Summer 2021 is nearly here and with COVID-19 vaccinations becoming readily available nationwide, stores and businesses are beginning to increase their capacity limits. For many of us, this is a sign that a "normal" summer (or something close to one) might be on the horizon! I want to take a moment to acknowledge that the re-opening of society may make you feel a variety of different emotions: excitement, fear, relief, happiness, sadness — your emotions might feel unpredictable and that's completely okay. We've been through a lot since March 2020 and the trauma of what we experienced doesn't just magically go away on its own. Most of us have been cooped up in our homes for over a year, relying only on technology to connect us with our coworkers, family, friends and loved ones. If you're one of the many people feeling anxious about gathering with your peers again after being isolated for such a long period of time, I've put together a list of social anxiety management tips that my therapist and I have worked through — you can find that article here.
However, there may be many of you out there who don't necessarily feel anxious about gathering again with friends — you've been vaccinated and you're ready to PARTY — but maybe you feel your social skills are a bit rusty. I'll admit that I've been feeling a bit awkward myself once I realized that the majority of my interactions these days consist of text threads, GroupMe, funny tweets and/or sending TikToks back and forth. What on earth do I actually say or do with someone who is there with me…in person? Do I even remember? My partner and I are notorious for sending each other funny memes while in the same room with each other — and while that's not a bad thing at all, it might make for some uncomfortable brunches if that's all you and your friends do while sipping drinks and eating quiche. If this description made you break out in a cold sweat because you yourself realized you have no idea how to socialize anymore, just keep reading. This article is for you! I am by no means any type of expert on social skills, but after conversations with my therapist and a little bit of practice, I've gotta say that these tips really do work. Stick with me here and you'll be ready to make some meaningful connections in no time!
Tip Number 1: Make Eye Contact
Not too much, of course, because then people might think that you're Joe Goldberg from Netflix's You, and we want to avoid that (kidding, but it might make them feel a bit uncomfortable). My rule of thumb? Be sure to make eye contact when someone is telling you something and then look away if/when they do. It's alright if you don't make eye contact with them when it's your turn to talk, but try to make an effort to meet their gaze at least once when they're sharing something with you. This communicates that you're listening to them and you care about what they have to say. That being said, try your best to actually absorb and consider what they're saying — don't think so hard about the eye contact that you aren't actually present in the conversation.
Tip Number 2: Say Their Name
If you just started singing Beyoncé in your head after reading that line, you're definitely my people. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm willing to guess that you may have been born after 2001 and might need to look up the song (please do, you won't regret it — but I digress). What's the importance of saying someone's name? Well, for starters, if it's a person who you've just met, studies have shown that saying their name about 3 times in a conversation will help you to better remember it. This can be helpful for obvious reasons: everyone loves to be known and remembered. It can also help you feel more confident!
I would suggest using their name once toward the beginning of the conversation ("Hey Ga'Marion, it's so nice to meet you!"), then again somewhere in the middle ("So Ga'Marion, how long have you lived here in Dallas?") and once more when you're leaving ("It was so good meeting you, Ga'Marion, we should do this again!"). Of course, you can make that sequence your own, but this is really helpful for me when there are new people in a group that I don't know very well. Saying their name helps me remember it and helps the new person feel more comfortable. If you're meeting up with an old friend and don't necessarily need to try and remember their name, you can still use this technique as a way to connect as long as you don't force it — whatever feels the most natural to you will probably be your best bet.
Tip Number 3: Ask Open-Ended Questions
You know that awkward movie scene where everyone is quiet and then one person speaks up to say "so…you been here long?" As expected, the other person just says "no," which then just prompts more silence. It's a common awkward conversation trope used in so many movies and TV shows because 1) it's relatable and 2) absolutely NO ONE enjoys being in a conversation like that. So, what do we do? You could ask open-ended questions that require more than a simple yes/no response. While that might seem like a tall order when you're thinking of something to say, just keep in mind that almost any question can be changed from a yes/no question to an open-ended one.
For example, instead of asking "Do you like ice cream?" ask "So, what flavor ice cream do you think you're gonna get?" If your friend doesn't like ice cream, you'll still find that out by asking the open-ended question. Either way, the first question closes you off to getting a simple yes/no answer and possibly leaves you trying to figure out what to ask next. The second question will give you a full answer and more info to work with. If you forget and find yourself asking a yes/no question, don't panic. Just follow it up with an open-ended question to get the conversation flowing again. "Ah, you don't like ice-cream? What's your favorite go-to dessert?" Remember, whatever feels natural is the right choice. Don't overthink it!
Tip Number 4: Be An Active Listener
Now that you've got your friend talking with some open-ended questions, make sure they know you're listening to them. One way to do this (besides the eye contact we talked about) is by giving small cues to let them know you're following the story. These can be small head nods, maybe a smile, raised eyebrows (when appropriate) or verbal cues like "mmm-hmm" or "yeah." Now, I cannot stress this enough: please do NOT overdo these and do NOT engage in this practice if you aren't actually listening. Nine times out of ten, I can tell when someone is giving me cues but not listening. A little bit goes a long way here and using these cues sparingly can help reassure your friend that they haven't lost you. Sometimes, your friends will even prompt you for these cues and, as long as you're listening, you can't miss them.
For example, your friend says "It was just ridiculous, you know?" That's your cue to nod and say "yeah, for sure." I ask for these cues from my friends all the time, but my partner almost never asks for verbal cues during conversation. When in doubt, a subtle head nod is plenty if you feel clunky with this. Again, strive for what seems most natural to you without interrupting the conversation. Another great way to be an active listener is to put your phone out of reach. Make sure to check in with whomever needs to know your whereabouts, but otherwise try not to glance at your screen unless you need to communicate your travel plans or have an emergency. It's easy to be distracted by our phones during a conversation and while there's nothing wrong with that, it can communicate to your friends that you're not there mentally.
Tip Number 5: Give A Compliment That You Mean
Everyone loves to be told nice things! This is something you can use in almost any social situation, with friends new and old, family, even coworkers or in business settings. I tend to save the more personal compliments for people I know fairly well; I wouldn't make a habit out of telling strangers they have the most beautiful eyes — it might be absolutely fine, but it can also be dicey. Also remember that you don't have to think of the nicest thing you've ever said — it can be something small. For a new friend, you could say something like "Oh wow, I love those shoes, where did you get them?" Or, if you'd like to avoid a physical compliment, you can say something like "I feel lucky that I met you today, you're so fun to be around!"
For a more personal friend, you can share something deeper, like "I want you to know that I'm so proud of you for starting therapy, I admire you for taking the first step." In a business setting, you can offer something more simple, like "I've been meaning to tell you, I really love the poster in your home office!" or "I'm really glad you're on our team, it's always nice to work with you." Little compliments can go a long way towards building a connection with someone, but only if you mean them. If you hate Becky and she knows it, do not spend 10 minutes telling her how impressed you are with her work ethic. She'll know you're being fake and you'll probably get a reputation that you don't want. Keep it simple and you'll be good.
Bonus Tip: Just Be Yourself
Yes, you get a bonus tip because you clearly love your friends very much and care about communicating with them — you made it to the end of this article! The fact that you're seeking out tips to make meaningful connections gives me assurance that you're going to be just fine. It's okay to be clunky and awkward, no one is expecting you to be perfect (because no one is perfect!). What we really, truly want is for you to be yourself! I've spent most of my life being pretty weird and can attest to the fact that, at the end of the day, when you have friends who love you, they won't care if you don't always know what to say or how you should keep a conversation going. As you consider these tips, I hope you know that you never have to be anyone other than yourself to be worthy of friendship, connection and love.
If you found these tips to be helpful, please feel free to reach out and share what worked for you! Before going on any outings or planning any social gatherings, please check with your local authorities for safety guidelines in your area regarding social distancing, vaccinations and mask wearing. If you have any social concerns about applying these tips, check with your therapist before doing anything that makes you feel unsafe. To find support from a therapist in your area, check out Open Path Collective or BetterHelp.
- Carly (@cgreenbartlett)