Most advice I’ve heard for improving social skills falls into one of a few categories. First, there are trite suggestions like, “be yourself”, which are at best feel-good platitudes and at worst, gross simplifications. Although this advice may be correct, it isn’t practical.
Next, there is the advice to improving your character. Be honest, loyal and trustworthy. Show respect and be friendly. This is the type of advice in books such as Steve Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Good ideas, but they aren’t useful if you just want to be more sociable.
Finally there is the area of self-improvement from the dating community. Although this is the first time social mechanics are often broken down in a useful way, it has a pretty narrow focus. Social skills are important for more than just sex.
What are Social Skills?
I’m a pretty ordinary guy. I don’t have magic powers of persuasion and charisma. But I have a great social life, and this hasn’t always been the case. I believe I started at a point of below average social skills, and I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years.
I believe part of the problem when it comes to improving social skills is that the term is a blanket statement for many different areas of self-improvement. I’ve seen so few comprehensive guides to improving social skills because the term includes everything from:
- Being extroverted.
- Persuasiveness and selling.
- Maintaining relationships.
- Friendships and having a social circle.
- Meeting new people.
With such a diverse range of different attributes, it’s hard to pin down exactly what “social skills” are, never mind create a complete guide to improving them. Despite this giant list of ideas, I’m going to focus on just two. Aside from dating (which already has a lot of coverage), these are the two I feel people identify with most when they use the term “social skills”.
Becoming Outgoing and Shedding Social Awkwardness
When I read an email from someone trying to improve general social skills, it usually takes the form of:
- Becoming more outgoing and being more comfortable around other people.
- Shedding the awkwardness they feel in some social situations.
There is certainly a large range with this. Some people might be hopelessly introverted and fumble basic interactions. Other people might just have difficulty being as completely comfortable as they would like in certain situations. You don’t need to be a social moron to want to improve this aspect of life, just like you don’t need to be grossly overweight to want to go to the gym.
How to Become More Outgoing
Get over the label “introvert”. I’m not here to discuss the scientific merit of using these labels. They might be accurate, they might not. But, if you want to become more outgoing you have to stop thinking of yourself as an “introvert” and more like an athlete who is out of shape. You can build the muscles, it just takes some practice.
The first step to become more outgoing is to systematically destroy all your social fears. This isn’t an easy feat, but if you break it down into manageable steps, it can be done. You may be to terrified to walk up to complete strangers and introduce yourself. But, you might be able to if you had friends accompany you.
I remember a story about construction workers that built skyscrapers. They said that when you work on the job, you get used to the heights. Dangling hundreds of feet in the air didn’t bother them, because their bodies became conditioned to it. However, if they stopped working construction for a few years, the natural fear of heights would return.
Being outgoing requires constantly exposing yourself to things that make you uncomfortable. You wont fall to your death if you slip, but the fear can still hold you back.
The next step to becoming outgoing is to find social activities you actually enjoy. This sounds obvious, but it’s a difficult step. If you don’t like spending time with the people in your surroundings, it’s easy to become withdrawn. Becoming outgoing means you need to travel further and experiment more with different social groups.
Join Toastmasters, take classes, drop in on obscure organizations. It might take a little work, but eventually you’ll find social activities that combine something you enjoy with other people. This steps works with breaking down your fears as a means of becoming more outgoing.
Shedding Social Awkwardness
Social awkwardness results from not understanding social norms. These are the little steps in the intricate dance of social life. They vary between cultures and even within different groups of people. If you want to shed any social awkwardness, you need to understand this dance and see why people judge you on it.
For those of you who read my article on social independence, this may seem like a complete betrayal of those principles. Doesn’t following the crowd violate the spirit of independence?
Independence is important for the things that matter to you. Violating social norms that don’t have any meaning to you, just makes you insensitive, not independent. Where you draw the line between following norms and being yourself depends on what your values are. I couldn’t care less about fashion, so I’m happy to follow the prevailing fads on this one. But I care a lot about my health, so I don’t eat meat even if hamburgers are in vogue.
Most social norms are insignificant, so understanding and following them shouldn’t violate your independence. Break the norms that have a deeper meaning to you. Don’t just do it to be a rebel.
Decoding Social Norms
Nobody can teach you the social norms of your group. Norms are hidden assumptions in the background that people rarely talk about in the open. Everyone understands the norms, but they don’t make their way into conversation.
In my experience, becoming more socially aware is a process of trial and error. This involves two things: paying attention to other people and occasionally violating minor social norms.
The first step is to pay more attention to how people behave. Look for patterns and observe what happens when people violate the understood norms. If you commit faux-pas, don’t beat yourself up, just make a note of it and move on. Spend more time with other people so that you have an intuitive understanding of what makes people tick.
The second step is to occasionally violate social norms. Sometimes awkwardness can be the result of believing social norms exist when they don’t. If you have a bad experience saying hello to a stranger, you might believe this is an unwritten rule. That person might have been grumpy, instead of revealing a great social truth.
Decoding social norms can only be done through practice. You can’t sit at home and read about what the rules are, you can only go out and practice.
Practice is the Cure-All
When you boil down any self-improvement effort it usually becomes a matter of experience. If you can force yourself to digest a lot of experiences, you’ll usually become better. Social skills are no different. It might not be fun initially, but it’s a lot better than sitting at home alone. You may even find out that you were an extrovert all along, and just needed the right push.