I’m a college student with no natural social skills

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, APR 3, 2008

I’m 21, female, and I don’t know how to talk to people!


Dear Cary,

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have no natural social skills. This is not really much of a surprise, considering I spent most of my childhood wondering if my classmates were, like me, sentient beings. While these days I can usually understand why people are doing what they’re doing, I still have a lot of trouble communicating, especially if there’s more than one other person involved in the conversation. Knowing what to say and when to say it is somehow really hard for me, so I frequently avoid situations where I have to talk to people. Since I’m female, and girls are supposed to be good at all that stuff, it just makes me that much more awkward.

I’m in my second year at a not very socially cohesive university (read: not typically American, students “seen and not heard”), and while I could never give up my program, or my life in this city, I sometimes feel really isolated, and this bothers me. I live with two lovely roommates, who are good friends, but one is moving out soon, and the other one, like my family, has her own “issues” to contend with, for lack of a better word. I’ve joined a school club and met some people there, but it’s only helped a little.

I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up. Although I’m working now, finding jobs has been a problem, at least partly because I’m really not good at interviews. Also, I would someday like to think about dating — a euphemism, since I don’t think people my age really go on dates. The first and last time someone asked me out (to watch a movie in his dorm room), I wound up, for some reason, declining and telling him all about my German class, because I erroneously believed that he was very interested in studying German. Naturally, we didn’t get very far, and it was well after the fact that I realized his real intentions.

Now, at this point in my life, I really want (and possibly need) some practical advice, nothing about “meeting the right person” or “coming out of my shell,” or … you get the idea. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been this way my whole life, almost regardless of external circumstances, and I know I’m not likely to change radically any time soon. I’m just afraid that my life is going to be diminished by something I intuitively feel is not really under my control.

Some Weird College Kid

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Dear Weird College Kid,

I appreciate your taking the time to write.

The most practical advice I can give you is to learn all you can about the psychological phenomena of introversion and extroversion.

You’re not weird at all. Most likely you are strongly introverted. Many famous, brilliant and successful people are strongly introverted. It poses challenges, but it also gives you special powers. Your role in life, should you choose to accept it, is to learn to use those powers for the good of mankind!

That’s how I see it, and the sooner you find out about this the better off you will be.

Since Jonathan Rauch published his now-famous Atlantic essay “Caring for Your Introvert,” thousands of people who formerly considered themselves just weird and geeky have discovered that they are in fact introverts. Read the ongoing discussion about introversion and Asperger syndrome. Steve Silberman’s Wired article about the connection between Silicon Valley geeks behavior and Asperger syndrome is also quite interesting. My decidedly unprofessional view is that extreme introversion and Asperger syndrome exist along a continuum — at the edges of which they share certain characteristics. I am by test a highly extroverted male, but under stress I tend to act a little like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.” So don’t be scared or start thinking you have a disease. We’re all a little fuzzy on the edges.

The discussion the Jonathan Rauch article generated shows that you are not alone; your personality type is familiar to many; it is predictable and manageable. You aren’t crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you.

To say there isn’t anything wrong with you is not the same as saying you don’t need help. We all need help. That’s what education is. It’s help. So you have to educate yourself.

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It’s not true that introverts do not like to socialize in groups. They do, in small doses. But the activity drains them of energy. “Jonathan Rauch’s article highlighted the most important phenomenon associated with introverts,” writes a commenter at the discussion mentioned above. “It is not that they cannot socialize in groups, it is just that it exhausts them to their core to do so. This is why they are so misunderstood, and, usually, grumpy. People meeting my husband in a social setting at first do not realize he is such an introvert — he can be witty, extremely bright and engaging in short bursts. However, we have never, ever, in eleven years of dating and two years of marriage, attended a party or event in which he did not want to leave before I was ready to go. He just cannot sustain that level of interaction for more than a couple hours, even then needing several breaks to recharge.”

If this sounds a little like you, take heart. It is normal for an introvert.

As to the challenge of being an introverted woman: “On ‘is it harder for a woman to be introverted,’ I suspect yes,” writes another correspondent in the Rauch discussion mentioned above. “Women are expected to be warm, nurturing, ‘people’ persons, willing to talk and listen to others for hours. As a female in management, I have been criticized for not being like this at work. As Mr. Rauch said, one becomes very good at putting on the social act, but it takes energy. I need hours and hours alone to recover.”

The key is to learn to take care of yourself.

I would like to focus just a little bit on one sentence you wrote: “I’m also worried that my lack of social skills is preventing me from really growing up.” The American bias toward extroversion as a sign of maturity is a dangerous but little-discussed political phenomenon.

Let us consider how dangerous this bias is. It requires that the introvert abandon her particular genius in order to join the crowd. Consider the extroverted leader who values loyalty above clear thinking; consider the dangers we are led into by a coarse, unsubtle extrovert who distrusts the loner, the doubter, the thinker. Consider recent history. Consider the appalling behavior of Congress leading up to the Iraq war. Notice how our political system rewards extroversion and punishes introversion. If there were more introverts in Congress, unconcerned with how their fellows vote, might we see this country on a more balanced and thoughtful course?

But that is a larger, more long-term question. For now, we ask: What can you do to get through your college career and find productive work and a happy life? You can forge ties with other introverts. You can begin learning all you can about the joys and pitfalls of being an introvert. You can use the Internet. One of the best tools for understanding the interaction of various personality traits is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, based on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories about personality type. Just for fun, you might consider taking this short test, and see if what it says makes sense to you.

Life is harder in certain respects for deeply introverted people but it is not a disease or malady; it is simply a way of being.

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