It's Not Automatically Your Fault If A Social Interaction Goes Poorly
We all have conversations that don't go well. For example:
- You didn't have much in common with the other person and couldn't find a good topic to talk about
- There were lots of uncomfortable silences
- There were lots of short or one-word replies on each side
- The person you were talking to seemed distracted and annoyed
- They were blatantly rude to you
- They started making passive-aggressive digs at you
- They took something you said badly
- You ended up in an argument
- They suddenly turned away or took out their phone and started ignoring you
It's not always your fault if one of these things happens. Some of us see that as common sense. Others are prone to putting all the blame on themselves:
People who are insecure and socially anxious
People in this category have a negative overall view of their social skills and value as a person. If a conversation doesn't go well, they "know" it's because they're so awkward, boring, and unlikable. They zero in on every mistake they made and beat themselves up for it. They blow up minor, everyday errors to be worse than they are. They may even think they committed a blunder when they didn't do anything wrong.
People who have been told their whole lives how socially awkward and off-putting they are
For example, they have a bunch of painful childhood memories of trying to join a conversation at school, doing their best to fit then, then being told they're annoying and that no one wants them around. On a bone deep level they can believe that if a discussion goes off the rails it must be because, once again, they accidentally did something odd or abrasive to torpedo it. They don't even consider that there might be another explanation.
People who are actively trying to improve their social skills
If you're working on your people skills it can be useful to be objective and dispassionate and ask questions about your past conversations such as:
- What can I learn from this?
- What did I do well?
- What could I have done better?
- What factors were under my control?
- Did I make any obvious mistakes?
- Were there any signs I wasn't reading?
- When they were rude / argumentative / defensive with me, is there anything I did that may have escalated it?
It's good if you can identify some of your weak spots, then try to correct them. For example, maybe you'll look back on an interaction and realize that you approached someone when they were clearly busy, ignored their polite signals that it wasn't a good time to talk, and then started going on about one of your hobbies without checking if they were interested in hearing about it first.
It would be draining and impractical to dissect every conversation you had for the rest of your life, but if you're in a short-term phase where your social skills are a priority, there's nothing wrong with analyzing your interactions and trying to learn from them.
However, when you're trying to get past your social awkwardness, and doing lots of conversation post-mortems, you can sometimes unintentionally slip into a mindset where you assume your current people skills will always fall short somehow, and if something goes wrong it's all on you. You can get so focused on spotting your flaws that you can overlook obvious ways the other person wasn't pulling their weight, or were even just a jerk.
Why interactions may go badly through no fault of your own
I know this article is making an obvious point, but sometimes we lose sight of "obvious" things and need to be reminded of them. The fact is some of your social interactions won't go well, and the other person, or people, will be to blame. Even if you have top-notch charisma, you can't prevent every stilted, uncomfortable, or tense encounter.
Here are some reasons a conversation my go south that don't lie with you:
- The other person was feeling extremely shy or socially anxious
- They had weak conversation skills - They're not good at thinking of things to say, fleshing out their responses, or asking good questions; they have a tendency to make mistakes, and so on
- They're weren't in the mood to talk - They were tired, in a hurry, stressed out, distracted, just got bad news, depressed, etc.
- You just didn't have enough in common - Maybe you could have kept the conversation going if you faked an interest in their hobbies, but you were looking for a mutually-enjoyable exchange, not to keep talking for its own sake, so the dialogue petered out
- They have an abrasive personality - They're argumentative, arrogant, opinionated, passive-aggressive, have an overly-cutting sense of humor, etc.
- They prejudged you for one reason or another, rightly or wrongly, and decided they didn't want to talk to you, or that they were going to be hostile
- They were intimidated by you, again rightly or wrongly - It made them nervous and tongue-tied, or hostile and defensive
Again, it's fine if you want to think about what you might have done wrong in a failed conversation. It can be a good learning opportunity. But do your best to remember the other person has a role to play as well.