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The Great Perils of Social Interaction You’re Probably Experiencing

The Great Perils of Social Interaction You’re Probably Experiencing

The perils of social interaction? Yes Wait But Why has this insightful explanation.

If an alien ever immigrated to Earth, he’d be a social disaster.

He’d try his hardest to learn by observing how humans behave, but it wouldn’t be easy—he’d see someone ask a stranger for a cigarette and he’d go ask for a sip of someone’s latte. He’d see a couple kissing on the street and he’d go try to kiss the policeman on the corner. He’d stare. He’d get food all over his alien face. And when he got tired, he’d lie down on the sidewalk.

Our alien immigrant wouldn’t last a day before being arrested. He wouldn’t be behaving correctly, and he’d quickly be forcefully removed from society.

That’s the way things are—there is an intricate set of thousands of social rules, and we’re all sharply attuned to them. If we weren’t, we’d be sent away somewhere. Even being nearly perfect will get you into trouble—you can have 98% of the rules down cold, but that last 2% will leave you with a reputation of “rude” or “weird” or “creepy.”

But the hardest part of trying to abide by the Social Rulebook is that it’s far from a perfect book. It’s a lot like the Constitution:

  • It takes you to a certain point but then leaves much up to interpretation
  • There are parts that are outdated or badly thought-out and terribly in need of an Amendment
  • And to further complicate things, every nation, ethnicity, culture, and subculture has its own unique version of the Rulebook

Unfortunately, in the world of social interaction, there’s no Supreme Court to interpret tricky situations, no legislature to amend bad rules, and no international law to help standardize things across cultures.

It’s the wild west out there.

So you’re welcome to head out into public, but before you do, I’ll sprinkle you with just a sampling of the perils you’ll face, as a final warning—

Perils of Interacting With Friends and Family

You’d think that friend and family interactions would be on the safer side, since those people are likely to be using mostly the same version of the Rulebook as you. The problem is, with those closest to you, an expectation of intimacy and comfort puts pressure on each interaction going well, your history together often leaves things highly charged, and since this is the arena where gossip and long-term memory live, the stakes are at their highest. Also, you’re probably kind of an awkward person and awkward people are never safe, no matter whom you’re with.

When meeting up with a friend or family member, things can get tricky before they even start, with a potential 30-Second Hello:

initial recognition

    And just when you’re relieved that that’s over, you’ll find yourself trying to pick a door in one of the great social struggles of our time, The Handshake/Hug Decision of Doom:

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      handshake-3

        I’ll be 90 and I still won’t have figured this out. There are different rules for everyone and nothing’s clear—Do I shake my grandfather’s hand or go for the hug? How about my friend’s father? Old friend? New friend? Opposite-sex acquaintance? Longtime work colleague? Sibling’s good friend who I’m meeting for the second time? It’s unbelievably complicated.

        And there aren’t just two options you’re choosing from—there’s the high school bro handshake/backslap douche possibility, there’s the vertical, loose-hand high-five that morphs into a weird springy-finger tension thing as you snap away, there’s even the easy but taking-yourself-really-seriously non-ironic fist pound. And even if you both go for the hug, there’s a question of duration and firmness and who’s in charge of those decisions.

        (Hugs are a weird concept, by the way. There are a large handful of people in my life I hug tightly every time I say hi or goodbye to them who I would never in any other circumstances touch that intimately. It kind of makes no sense. Whoever wrote the Social Rulebook didn’t really think that hard about it.)

        Anyway, just when this couldn’t get any harder, somewhere along the line, society decided it was a good idea to bring kisses into the mix. Kisses were doing just fine in the romantic and parent-child arenas, and it’s unclear why kisses have any part in any other situation. Unless it’s specifically part of your culture, no one under the age of 18 kisses people when they greet them, and as you move into the adult world, you’re just expected to figure out when to kiss people during a greeting. And there are multiple versions of kiss too—the light cheek kiss, the near-cheek air kiss, the absurdly drawn-out one-kiss-on-each-cheek-as-if-we’re-an-Arabian-prince skit—all further complicating the situation and putting us in deep peril of the dreaded Accidental Mouth Kiss:

        kiss1

          After surviving the greeting, some close friends continue to show affection, which leads to more trouble, such as The “Wait How Do We Stop Doing This” Physical Contact Situation. I often end up resorting to making up a drastic thing I need to do with my arms.

          adjacent-embrace-1 adjacent-embrace-2 adjacent-embrace-3 adjacent-embrace-4 adjacent-embrace-5 adjacent-embrace-6

            And all of this is nothing compared to The Money-Related Song and Dance. There’s the obvious:

            restaurant-1 restaurant-2

              restaurant-31restaurant-4

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                  But friends can break into a Money-Related Song and Dance almost anytime, anywhere:

                  tic-tacs tic-tacs-2

                    And it’s not just limited to transactions. At some point between the ages of 22 and 40, it goes from being totally okay to discuss your income, price of rent, and general financial situation with friends to not really okay at all. And we all have to figure out how to make that transition.

                    Perils of Interacting With Acquaintances

                    An acquaintance is someone you know, but you don’t hang out with them socially, and if you ever did, it would only be as part of a large group of people. It could be someone you went to high school with but were never friends with, someone who lived down the hall from you in college for a year, a friend of someone you know, or someone you work with or used to work with but you don’t know very well.

                    Most of the time you’re with friends, things are fine—the awkward parts are the exception to the rule. But with acquaintances, awkwardness is the rule. My theory is that the word “acquaintances” is derived from the word “awkward” to mean “people you’re awkward with” and was originally spelled “awkwaintances,” but then they changed the spelling to try to make things less awkward.

                    Here’s the issue—there are three ways to converse with someone:

                    1) Pre-Written Social Skits—You do this when you’re not trying to get to know someone better but you’re also scared to just act normally around them.

                    2) Climbing the Hill—Trying to get to know someone better or to catch up on their life.

                    3) Being Normal—Accepting the state of a relationship and just enjoying whatever you can from each other’s company.

                    In general, the main thing that makes interactions awkward is inauthenticity. Authentic is the enemy of awkwardness, and with acquaintances, the only two authentic options are #3 or, if you really do want to advance the relationship into friendship territory, #2. Since usually, neither party actually wants or plans to become better friends, we’re left with “Being Normal” as the key to acquaintance interaction. But here’s where we run into trouble. This is how most people see these three above types of interaction:

                    Acquaintance-graph

                      But that assumes that you can only be normal around someone you know well, which is not true. I started using a new barber last year, and I was pleasantly surprised when instead of making small talk or asking me questions about my life, he just started talking to me like I was his friend or involving me in his conversations with the other barber. By doing so, he spared both of us the massive inauthenticity of a typical barber-customer relationship and I actually enjoy going there now. He doesn’t go by the above graph, but rather, sees things more like three doors that you can choose from:

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                      doors

                        You’re not required to either smalltalk or pretend to want to get to know someone—it’s a choice to do either and you can choose “Be Normal” instead. Unfortunately, the Social Rulebook doesn’t talk about being normal with acquaintances, only a bunch of chapters about how to survive the terror of an acquaintance interaction, authentic or not. We badly need to make a Rulebook amendment here—until we do, my barber relationship will be a rare one.

                        For now, we’re stuck with things like The Work Acquaintance Trap, which happens when two people who are acquaintances by circumstance and have to see each other every day make the short-sighted mistake of sacrificing what had been the peace of an authentic non-relationship for the hell of a permanently-stuck-in-#1 cycle:

                        work-0 work-1 work-2 work-3 work-4

                          Because conversation type #1 involves a large number of pre-written-by-society, canned Robot Phrases, The Work Acquaintance Trap also leaves you at great risk of a Robot Phrase Mismatch:

                          WhatsUp

                            Even worse is running into an acquaintance in public. Both people are typically so petrified by the awkward-potential that they end up acting insane. And it can go on for a hideously long time if anyone makes the grave error of asking about the other’s life, leading to The Everlasting Acquaintance Run-In:

                            run-in-1 run-in-2 run-in-3 run-in-4 run-in-4.5 run-in-5 run-in-6

                              Perils of Interacting With Strangers

                              Interacting with strangers is another way of saying “interacting with the rest of your species,” and it’s often uncomfortable. Even though unlike the former two categories, nothing real is at stake (other than your dignity), stranger interactions can provide some of the most awkward moments in life.

                              Introductions are awkward by nature, and they’re severely complicated if you’re not entirely sure of whether the person you’re introducing yourself to is actually a stranger. The main way to get yourself into trouble is having a bad memory for whom you’ve met before, which can lead to a Nice to Meet You / Nice to See You Disaster:

                              see-meet

                                Then, of course, there’s The Sidewalk Direction-Mirroring Quagmire:

                                walking-direction-1 walking-direction-2 walking-direction-3 walking-direction-4 walking-direction-5 walking-direction-6 walking-direction-7 walking-direction-8 walking-direction-9

                                  One of the most asinine and outdated clauses in the Social Rulebook states that despite having zero relationship with me whatsoever, a nearby stranger must vocally command God to save me if I inhale some pollen. The Inexplicable Sneeze Standoff is possibly the single most awkward part of my life, especially since I’m a Multiple Sneezer.

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                                    Men also deal with a whole pile of stranger awkwardness in the urinal arena. This might just be a weird issue I have, but at some point, I become incapable of peeing if there’s some pressure to pee and I start to think too hard about it. Being next to one other person at the urinal in an otherwise-silent bathroom usually does the trick:

                                    urinal-1 urinal-2 urinal-3 urinal-4

                                      In the rare circumstances that the other person next to me is a weird neurotic person too, we run the horrifying risk of a Silent Urinal Standoff Nightmare:

                                      urinal-b-1 urinal-b-2

                                        Considering all of the hazards out there in the world, you’d think at least an interaction with a not-yet-sentient blob would be safe. Think again. Interacting with stranger babies in public is a high-stakes endeavor—if they respond well to you, you’re the most charming person in the room and everyone is suddenly smiling at you and wants to marry you. It goes like this:

                                        baby-1 baby-2 baby-3

                                          The baby acted like a reasonable person and everything went well. But the problem is, a large percentage of babies are bad, and you never know who’s who. Nothing will make you look and feel like a big weirdo quicker than a baby reacting badly to you. Beware The Bad Baby:

                                          baby-4 baby-5 baby-6 baby-7

                                            baby-8 baby-9

                                              It’s a tough world out there. And just when you’ve had enough and you’re heading home to safety, you’ll likely say goodbye to whomever you’re with before realizing you’re about to embark together on a Same Walking Direction Post-Goodbye Walk:

                                              goodbye goodbye-2 goodbye-3

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                                                Anna Chui

                                                Anna is a communication expert and a life enthusiast. She's the editor of Lifehack and loves to write about love, life, and passion.

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                                                Last Updated on January 15, 2019

                                                How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

                                                How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

                                                Many of us feel awkward talking to strangers. I’m a very outgoing person, even though I sometimes feel uncomfortable walking up to someone and asking a question or starting a conversation. I consider myself pretty high up on the extrovert meter. So what is it that makes us pause and become worried or anxious about talking to people we don’t know?

                                                In this article, we will discuss why we feel this way as well as some tips on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

                                                Step right up, don’t be shy!

                                                Why We Feel Awkward Talking to Strangers

                                                The next time you feel uncomfortable talking to a stranger, tell yourself that’s completely normal. There are numerous reasons why it’s actually natural to feel awkward talking to strangers:

                                                Our Stress Levels Rise Around Strangers

                                                Numerous studies have show that our levels of cortisol go up when we are around strangers.[1] Cortisol is the hormone inside of us which produces stress responses.[2]
                                                So there you go, right off the bat you can see part of your standard response to strangers is due to a chemical reaction!

                                                A very interesting by product of increased cortisol is that it makes us less empathetic. More than likely this can be traced to our evolution. The increase in the cortisol and the corresponding decrease in empathy makes us want to stay away from strangers. We are biologically wired to feel concern around strangers.

                                                Evolution Taught Us to Be Wary

                                                Evolution has also taught us to be wary of strangers in general. Humans as a whole have spent a large chunk of their history banded together in small protective groups. We did this in order to help protect each other and maximize resources.

                                                When you think about it in this context, outsiders to our small groups or strangers are considered potential threats. Fear of strangers is common across almost all human cultures.

                                                Culturally Conditioned

                                                We can also thank our society for helping us feel uncomfortable and sometimes afraid of strangers. The term “stranger danger” is something most of us can relate to either growing up or raising kids. Or both.

                                                I remember hearing this from my parents, mostly about not getting in someone’s car I didn’t know. And as the father of 2 teenage girls, you can be sure I’ve talked to them about this very concept more times that they want to hear.

                                                The thought that strangers can be dangerous is built into us as it is. Toss in the amplification of the media on strangers doing things such as kidnapping kids and it takes it to an even higher level.

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                                                Now that we’ve reviewed some of the reasons why we are nervous, let’s look at why you should talk to strangers more.

                                                Benefits of Getting over the Awkwardness

                                                Let’s take a quick look at some of the advantages of how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward. These are some high level benefits of talking to strangers.

                                                1. Broadens Your Network

                                                After you talk to someone, you didn’t know previously they become someone you know at least a little bit. This alone helps broaden your network of people you know. This is helpful in many ways whether it is work related or socially related.

                                                2. Improves Your Communication Skills

                                                I am a huge proponent of the value of solid communication skills and have written about it often. The more you talk to people, especially people you don’t know, the better your communication skills become.

                                                Interacting with a wider variety of people will bring the added benefit of improving your communication skills.

                                                3. Continually Learning

                                                So many of us don’t actively seek to learn new things. This is one of the primary keys to staying engaged in life and our own personal self fulfillment.

                                                Almost every time I speak to someone I didn’t know previously, I’ve learned something new. When we speak to strangers, it pushes us out of our comfort zones and we tend to learn new things.

                                                4. Increases Self Confidence

                                                Every time we learn to do something we were previously anxious about, we feel better about ourselves.

                                                Forcing ourselves to talk to strangers will lead to increased self confidence. As we get more and more comfortable doing something that previously made us feel awkward, our self confidence will go up and up.

                                                So, how to talk to strangers to reap these benefits?

                                                How to Talk to Strangers

                                                Here are some tips to on how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

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                                                1. Say Hello

                                                Putting “say hello” first may seem a bit obvious but let’s take a deeper look. Much of the social awkwardness when speaking to strangers is simply breaking the ice. The first words that will engage someone.

                                                Most people will respond when someone says hello or hi to them. And those that don’t, you probably don’t want to talk to anyway.

                                                Practice being the person that opens the door to a conversation. Say hello.

                                                2. Ask About Them

                                                Something that I have noticed over the years is that people love to talk about themselves. Even fairly private people tend to open up when asked about events in their lives.

                                                You can ask leading questions that get people to talk about themselves and recent events. Things like recent movies watched or the summer vacation are great to get someone talking.

                                                As a father, I also know that people love to talk about their kids. Asking about kids is a fairly easy topic to bring up and in general, most people will expound upon all the great things their kids do or are involved with.

                                                3. Just Do It

                                                One of the biggest reasons we don’t do things we want to or know we should is because we overthink it. Quit thinking about it so much and just do it.

                                                When you give yourself the time to analyze every little angle about a situation, you also give plenty of time to talk yourself out of it. You’ll wind up thinking what if this happens or what if that happens.

                                                Try to force yourself to jump right in without thinking about it too much. Whenever I have done this, I always feel great about it afterwards, no matter how it turned out.

                                                4. Don’t Take It Personal

                                                One of the greatest lessons in life I ever learned was don’t take anything personally. We all go through life with our own sets of experiences and see things through our own lens. The way people react to different situations has almost nothing to do with us. It has to do with previous experiences and the way people feel about things other than us.

                                                When someone’s reaction isn’t what you’d hoped or expected, chances are it has nothing to do with you. Remember that and keep it in context.

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                                                5. Get a Chuckle If Possible

                                                I used the word chuckle purposely because it makes me laugh. In my opinion, it’s one of those funny words. We all like to laugh because it makes us feel good. And when someone makes us laugh, we typically remember those people in a positive light.

                                                One of the best ways to make a conversation easy and free flowing is to get some laughter going. It doesn’t mean you have to be the master joke teller or anything. See if you can work in a way to make the person you are talking to get a smile or some laughter in. In fact, laughing at yourself maybe a nice try.

                                                6. Detach

                                                A great feeling is when you don’t mind which way something turns out, that you will be fine no matter what happens. Kind of like when I watch my two favorite football teams play against each other. I don’t really care who wins, I just want a fun game.

                                                Treat talking to strangers the same way. You don’t really care how the conversation goes because you are detaching from the outcome. Make it a fun time with yourself and if the conversation goes well, awesome! If not then no big deal, move on.

                                                7. Share Your Stories

                                                Well, all like to feel connected to other people. And many times we wind up hanging out with people that we have things in common with. No surprise here.

                                                To help with how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward, tell stories that have commonalities with the person you are talking to. Kids are an easy one. I have a daughter who was a competitive cheerleader and now plays club volleyball. I have instant connection and stories with strangers I speak with who have kids that play sports. It’s easy to relate to.

                                                So when you are speaking to a stranger and you have a story or mutual connection point, bring it up.

                                                8. Give a Compliment

                                                Almost everyone likes hearing a compliment, whether they admit to it or not. As a general rule, we don’t give out enough compliments. It’s amazing how one small remark someone tosses your way about how good you look can literally make your entire day.

                                                When you are speaking with someone you don’t know, see if you can work a compliment in. Nothing creepy here. Not a good idea to tell someone you just met that they are the prettiest or handsomest person you ever met. However, if you can share how you like their tattoo or shoes or something like that, it will help put the conversation into an easy going, smiling place.

                                                9. Relax Your Body Language

                                                If you go into a situation all worried and nervous, it shows on your body. Your shoulders are tensed up, there’s a look of consternation on your face, things like that.

                                                When you engage a stranger in conversation, make it a point to relax your body language. Take a deep breath before you engage the person, let your body relax, and put a smile on your face. This will help relax you and it has the added benefit of putting the other person more at ease.

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                                                If they see that you are relaxed, it helps them relax. Plus having open, engaging body language is very conducive to inviting someone to open up into a conversation with you.

                                                10. Practice, Practice, Practice

                                                Like everything else in life, talking to strangers gets easier with practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

                                                Make it a point to talk to several strangers each week and it will definitely help you relax as you do it more and more.

                                                After a while, it will become something you don’t even think about, you just do it. And that takes all of the awkwardness out of being in these type situations.

                                                The Bottom Line

                                                As we have seen, it is perfectly natural to feel awkward talking to strangers. We are biologically built that way and we have our own society constantly warning us how dangerous it is. It’s no wonder we feel awkward talking to strangers!

                                                There are numerous benefits to learning to be more comfortable talking to strangers. See if you can employ some of the techniques mentioned to learn how to talk to strangers without feeling awkward.

                                                Once you start practicing speaking with strangers more often and utilizing some of the tips, you will become more comfortable doing so. This in turn will lead to a learned new skill and increased self confidence.

                                                Remember, everyone you know was a stranger at one time. Now get out there and make some new friends.

                                                More Resources About Strengthening Communication Skills

                                                Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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