It was the fifth night in a row I’d spent in my room. I could hear my housemates laughing and chatting downstairs. I wanted to reach out, to connect, but I felt paralyzed.
For reasons I’d rather not get into, senior year found me without the same core group of friends I’d had before I studied abroad. One of my remaining friends had invited me to live in a house with him and a few of his friends (most of whom I didn’t know).
While I was glad to be included, I still felt isolated. Socially, I was starting from scratch, and at the worst possible time. Everyone already had their friend groups, so why would they include a stranger like me?
This negative self-talk kept me isolated for months. Meeting new people was a struggle, and it turned into a vicious cycle where my perceived inability to socialize became a real inability.
Eventually, slowly, I broke out of this cycle and made some friends I still have today.
In short, I made a deliberate effort to improve my social skills. If you’re struggling in social situations, my hope is that I can help you do the same.
So in this article, I’m going to cover some techniques that have helped me manage social anxiety, make new friends, and become a more confident, outgoing person.
“Social skills” is a pretty vague term on its own. It covers a range of situations and behaviors far too vast to discuss in one article.
When most people say they want to improve their social skills, I think what they really mean is “I want to get better at talking to strangers, make friends more easily, and be more comfortable in social situations.” So those are the topics I’ll focus on this guide (they’re also the ones I have the most experience with).
Note: While it’s possible to improve your social skills with practice, it’s also possible that your social anxiety stems from an anxiety disorder.
If you’re concerned about this, I encourage you to speak to a medical professional. I’m not a doctor, therapist, or counselor, so please don’t take my advice as a substitute for professional help.
What steps can you take today (and over the next few months) to start being more social? Here are some techniques that have worked well for me.
1. Don’t Hide Behind Your Phone
You can blame at least some of the issues you have with being social on the tiny computer you carry in your pocket. It’s become acceptable to look at your phone in public, and this has had a negative effect on social interaction.
Before cell phones (and especially smartphones), you had almost no choice but to talk to the people around you. Sure, you could bury your face in a novel or notepad, but both of these devices lacked the fluidity and easy access of a phone.
Nowadays, however, almost everyone has their nose stuck in their phone. And because it’s become so socially acceptable, it’s easy to use your phone to avoid interacting with strangers (or even acquaintances you’d rather not talk to).
If you want to connect with people, however, you need to put away your phone. It will seem awkward at first, maybe even painful. But if you want to have a conversation, you need to first signal that you’re open to talking.
Putting away your phone sends a signal that you want to talk, and it also makes you more likely to take in your surroundings (including any potential conversation partners).
Struggling with a phone addiction? Here’s how to overcome it.
2. Do More Things In Person
“Meet up in meatspace” – Austin Kleon, Show Your Work
These days, there are apps to deliver everything from groceries to toothpaste to tacos. Combine this with services that let you stream more media than you could ever consume in a lifetime, and it’s easy to spend most of your time inside, at home.
While these digital services can help us save money and time, they can also isolate us from the real world (and the people who inhabit it). Without regular human contact, your social skills can atrophy.
For this reason, I encourage you to do more things in person. Here are a few ideas:
- Shop for groceries in person instead of online.
- Go out to eat instead of ordering delivery (bonus points if you invite a friend or family member).
- See a movie at the theater instead of streaming it.
- Buy books at a local bookstore instead of on Amazon.
And the above are just a few ideas. You can probably think of many more opportunities that relate to your hobbies and daily activities. The point is to put yourself in contact with people (or at least the potential for it).
3. Take Off Your Headphones
I love headphones just as much as the next person (probably more, considering how much music I listen to). But while headphones can be an excellent tool for appreciating the nuances of a song or focusing on important work, they also isolate you from the world and others.
Wearing headphones says, “Please don’t talk to me, I don’t want to be bothered.” This is great when you don’t want your coworkers to interrupt you, but it’s terrible when you want to connect with people. As with your phone, you need to show that you’re open to talking if you want to have more conversations.
Putting away the headphones (or taking out the AirPods) opens you up to more social interactions. Plus, you’ll notice new sonic details such as the song of a particular bird or the hum of different passing vehicles. Your experience of the world will be richer overall.
Looking for music to help focus on your work? Check out our study playlist.
4. Find Structured Social Activities
If you’re an introvert, you may find it difficult to strike up conversations with random people in a coffee shop, bar, or line at the grocery store. This is because these situations are too open-ended, too lacking in structure. They put all the emphasis on talking, which can be awkward and draining when you’re first meeting people.
To ease the pressure, I recommend finding social activities with structure. This way, you have something else to do when you’re not sure what to say. Here are a few ideas:
- Boardgame nights (many local breweries, coffee shops, and community centers host these)
- Sports leagues
- Church groups
- Community band/orchestra
- Meetup groups (though be sure to pick one that’s introvert-friendly)
- In-person classes (cooking, photography, painting, etc.)
- Craft groups (you can find a lot of these on Meetup)
The goal is to find an activity that gives you the opportunity to talk but also something else to focus on when the conversation lulls.
5. Use “Open” Body Language
Body language says things words never could. The way a person is standing or sitting, for instance, can tell you a lot about how they’re feeling. Understanding how to read these cues (and how to use them) is key to improving your social skills.
When you’re trying to be more social, you should use “open” body language. Open body language signals to others that you’re interested in interacting with them.
So what does this look like in practice? Here are the key components:
- Uncross your legs and arms
- Stand (or sit) up straight
- Turn towards people
- Relax your shoulders (many people naturally clench them)
If you do the above, you’ll come off as more friendly and “open” to talking with people.
You can also use the same principles to see if it’s appropriate to join a conversation. If people are standing/sitting with their bodies open (turned outward), then that can signal they’re willing to have someone join the conversation.
On the other hand, if two people are facing each other and are generally “closed off” from the rest of the room, that’s a sign they’re having a more personal or private conversation and don’t want others to join.
Now, having said all of this, body language isn’t foolproof. You can’t be 100% sure how someone’s feeling or if they want to talk to you. Inevitably, there will be awkward moments where you misinterpret the situation. Which brings me to my next piece of advice…
6. Embrace the Awkwardness
“You ever done something really awkward, and then you think about it for 8 years?” – Daniel Simonsen
If you’re making an effort to be more social, there are going to be awkward moments. Whether it’s going for a handshake when the other person was attempting a fist bump, or just the pain of not knowing what to say, awkwardness is impossible to avoid.
A lot of people (myself included) put undue pressure on themselves to avoid awkwardness. Because if you’re awkward, that means you’ve somehow failed socially…right? While this makes sense, it’s a counterproductive belief.
If you only focus on avoiding awkwardness, then you’ll quickly give up on trying to socialize at all. And this is the opposite of what you want. So instead, I suggest you embrace the awkwardness. Instead of viewing awkward moments as a “failure,” see them as a sign that you’re pushing the limits of your comfort zone.
As with any other skill, you can only improve your social skills with deliberate practice. And in the course of practicing, you’re bound to have a few awkward moments. Even if you’re the most extroverted, outgoing person on the planet, you can’t escape awkwardness — it’s just a part of being human.
7. Ask Questions
Keeping a conversation going with someone you don’t know well can be difficult. So what are you supposed to talk about? I can’t answer that, as every situation is different. But I can give you this piece of advice: ask questions.
You’ve probably heard the adage, “People love to talk about themselves.” Ask someone about themselves, and they’ll have no shortage of things to say.
The key, however, is to ask open-ended questions. That is, ask questions that don’t have a simple “yes or no” answer.
It’s the difference between Do you like living here? and What do you think about living here? Or the difference between Where did you grow up? and Tell me about where you grew up (I realize that technically isn’t a “question,” but it still counts).
When you ask open-ended questions, you create the opportunity for dialogue. You learn more about the person you’re talking to, and that information serves as fuel for further conversation. Plus, it takes a lot of pressure off of you.
8. Be a Good Listener
Asking open-ended questions is a great way to keep a conversation going, but be careful. If you ask too many questions, you can come off as robotic or distracted. The last thing you want is for someone to think you aren’t listening to them.
But how do you listen? Effective listening is about more than just passively receiving information. Instead, you need to show the other person that you’re listening. This comes from affirmative statements, body language, and a healthy amount of silence.
Let’s start with affirming what the other person is saying. For instance, if someone tells you about how they grew up in a different country, you could say, That must give you a different perspective on the United States [or whatever country you’re currently in].
Making affirmative statements like these demonstrates that you’re engaged in the conversation and thinking about you’re hearing.
Next, there’s body language. The following body language shows that you’re listening:
- Turning toward the person (don’t stare off into space or look away)
- Nodding (or shaking your head)
- Making eye contact (just be sure not to overdo it or it can be creepy)
Finally, don’t talk too much. Really listen; be quiet and take in what the person is saying.
9. Get Out of Your Head
It’s easy to get so focused on what you’re going to say next that you forget to listen and be present in the conversation. I still struggle with this, even when talking to close friends. But it’s gotten better now that I’m aware of it.
Next time you’re having a conversation, see if you catch yourself thinking about what you’re going to say next rather than focusing on what the other person is saying. You may be surprised how often it happens.
Generally, being aware of this tendency is enough to improve it. But if you’re still struggling, I recommend trying mindfulness meditation. It can help you reign in your wandering mind and focus more on the present moment.
10. Don’t Force Humor
Being funny is a great way to make friends. But not everyone is funny. At least, not everyone is funny all the time. Not everyone has that personality. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be funny to have conversations and build great relationships. There’s room (and need) for serious people in the world as well.
Whatever you do, don’t try to force humor. People can tell when you’re trying to be funny. It’s off-putting and uncomfortable (unless you’re doing some kind of nuanced stand-up routine).
Just be yourself. What you’ll find is that you’ll inevitably get some laughs just in the course of talking.
The more successful social interactions you have, the more confident you’ll become. And as your confidence grows, socializing will become easier (and even fun!). But you can’t build your confidence if you aren’t getting out there and trying.
This doesn’t mean you have to go out to a different place every night of the week. You can start small, and you can still embrace the alone time you need as an introvert (in fact, you neglect it at your peril).
To get started, find a structured, enjoyable activity that lets you practice your social skills. Try applying the tips on this list. Then, build up to less familiar social situations as your confidence increases.
Image Credits: raising a toast