8) Social skills (how to interact with humans!) pt 1

Story time!

When I was a wee bab I had a lot of social problems. I was painfully shy. I was weird: I was obsessed science and math and reading and had strange, big ideas that were far beyond my cooler, less nerdy classmates. The really tough one, though, was my complete obliviousness to all social cues. I remember talking at length to someone about a topic that I loved (probably math) and looking over at her again and again at her as I talked, thinking “if only there were a way to tell whether or not a person is interested in what I’m saying”.

People were a black box. I eventually learned to recognise tone well enough to tell when (for instance) someone was making fun of me, but I would often be unsure of what the insult actually was, because I lacked the social context. (A classmate once approached me at my coat hook and yelled “You’re gay!” at me. For many days after that incident, I would occasionally pause what I was doing to try to puzzle out how being happy and cheerful was supposed to be insulting. I got a lot of my vocabulary from old books.)

Thus began The Project. It started in earnest in grade 8, when I switched to an arts school and was finally surrounded by people for whom I felt interest and kinship. I had picked up some stuff by then, basics of tone and maybe just a little body language. For the first time, my ongoing frustration of not really knowing how to read people and situations was paired with an environment where it seemed like it might be safe to talk, and maybe even to say the wrong thing.

For years, I spent a significant proportion of time and energy on The Project: learning, practicing, and processing how to interact in every available social situation. When I consumed media, I’d memorise descriptions of body language in characters who in some way matched my mental image of how I wanted to be seen. I took every drama class I could. (I love theater, but even if I hadn’t: these classes were training me not for acting but for real life. I remember leafing through a pile of monologues to pick one for class, and feeling very strategic when I chose a speech by Nellie McClung. It was perfect: in practicing the speech, my drama teacher explained to me, step by step, how to project confidence and speak so people will stop and listen.)

I learned the physical markers of comfort and confidence and forced myself to sit and stand in open poses, despite extreme discomfort. I signed up for improv and debating to force myself to speak in front of people using my own words, and practiced until it didn’t seem scary any more. When I went to parties, I mingled. (If you are or have been extremely introverted or painfully shy, you know the special hell this entailed for me. If not, trust me when I say that this above all demonstrates my complete dedication.)

The Project was an unmitigated success. I learned a lot. I changed a lot. I worked HARD, with a single-minded dedication that could and did achieve the impossible. People who meet me now see me as friendly and confident and great with people. I have become better at social-ing than I could have imagined. I did good.

 

NEXT TIME ON:

the secrets to my success (aka, totally intuitive conversational and social strategies that I had to work out cognitively)

3) Periodically check in with myself about my relationships

Just about anyone will tell you that you shouldn’t stay in a relationship where one partner is mean to the other, or hurting the other, and all that. This was clear to me from before I started dating. But no one ever really told me that there’s more to it than both sides not being jerks.  It took a few relationships that went on way, way longer than they should have for me to properly figure that out.

Over time, I’ve slowly added to that list of required attributes that make a romantic relationship worth continuing.  A lot of romantic advice focuses on avoiding red flags, but really, a lack of red flags should be a baseline standard for human contact.  If a (potential/) romantic partner treats me with courtesy, kindness and respect, that’s not so much a “points in their favour” kind of thing.  It’s a “the minimum required for me to willingly spend time with them as a person” kind of thing.  There have to be green flags too, for a relationship to be worthwhile.

I think the most important thing I’ve figured out about this has to do with timescales.  When I think about relationships (especially one I’m in), I think about it in terms of different times: right now, tomorrow, next week/month/year, foreseeable future, rest of my life.  I guess I’m not so focused on the past, except insofar as it affects or predicts the future.

What I realized is that the closest times are the most important ones.  In the past I’ve spent a long time looking at the far-off times, thinking “yeah, I can see myself making a life with this person”, without stopping to think “is this the best thing for me right now?”  I wanted so much to get through to that shiny future in my head.  There’s no point in planning a lifetime with someone who doesn’t make me feel brave and special and just so fucking excited every single time I think about being with them.  Just because I might be able to make everything all right again given x amount of time (and SPOILERS: I can’t), doesn’t mean it’s worth it.

Which isn’t to say that things have to be perfect.  But the times that I can pause, even during the rough patches, even in the middle of a fight so bad it seems like there’s no solution … when I can step back even then and say “This relationship, this person, is what I want right now.  This is awful and hard and still worth it right now.” … That’s something worth keeping.  It’s a lot more complicated than that, of course.  But it’s a damn good start.