Picking up subtle social cues is hard

In a Pit thread, the posters helped me realize I did something stupid. It was Yet Another occasion where I demonstrated incorrect behavior that I’d seen demonstrated in another social situation without understanding the nuances. This happens to me alot. A snippet from the other thread (whereupon I told someone they were terse and offended them):

So the general question is, if you can’t accurately learn proper behavior/manners/whatever from social interactions with people, how DO you learn it? Sometimes I wish we still had charm school because I could surely use it. Here are some other situations I’ve run into where people have completely befuddled me:

I grew up painfully shy and timid so didn’t get properly socialized as a kid, and I’m sure that’s the root of my problem. So in social situations, I could not make small talk and was too shy to talk to people much. It made going to parties and such really painful for me. Some time in my twenties I read that a trick to helping people like you better was to tell them something about yourself. I thought I’d try it at a birthday party thrown by my boyfriend’s cousin. After we came into the house, one of his cousins walked over and said “Hi JC, how are you”? Trying to seem friendly and not-terse, I said “Great! I got a new job!” His response was to look uncomfortable, tell me he heard the doorbell and had to answer it. And walked away, but NOT to answer the door. I had no clue what I did wrong.

Another time, about ten years later I was better socially but still felt awkward with strangers. I had just started a new job when the company threw an ice cream social during work hours. I went and didn’t know anybody except for my manager. He was talking to someone and I thought maybe he’d introduce me so I walked over. The manager looked at me and said “Do you need something?” I felt like I’d intruded, said no and went over to sit on the chairs lined up along the wall. Yep, a literal wallflower. Later I realized the problem there wasn’t me, but the manager was also socially awkward. I mean, it was an ice cream social. He can talk business if he wants, but if he wanted a private conversation he should have done it somewhere else. Or at the very least, not been so rude to me. (With much hindsight, I also realize that a tougher person may have responded to his rudeness with a direct “Well, Sam, I thought maybe you’d introduce me to this nice person!” Extroverted and jovial people seem to react that way to good effect. I’m always a hundred dollars short and years late with these insights, though.)

As best I can tell in the situations I described, the people just didn’t care for me so they basically gave me the royal brush-off. But I don’t really know.

Anyway, I guess I’m looking for commiseration. Who else feels befuddled by people? How in heck are you supposed to learn how to be properly socialized if people don’t give you any clues, or you miss the clues and nobody says anything?

I don’t think you did anything wrong in either of those situations. Keep in mind that not everyone you meet is going to have great social skills that you can learn from. Lots of people are just weird, and you can’t take it personally.

That’s kind of my point. If you can’t learn social cues/manners from interacting with people because so many of us have poor manners… what then? It’s like people (the nebulous collective) expect you to have good manners and social skills, but there’s not really any way to learn them.

I’m definitely no master in social situations, but this seems like questionable advice to me. People like to talk about themselves - going on about about your own life could be seen as narcissistic. With that said, “Great! I got a new job!” doesn’t seem inappropriate to me. Maybe the host was trying to circulate around the party and was doing an awkward job of it?

Overall, just try to relax. I know that’s really annoying advice, but it sounds like you’re kind of overthinking this. Try to be polite, compliment people, remember to stick "and how about you?"s in at the right times - beyond that, accept that it’s OK if once and a while people don’t like you. The more you think about social customs and rules, the less sense things make and the more your head spins. Have you ever seen a therapist? It sounds like you have some social anxiety.

Work with engineers. You’ll seem like a model of social grace among them.

You really only learn social skills by practice, so you need to find a safe space to practice in. Find someone you love and trust, who also has good social skills, and tell them to be honest with you (kindly) when you do something awkward and to explain to you what a more with-it response could have been.

Also, given that you have a hard time reading social cues –

– it’s hard to tell you what was really going on with this situation since it’s filtered through your lens. Maybe the guy didn’t actually look uncomfortable, you only perceived it that way. Maybe he was uncomfortable, but it was because he just lost his job and didn’t respond well to your good news. Or maybe it was unrelated to you and he had other problems on his mind. Or maybe he was just a really awkward person himself. Possibilities are endless.

Edit to add: I agree with Octarine – if you’re not comfortable in social settings, the easiest way to get someone talking is to ask them an easy question about themselves. What do you do for a living? How do you know [host of the party]? Then continue on from there.

Missed the edit window:

Also, remind yourself it’s perfectly acceptable to be a quiet person. I’ve gotten a lot better at feeling relaxed at social gatherings when I tell myself I don’t have to be “on,” I don’t have to force myself to be gregarious, etc., I can just be myself and listen and talk as much as I feel like (which is usually weighted heavily toward listening). If you’re just calmly listening to other people talk and you’re good-natured about it (not giving out anxious or hostile vibes), normal healthy people will not be put off by you.

[Cue someone sharing a dubious tale of horror wherein they were berated loudly and publicly humiliated for being quiet.**]

**This is not the norm.

I agree. I think part of good social skills entails knowing whose opinion has validity and whose opinion needs to be taken with a grain of salt; sometimes a huge grain of salt.

I’m mostly better now that I’m old. But still stumble on occasion, like the situation where nobody ever told me that “terse” didn’t mean what I thought it did.

The suggestion to talk about myself was proposed as a way for me to break out of my shyness and talk to people. When you’re so bad that you can’t even get beyond “hi”, “ok”, “bye” as I was when I was young, this is just a starting point. Now I’m past that and do often use the strategy of asking people about themselves instead of talking about me.

Of course there is also the issue that because I don’t talk about myself much, it’s pretty hard to get to know me. I think the general consensus is “well, she seemed nice but I never really got to know her that well.” The other end of that coin.

Aren’t you overthinking things just a bit? How are you supposed to know that if someone asks you how you are you are NOT supposed to mention you have a new job?

Sure, often “how are you” isn’t really meant to be answered, but unless you’re meeting the queen mentioning you’re great because you found a new job is entirely reasonable. If people can’t handle that, they shouldn’t be going around asking people how they are.

It’s not a crime misreading to what degree people are open to talking to you in general or about a certain topic. However, it is useful to pick up on the way they react and stop if they’re not being receptive.

I remember a time when I was flying, which I didn’t do much back then. I tried to start a conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He pretty much freaked out. I’ve never seen anything like it. Later I learned that most people don’t like to talk to strangers sitting next to them on planes most of the time. Does that mean I did something terrible by saying something? I don’t see why.

If all of this had occurred at the urinals in the men’s room, that would have been different…

Remember, none of us are mind readers.

This is great advice. I think a lot of social anxiety comes from the pressure we put on ourselves to behave “perfectly” (as if there could be a perfect way) in social settings. You’re human, they’re human, sometimes awkwardness happens. It doesn’t mean that doing something awkward means there’s something wrong with you at your core.

Maybe what you guys are missing is the perspective of a shy person. You are all correct, and I am overthinking it. But look at it this way, someone is shy because they’re afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. So if they make an attempt to be sociable and that attempt is snubbed or brushed off, even at no fault of theirs, they’re going to think they did something wrong and not try it again.

From that perspective, it feels like a catch-22. Being antisocial is bad, and when you try to be social and get rebuffed, that’s also bad. If you don’t understand the nuances of why you were rebuffed in that particular situation, it can be pretty baffling because you can’t learn from the mistake.

No, I understand. I’m just telling you you’re doing the wrong thing by trying to do the right thing. :stuck_out_tongue:

Remember, the easiest way to make a problem go away is to simply not care.

I don’t know whether any of you guys can relate to this, but going through life as a shy introvert, a problem I’ve always had is the persistent feeling that any social awkwardness is always my fault. If I’m the guy on the plane initiating the conversation, and the other person doesn’t want to talk, then I’m the one who has made a faux pas. But if someone else tries to talk to me, and I’m the one not wanting to respond, then the problem is *also *me, and it’s up to me to diffuse the situation, or worse, struggle through the unwelcome conversation.

I know this can’t possibly make any sense. But, man, the feeling is hard to shake. And it seems impossible to figure out when the problem really is me and when it isn’t.

I know this will sound cruel and possibly insane, but some of my happiest moments in life have been when I’ve witnessed someone else unambiguously make a social boo-boo. Finally, it really wasn’t me this time!

One thing that helped me to become more comfortable being social is realizing that most of us are socially awkward in some way. It’s just that some of us are more aware of our awkwardness, and some of us are more obvious with their awkwardness. But we’re all just kind of bumping along, saying and doing inartful things. Some of the most extroverted, out-going people I know regularly put their foot in their mouths. But they have friends and they don’t let embarrassment stop them from having a good time.

Seems to me that someone who has a boyfriend and/or more than one friend can rest assured that their social skills aren’t totally horrible.

If you’re shy you need a wing man in social situations. Someone else can break the ice for you. When people meet you for the first time they’ll have their shields up. They may be smiling and look friendly but you’re a stranger to them. So a third party helps everyone relax, and at some point people will become more comfortable and open up. After that they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when you say something that could be interpreted in a less than charitable manner. And you have to relax so that you’re not giving off the wrong signals to them.

It still may be difficult, I started out in life painfully shy, and while I learned how I was supposed to act I’m still often just going to the opposite end of the spectrum, ignoring boundaries and saying anything that pops into my head. So just work at it, try out different things, everybody struggles with something.

Yo, right here, completely and utterly.

As monstro said, if you got this far you must be doing something right.

There’s a movie quote I’ve always liked, “the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.”

Yes, this. I always assumed it was my female inclination to always take the blame for things (internally). But yes, in any situation my internal dialogue is always “you should have handled it this way instead”.

I also like seeing when other people make social faux pas because I feel like I learn from it without having to suffer the embarrassment of being the wrong-doer. But being an introverted people-watcher also damages me because I can’t help noting when people bad-mouth each other and then when I get into a similar situation as the person who was bad-mouthed, I am just sure that people are judging me as bad/stupid/whatever.

Yes, but it’s been a hard row to hoe. Sometimes I can just shrug off a situation, other times I’m very frustrated by it. I also suspect that lots of times I come off as being kind of weird because my behavior is inconsistent. Confident sometimes, awkward other times.

So does everyone else. You’re not at all different from the rest of us.

I’m a semi-professional standup comedian and by day my job involves running complicated meetings with a different company every day. I am just about the least socially awkward person you can imagine - at least, as far as other people can tell. Believe me, I find myself awkward a thousand different ways, more times than I can count. It’s something almost everyone feels. You are probably not one tenth as socially awkward as you feel you are.

THIS, some people are just weird or totally idiosyncratic and there is not a damn thing you can do about it. I remember someone who considered pronouns a GRAVE insult, even when they had it explained to them they are a normal part of english(they were a non-native speaker).