type because they feel nervous in social situations (99% of my online social circle are self-proclaimed "introverts"). I think they are, in reality, feeling the exact normal amount of nervousness.
Remember, the whole reason alcohol use became prevalent in society is because it helps alleviate social anxiety. That's why complex human societies didn't exist until we had beer to make them tolerable. I'm not kidding. Some amount of social anxiety is universal and, I say, entirely logical: Social interactions are high-stakes, difficult to navigate (especially without practice) and, above all, out of your control. You know who never feels social anxiety? Psychopaths.
Not to sound like a technophobic old person, though I definitely am that, but it's clear that social media exacerbates this. Its entire appeal is as a safer, no-contact form of socializing with controls you'd never have in real life. You can pick and choose which conversations you join, mute or block toxic people, delay your responses if you need time to think, lie without worrying that your tone or body language is giving you away, argue with or insult people with impunity. No one can demand anything from you, or force you to answer an uncomfortable question. You never have to see, first-hand, the hurt you caused with a thoughtless or cruel remark.
And, above all else, it lets you filter away anyone whose worldview even slightly diverges from yours.
If that's what you're used to, in-person conversation feels like an interrogation, job interview and cross-examination all at once. No wonder your body feels it as actual, physical fear. The good news is that's primarily a fear of the unfamiliar and that means it gets better with exposure (I mean, almost everything does). This, by the way, is another reason avoidance is the worst possible strategy.
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3. Treat Insults and Arguments Like Live Grenades
There's a misconception that socially awkward people are quiet. That was never me; I dealt with social anxiety by trying to dominate the conversation, either to be entertaining, or to get out in front of whatever confrontation I was nervous about having. This is great training if you aspire to a lonely career in comedy, but a disaster if your goal is to be good at socializing at all.
I suspect this is a common mistake for anyone who does the bulk of their socializing behind a glowing screen. The internet and pop culture both push the idea that the ideal interaction is a "dunk" that makes all of the bystanders/audience laugh and/or applaud. The perfect insult, the killer rebuttal to a dumb argument, the putting of an arrogant person "in their place." In real life, the damage that does to relationships is a thousand times more important than whatever victory you think you won.
I realize that "TV sitcoms aren't real" is the kind of patronizing advice you'd offer a toddler or alien, but I've never met an adult who didn't to some degree adopt the speech patterns and strategies of fictional characters (note: YouTubers and social media influencers are fictional characters). We forget that they are phrasing their communication with a third party in mind (the audience), not the listener.
Trying to imitate that style of speech in real life can be catastrophic. An especially cutting insult or effective public humiliation will be held against you for decades, no matter what else you do or how you treat the target afterward. If you want people to like you, learn to swallow the poison before it comes out. Then tell me how you did it.
Jason’s latest novel, Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, is out now in paperback (and all other possible formats)
4. Real Life is Cringe
Social anxiety mostly just boils down to an extreme fear of public embarrassment. So I think it's telling that this generation has taken to calling everything they don't like "cringe", as if they can't imagine anything worse than doing something that makes others embarrassed for them. In real-life social interactions, cringey stuff happens constantly.
In in-person group settings, you'll make a joke and nobody will hear it, or if they do, they won't get it. You'll tell an anecdote and then, half way through, realize that nobody is listening and you’ll have to just let it peter out. You'll think you're making a great point, then somebody will crack a joke and, once the laughter is over, another person will start talking and you'll never get to finish. You’ll accidentally call someone by the wrong name. People you thought were close friends will unintentionally reveal, in public, that they have only ever considered you an acquaintance. You'll come up with a killer rejoinder to someone's mockery, only to start uncontrollably farting two words in.
Shit happens. And after it happens, you have to stay there, in the room, with the people it happened in front of. That's just the way it is.
Well, that's the way it is in real life. If your primary experience with socializing is via pop culture or parasocial relationships with online personalities, I get why you'd see "cringe" as some kind of rare, worst-case scenario. Those formats are intentionally crafted to mostly avoid it, or to deliver it in a carefully controlled way.
The way it's supposed to work, the way it worked in the past, is friends will bond over their cringe. Everyone embarrasses themselves in front of everyone else and that makes you more comfortable around them. It's proving to the group that you trust them with your unfiltered flaws and that you can be trusted with theirs, that you're not hiding behind a polished false persona or demanding that they do the same to keep up.
5. Real Conversations Aren't Meant to be Entertaining
The mere act of in-person talking usually matters more than what is being said. The only real message being conveyed is often just, "I am making the choice to be here with you now." It took me forty years to realize this.
So if you overhear a couple of girls exchanging totally uninteresting stories about their recent sleep quality, they're not failing at conversation. The fact that they're together and saying stuff is what matters. That shrill laughter you hear at bars and restaurants in reaction to some utterly unremarkable anecdote or somebody's rudimentary joke? It isn’t intended as a reward for the cleverness of the words, but as an expression of joy at being in each other's company. To antisocial jerks like me, it's fingernails on a chalkboard.
So if a co-worker strikes up a conversation with you to tell you about their sick cat, a story that does not affect you and does not arrive at any kind of conclusion, they're not doing conversation wrong - you're doing it wrong by getting annoyed by it. Other people, I constantly have to remind myself, don't exist to provide us with entertainment.
This is a bigger deal than you think, because if you're like me, you have subconsciously found yourself either avoiding conversations, or getting nervous about having them, purely because you felt you didn't have anything interesting or funny to say. So now you're back in the "bad at socializing because you avoided socializing because you are bad at socializing" death spiral.
INTERMISSION: Enjoy this video of a beaver struggling to carry his groceries into his home because he absolutely refuses to make two trips:
6. Never Assume People Actually Mean What They Say
Some of you reading this have spent the last decade obsessing over some comment or insult that the speaker forgot as soon as it left their mouth. We all instinctively know that we sometimes just say random bullshit just to fill the silence, but then assume everything other people say is either a pure declaration of their heart's deepest truths or a calculated attempt to destroy our mental wellbeing.
Here's where you might respond with something like, "Exactly, people are filthy liars and that's why I avoid them!" but the message today isn't, "Humans are monsters and we just have to deal with it." Real people have insecurities, trust issues and a thousand other factors that warp their ability to say what they mean. And, as I said above, sometimes people just talk because they enjoy talking. If you insist on taking every word at face value, you're the one who's bad at talking to people, not them. Humans are not robots.
And even if they are trying to deceive you, even that isn't necessarily a devious act of betrayal. Sometimes they're trying to project an image of themselves, not because they're wily con artists, but because that's truly what they want to be. Somebody who loudly insists they don't like drama in their relationships has probably attacked a car with a baseball bat at some point. But they don't want to be that way, so they go over the top in loudly proclaiming they're not, hoping it forces them to follow through.
"So how in the hell am I supposed to truly know someone," you might ask. Well...
7. Actions Say More Than Words
I hit this same point in like half of the pieces I write: Being overly cynical about people is just another kind of naivete.
It's the sheltered kids on reddit who've done all of their socializing via a headset and keyboard who are the biggest edgelords, the ones loudly calling for civil war, if not extinction of the wretched species entirely. So they're the ones who'd read the previous entry and assumed that when humans are deceitful, it's always to hide how terrible they secretly are. In the real world, it's often the opposite.
For example, here's something I've never seen happen in a movie or TV show, but which happens all the time in real life:
You confront a peer about an offensive remark, or some hurtful habit. They fly into a rage, rant about how you have no right to tell them what to do. But then, they quietly change their behavior to conform to what you asked.
In other words, lots of times their verbal posturing is making them look worse than they really are. There are guys who threaten physical violence every other day who haven't thrown an actual punch since kindergarten. Meanwhile, there are people who care deeply about you but who have always been terrible at expressing that sentiment verbally. They might even be your parents. Try watching what they do instead.
Never forget: Behavior is communication. Be careful about gravitating toward those who flatter you, and pay close attention to those who are actually there for you in some tangible way. And just in general, judge them on what they do, not what they say. And never, ever assume that just because a person isn't saying anything, that they're not feeling anything. For some, going silent is the loudest signal they can send.
8. Some People Aren't Very Smart (and It's Not Their Fault)
It is frustrating to talk to someone less intelligent than yourself, someone who struggles to pick up nuance or humor, who loses track of details or misunderstands even clearly-explained instructions. But whatever annoyance you're feeling is a flaw on your end, no different than the douche who can't tolerate talking to ugly people. I shouldn't even have to say this, but their lack of intelligence is not their fault.
If you're widely considered to be an above-average smart person, congratulations, but you didn't really do anything to earn that. Intelligence is the result of a whole stew of factors both genetic and environmental. Some people are less intelligent for the same reasons some people are less tall, it's up to you to come to terms with that. Mocking them, openly showing annoyance or excluding them altogether isn't a sign of your elite smarts, but a demonstration of your lacking people skills. In fact...
9. The Ability to Tolerate Annoying People is a Skill (and You Have to Learn It)
To be clear, you're under no obligation to tolerate a truly toxic or abusive relationship. But you also can't have a zero-tolerance policy for obnoxious behavior when dealing with other human beings. Everyone screws up, including you.
Real humans are sometimes dishonest, or moody, or hurtful. Some simply have a conflicting set of values, or come from a radically different background than your own. What comes off to you like seething rage might have been the default tone in their household and/or neighborhood; what seems like a harmless joke to you is breaching some sacred taboo for them. A hateful comment that cut you to the core may have been intended as a playful ribbing, words you intended as irony can, depending on the listener, come off as nothing short of hate speech.
You have to cut people some slack. Having a "one strike and you're out" policy just makes you another category of toxic person, one who doesn't hold people to the same standard to which you hold yourself. I bet that if you have ever lashed out at someone and felt bad afterward, you could cite endless extenuating circumstances (you didn't sleep the night before, you were having a shitty day, you were in pain). Just assume others can do the same.
10. Conversation is Intentionally Confusing and All of the Rules Are Nonsense
If you pride yourself on having a logical, analytical mind, human communication will drive you crazy. You’ll wind up saying stuff like,
"Why are you mad? Everything I said was true!"
"If that's what you wanted, why didn't you just ask?"
"Why does she expect me to be a mind reader?"
"How can this be my fault? I literally said nothing!"
You can thus wind up instinctively seeing conversation as a confrontational act, because it so frequently goes wrong. I have a vivid memory of being 14 years old, riding the school bus home while reading a bad sci-fi novel. A girl sitting across from me asked me what I was reading and I made some snide remark to shut her down. I had assumed she wanted to make fun of my book, to call me a nerd, to interrogate me about my uncool preferences. It took literally 15 years for me to realize she was just trying to strike up a conversation. She didn't care what the book was, she wanted to talk to me and the book I was holding was the only thing she could latch onto, since all she knew of my preferences was that I apparently I liked to read books, or at least that particular book.
Human communication relies on a series of incredibly nuanced rules and indirect strategies that change based on the person and situation. They are designed to protect status and obscure intentions, to allow people to save face during rejection (thus, "I'm busy that night" instead of "I don't want to hang out with you because I don't like you"). Some people are naturally good at this and they have an incredible advantage in society. For people like us, we just have to try to watch and learn.
I hope this helped, I really do. I write this column/newsletter for free, with no ads, because I want a way to get all of my readers under one roof. No social media platform will reliably show you when I have updates, so if you like this, please subscribe below (it’s free) and get it in your email inbox. You don't have to actually read the column in your inbox, you can just click through to the site - but at least you'll know when I have an update:
Jason’s latest novel, Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, is out now in paperback (and all other possible formats)
Jason, I love your fiction. But if you ever decided to go the Mark Manson route, you would kill. Every one of your get-your-shit-together articles from Cracked was helpful and inspiring in fixing my own shit.
As usual Jason is directly on point with my life experiences. I will try to learn these. I find it interesting that twice he mentions having a specific realization about a specific thing. Like you were 29 when you realized the thing about that girl. I wonder what made you think about that.