How to be Social at the Superficial Level

This week at work, we were talking about how some people seem so at ease approaching a group of strangers while others struggle to be anything but shy.  We were talking about this in relation to our kids, but they seemed surprised when I said I found the ability to conquer shyness can be learned to the point of becoming second nature.  They found it unsurprising I would say this as they watch me interact with strangers all the time.  This wasn’t always easy for me.

I always did it through high school and college, but it was always more about my control of my nerves.  The sorts player in me refused to be intimidated by my own fears.  Still, the thought of giving speeches made me shake terribly.  Then I had a psychology instructor give me the idea of only making the speech to 4 people in different parts of the room and pretending everyone else was simply cardboard cutouts.  Of course, which ones were cardboard often changed with question and answer sessions.

Still, this didn’t persuade them social interactions could be learned.  At the risk of drawing crazy looks for relaying yet another thing I learned from watching and interacting with a homeless man, I relayed my awe for the “Compliment Man.”  More than ten years ago, when I sued to occasionally eat out in the DuPont Circle Adams Morgan area of DC, they had outdoor seating.  On nice nights, there was almost always a beggar walking up and down the row of restaurants stopping to talk to anyone walking past or sitting at the restaurant.  He always wore a sign about needing money for food and a place to stay, but he didn’t ask anyone for money.  It was always a compliment about something on or about the person he was passing.

“I love those shoes.  They go really well with your dress.”

“You have such deep blue eyes.”

“Ladies better watch out.  This one has been working out.”

And for some of the regulars, he would be more personal with comments about fitness, weight loss, or anything else he noticed.  The cool thing was watching him and smoothly he was able to start conversations and put others at ease, even talking to a beggar when we were dressed up to go out.  He also left us wanting to help him, and in all my time watching I have never seen a beggar with a higher “hit rate” for donations.

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Watching him made me start trying to imitate the compliment method.  Friends and coworkers sometimes laugh at how I can end up in a conversation at a checkout line so often.  It’s become second nature, even if it wasn’t always thus.   I tried to convince them to try it.  They laughed and said they wouldn’t talk with me if I was in line behind them.  I said, I bet they would if I complimented their shoes or their kids.  I don’t get the shoe thing, but it is an opening.  

For guys, the book, Fevered Pitch has a section which sums it up perfectly.  Guys have the ice breaker , and it’s sports.  A guy can sit down at a bar and start talking about how his team is playing or how any team on the TV plays.  It’s not a gushing moment, but maybe that’s because I am a DC sports fan and we’ve been bad in all the major sports for decades…but after all this time I’ve learned to recognize poor play J      

As for my kids, we are simply going through a crazy period.  This week we haven’t gotten the kids to bed without screaming .  They seem to a hit a critical silly point, and the saddest part is they are beginning to need more supervision not less.  Without it, we get crazy blow bubbles in out underwear to see if it will make farts smell better moments.  Note this is what happens when creativity meets no impulse control.  Argh! Is 30 min too long to be in the basement playing nice? 


Still, this story does fall back into the “frustrated at the time but funny the next day category.”  I just wish there wasn’t so much opposition leading only to unimaginative stories of frustration.  I guess this is parenting.  The teen age years should be interesting.