Anybody who’s been to a young gathering of libertarians, whether that’s an IHS summer seminar or a Students For Liberty conference, may have noticed that the movement seems to draw more than its fair share of, for lack of a better term, “outcasts.” Creepy dudes who don’t know how to talk to people or mousey girls who don’t know how to talk at all, while certainly not the majority of the youth liberty movement, usually exist in abundance at such gatherings.
Aunt Merryweather herself is no stranger to social awkwardness – hell, she’s still capable of alienating an entire room of people with a misplaced comment (usually after a couple of cocktails). It is in that vein that I offer some advice. This post is not about overcoming social awkwardness, but rather, about how to get through that messy “emerging adulthood” period between ages 21-27 as an awkward person. I know it’s cliche, but really: it gets better.
(Note: This is also not a guide for getting laid, nor a how-to manual for talking to women. But I will point out that most people are having far less sex than you probably assume.)
Hey, I know you. You’re more-Ross-than-Joey, more Willow-than-Buffy, more Lemon-than-Donaghy. I’m telling you: it’s OK! Oddballs can have successful careers, active social lives, and romantic connections, too. Hell, that’s been the premise of several of Judd Apatow’s films and NBC’s prime time programming lineup for the better part of a decade now. You get to live in a time when geeks and nerds are celebrated in popular culture. On the other hand, people who try to hide their goofiness by effecting a façade of faux-cool tend to elicit scorn from their peers. It’s the transparent act that makes others uncomfortable, not the minor stutter you get when you’re nervous. You may be able to fool your college classmates, but as people move through adulthood, they get better at sniffing out phony, disingenuous charlatans. Quit trying to be a Clooney, and embrace your inner Carell.
It’s not always about you.
It’s tempting to mentally beat yourself up following an awkward exchange with another person. Nobody else in the world is awkward, shy, distracted, or disengaged. You just suck at conversation, right? Sorry, Narcissus, but no. It’s not always about you. Just because you had a stilted interaction with somebody doesn’t mean you’ve failed Human Interaction 101. That’s not to say you didn’t (or won’t continue to) screw up, but if you can step back from your own mental monologue and see other people as individuals with their own quirks and objectives, rather than as the ultimate judges of your social acuity, you’ll have a much easier time.
Learn how to fake it, 30 seconds at a time.
Yes, I know, “So, what do you do?” is cliché and implies that people are little more than their titles. And yes, talking about the weather is “the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Listen here: Small talk doesn’t exist because people are shallow; it exists because people are deep, and usually odd. Most strangers aren’t interested in opening up and baring their soul to you, guy-they’ve-only-known-for-12-seconds. I understand the desire to do away with small talk entirely, but discouraging people’s attempts to engage you (say, with curt, mono-syllabic answers) comes off as prickly, which matters because the most important thing is to…
Always be kind.
Remember Wheaton’s Law. Sorry Randians, but you are likely not some excessively-talented antihero ubermensch who therefore gets to be a jerk. It’s telling that the most effective Objectivists I’ve known are also really goshdarn nice people. You are not too good for social niceties. This is important, the labor market above “retail floor associate/call center employee” works like this: It’s what you know and who you know, with the former being assumed in most cases, and the latter carrying a lot of weight. Older people with experience have earned the right to be curmudgeonly now and again. Some kid walking into the shop acting like he or she knows everything is going to be in for a rude-awakening when the internship is over and it’s time to find a real job.
Fellow geeks, I know it’s hard being a socially awkward 20-something who struggles to connect with people. I know those damned charismatic extroverts make it look easy. It isn’t. But humility—accepting who you are, even if it’s not who you want to be, and trying to build something out of that—is part of adulthood.