Social Interactions

When it comes to personal interactions I tend to have two main modes and a couple of lesser modes.


One I term “deer in the headlights.” Basically, I have no idea what to say. I freeze. It’s not just a matter of I need a second to think, I really just have no clue what words should come out of my mouth. I have had folk tell me that this comes off as brusque or downright rude. And, well, I’m not intending to be it’s just that a combination of social anxiety and utter cluelessness causes me to freeze. You can be my best friend in the world and I still have no idea what to say.

The second mode is when you get me going on a subject I’m passionate about. Then, the problem is the exact opposite; getting me to shut up. I get motivated about the topic and…well, that just takes over.

There are a couple of lesser modes for special situations as well.

The first of these is “polite greeting.” “Hi.” “How are you.” “Nice day.” “Things going well?” “Take care. Have a nice day.” Basically “canned” phrases (which doesn’t mean that they aren’t well meant) that I have sometimes heard described as “polite noises.” I can do that. I can even be sincere about it. It’s just, you run out of those pretty quickly.

The last is “on stage presence” which is what I use when doing panels at cons or when doing training related to my work. (Want to learn how to use a NanoScope AFM? We teach people that.) It’s sort of a toned-down version of mode 2 that relies on the more formal structure of a panel discussion or a training session to keep me from going overboard as I am wont to do without that structure.

“Stage Presence” mode is something I learned from a very early age.  I was raised in a church with a “lay clergy” in which members of the congregation were expected to get up and give “talks” (what served as “sermons” in this church) or to teach various Sunday School classes.  I learned early on to put on an appropriate “mask” for this, and it carried over nicely once I started participating in programming at science fiction conventions.

The observant reader will note that what’s lacking in there is a “mode” that is useful for social interactions, in particular for meeting new people. It is no great surprise that virtually all of my friends are folk I’ve met through cons and thus were able to interact with initially via “on stage presence”. Online also comes closer to that “on stage” than any in person interactions and, so is behind most of the rest of my friends–those I didn’t meet through cons I “met” online. Indeed, I tend to be a lot more “open” online than I’d ever dream of being face to face with all but my absolutely closest friends.

And this lack is one of the major challenges of my life: how to actually meet and get to know people in “meat space” beyond the rote (although never empty, not for me) pleasantries.

11 thoughts on “Social Interactions”

      1. Okay, a little more seriously. You apparently did not comprehend what I wrote. It’s not a matter of being scared to talk. Twenty plus years as a Latter Day Saint being expected to give “talks” in Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting on a regular basis knocked that right out of me–plus doing stage performances in community theater.

        It’s really a matter of I have no idea what to say in most social circumstances. Once I get past the routine pleasantries, I’m lost. “Deer in the headlights” is not a perfect metaphor in this case, just the closest I can come up with. That “closed form solution to the three body problem” is closer to what it feels like (hint: it’s an unsolved problem in classical mechanics; unsolved since Newton first formulated his laws of motion and law of universal gravitation).

        The social anxiety issues (and “just ignore that” is much the same as saying “just walk off that compound fracture of your femur”) just add to that.


  1. Ask people about themselves first. Look for common ground. Get other people talking and they do most of the work for you. Also works with gathering intel about people. Listen closely, watch their body language. That’s they first step towards normal social interaction.


  2. I managed somehow to be “ON” when dealing with others for most of my professional career. My normal quiet, introverted moments seem to worry the folks around me now that I’m retired and don’t have to be “ON” five days a week.

    Hardest part of retirement so far has been telling folks NO when I’m tired, sore, or just don’t give a shite.

    Becoming a musician and hiding behind my instrument was my start toward fake gregariosness. Using my position as a briefer, instructor, or supervisor to hold as a shield came later. I still have fewer qualms about facing an audience than someone new…


  3. Same here. I put on a mask, and perform but stumble and freeze if an interaction goes any deeper then friendly banter.

    High level of social anxiety; I have a lot of scripted lines and jokes and a very good memory. I just run an algorithm in my head that responds to foreseen conversation events.


  4. I’ve begun asking, “What are your hobbies?” And I’m pretty much serious when I say that if they don’t have any hobbies I don’t want to talk to them anyway.
    I’ve learned that people do a bunch of interesting things in their spare time.

    About your “picking modes.” I say, “Who do I want to be for this situation.” And I know know I’m not alone in doing that.
    The last fifteen years of my working career were spent at the airport dealing with the traveling public, and somewhere along the path of that work I realized my social anxiety issues had greatly lessened.
    I never bothered to figure out the why.

    My wife and I have worked out a system of hard squeezes that tells me to dial it back when I have been passionate about a subject for too long.

    I enjoy public speaking, and don’t find it stressful in the least. I wondered why I’m not anxious about public speaking, and I think it’s because whether the speaking is formal or informal, I’m in control and that’s OK.

    Thank you for this post, and thank to the commenters.


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