by Emily Smucker
This article first appeared in the July/August 2016 print edition of Daughters of Promise.
“Sometimes I’m afraid people view me as being like Barney Fife,” a friend confessed to me once, as we sat watching The Andy Griffith Show.
“Are you serious?” I asked. If she resembled the clueless and comically awkward character of Barney Fife, I didn’t even want to imagine what I resembled.
“You know,” she said. “Sometimes I think I come across as gawky and socially inept.”
I was baffled, as I considered her to be one of the most socially skilled people I knew. The kind of person who befriends the outsiders and quietly sweeps up the pile of dirt that the party hosts forgot in the corner. The kind of person I want to be like.
If she felt like Barney Fife sometimes, I reflected, maybe everyone feels like Barney Fife sometimes.
I certainly did. Some people learn to converse well and be considerate of others’ feelings as easily as they learn to play hopscotch and eat with a spoon. I learn through lots of trial and error and awkward moments and hurt feelings. For those like me, it is a long and painful process.
But fear not! By learning from my mistakes, perhaps the process will not be so painful for you. The following are three tips I’ve learned that have helped me successfully manage social situations.
Tip Number One: Toss the conversational ball back
A game of catch is simple; one person throws the ball, and the other person catches it and tosses it back. A good conversation works on the same basic principle. Let’s imagine, for instance, that your name is Sandy and my name is Emily and we are having a good conversation.
I might say, “Hi Sandy, how are you today?” With that phrase, I toss you the conversational ball.
You may reply, “I’m great. How are you?” Now you’ve tossed the ball back.
“Great! Are you enjoying teaching?”
“Yes, but it’s quite stressful.”
You would be amazed at how many people let the conversational ball bounce off of them and roll under a chair. For instance, I came home from school one day and saw that Miss Katie*, a family friend, had come to visit. She was sitting on the couch. My mother was sitting on a chair opposite. Neither of them were talking.
“Hello Miss Katie!” I said brightly. I was happy for her visit, as she is usually an intelligent and interesting individual.
“Hi Emily,” she said.
I pulled up a chair for myself. “So,” I said, “What have you been up to lately?”
“Oh, not much.”
There was a bit of awkward silence.
“How are you enjoying your new job?” I asked.
“It’s all right.”
“Has anything interesting happened at work recently?”
Apparently, Miss Katie didn’t feel like talking that day. Why she went to the bother of showing up at our house, sitting on our couch, and enduring the awkward silence is beyond me.
Diana, another friend, came over for a visit a couple weeks after Miss Katie’s visit. Assuming, quite naturally, that she was the most interesting person in the room, Diana played “Monkey in the Middle” with the conversational balls, snatching them out of the air whenever possible and then putting on a show by attempting to juggle them.
If you asked her a question she took ten minutes to answer it, but she didn’t ask any questions back. If you made a statement, such as “wow, these shoes pinch my feet,” she would immediately tell a story about a pair of shoes that she owned that pinched her feet. Because duh, her pinchy shoes were immensely more fascinating than your pinchy shoes.
Just toss the conversational ball back. It’s not hard.
Tip Number Two: Study and learn nonverbal social cues
“Hi, I’m Emily,” I said, introducing myself to a guy who sat near me in class.
“Hello, I’m James,” he replied, sticking out his hand for me to shake.
That was a little weird. First of all, college students don’t usually shake hands with each other. I don’t know why. Besides that, his handshake was limp and floppy. He maintained eye contact the entire time we spoke to each other, making me feel uncomfortably stared at.
Wow, he’s awkward, I thought.
Sometimes we don’t even think about nonverbal social cues until someone breaks them. For example, I initially couldn’t figure out why consistent eye contact made me uncomfortable. Isn’t eye contact a good thing? After carefully examining people in conversation, I realized that people tend to maintain eye contact while listening, but let their eyes wander somewhat while talking.
How close do I stand to the person I’m talking to? How enthusiastically should I laugh at a stupid joke? Is it weird to playfully punch someone in the arm? These are the kinds of things we’re supposed to learn without ever being overtly told, but some of us just don’t.
However, there is good news. Even the most naturally oblivious people, of which I am one, can learn these things through intentional observation and a few close friends and family members who aren’t afraid to be blunt when necessary.
Tip Number Three: It isn’t about you
Don’t you just love that feeling, when you deliver a piece of biting wit, or point out the grammatical errors of someone’s sentence, or inform them of the logical fallacies in their argument, and for an instant, everyone in the room knows you’re smart?
I don’t, however, enjoy being on the receiving end of someone else’s biting wit. I don’t like being made to feel stupid so that someone else can feel smart. In the end, people don’t remember all the smart things you said, people remember how you made them feel.
Good conversations, meaningful friendships, and a decreased level of social awkwardness happen when we remember that it isn’t about us, it’s about what we can offer to others.
So find the lonely person and ask them about their life. Invite the outcast to the party, or the girl who’s not quite old enough to be in the youth group yet, or the guy who’s always too busy to hang out, because at least it will make him feel included. Hang out at the park, instead of the restaurant, for the sake of your friends who are financially strapped. Bury your phone in the bottom of your purse.
As Philippians 2:3 says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (ESV)
*Names and a few details changed to protect identities.
Emily Smucker is a full-time college student, part-time writer, and every-once-in-a-while adventurer. Sometimes she dresses like an old lady and calls it “vintage”, and she always carries tea bags in her backpack. She blogs at emilysmucker.com about traveling, books, college, culture, and whatever kindles her interest at the moment.