Ways People Still In High School Can Work On Their Social Skills For The Future
Many socially awkward people look back at high school and feel like they wasted most of their time there. They'll tell you they spent the bulk of their free time online, watching TV, or playing video games a little too obsessively. They may not have formed any friendships at all or only a few shallow ones. If they went on to university, they had sense that they were heading into it a lot less socially prepared and experienced than they could be.
It's totally unrealistic to expect anyone to take a path through high school that perfectly optimizes their social opportunities and growth. A teenager can't approach the task with the wisdom and foresight of a 50-year-old. You can't blame them for having different priorities. Often people look back and see that during high school that their social problems weren't even on their radar. It's only later that they realized things could have been different.
However, if you are still in high school, and you're reading this, and you're already aware that you have some social issues you need to work on, here's my advice to help you use your time as a student effectively:
Don't worry too much about your high school social success, focus on getting in good shape for the years after
Building up your social skills takes time. When you're a teenager a lot of factors may keep you from reaching your full potential anyway: You might be a physical late bloomer, you don't have as much life experience to draw on, your peers can be more childish and immature, and your brain hasn't fully developed.
I'm not saying to neglect it entirely, but try not to stress too much about how socially successful you are when you're fifteen. Some people are hit their stride early and do okay at that age, but a lot don't. See the next few years as free practice and preparation for your college years and beyond.
Above all else, don't believe the hype that high school is the best time of your life, and that if you don't make the most of it you've let something precious slip away forever. Most people would argue your twenties, when you're an independent adult, are more fun than high school could ever be.
Take advantage of any opportunities you have to chip away at your social issues
The earlier you get started on improving your social aptitude the better. In the rest of the article I'll lay out some things you can try on your own. Though if you have the chance to get more professional help, do that too. Have a chance to join a free social skills training group? Go for it. Parents offering to pay for you to see a therapist to work on your social anxiety? Take them up on the offer. Try not to fret about the supposed stigma. Lots of people use these kinds of services, and a little discomfort now is worth it down the road. Also, make your priority to grab any free assistance you can, rather than worrying about whether you're hard up enough that you really need it.
Some thoughts on high school
High school is a funny kind of place. It's basically around 500-1500 people who are all confined to a relatively small building for about seven hours a day, five days a week. Since it's such a self-contained little universe some odd dynamics can pop up that don't occur in the rest of the world.
For one, everyone pretty much knows of everyone else, or they could if they wanted to. Even if they don't consciously care about it, everyone can't help but be aware of where they stand in the pecking order. If they're lower in the hierarchy that can't help but bother them on some level, at least a little. (Of course this effect can be turned up or down depending on how much the school's culture is focused on status and popularity.) Once high school is over you're no longer stuck in a small building with the same people every day, so this issue goes away. In the real world there are too many people to keep track of, so everyone only worries about their immediate social circle.
Another thing that happens is that students can get cachet for doing things in high school that no one cares about elsewhere:
- If you play on a sports team, even if you aren't a star athlete, people will know and you can get a boost in your reputation from it. The same thing happens in university, but it's a lot harder to get on the team. Once you're in the adult world no one really cares if you play in a rec basketball league.
- Then there are those kids that gain infamy and respect because they're tough and commit petty crimes. After high school they either change their ways because the stakes for getting arrested as an adult are too high, or they just end up becoming sketchy nobodies.
- If you're a good student people may fawn all over you and tell you how special you are for being so smart. In university you may continue to get good grades, but you probably won't be the Golden Child anymore. Or if you take a challenging major you could end up getting your butt kicked. In the real world people generally don't care how smart you are on paper. They want to know how good a job you can do, and how well you can get along with everyone while you do it.
Be aware of how your natural tendencies can get you down the road
The natural instincts of many people lead them to make choices that gain them social and life experience. They hang out with their friends, they go to parties, they join clubs and teams, and they're eager to dive into "grown up" activities like driving, having a job, and going to bars.
The natural instinct of a lot of more shy or awkward people is to do things that don't gain them much of that relationship or life experience. Some do have a group of friends that they hang out with, but the worst case scenario is someone who spends all their free time alone. It's not inherently bad to prefer your own company, but from a practical perspective it has some costs.
Limit the time you spend on your solitary interests and consciously try to spend more time out in the social world
You find your interests fun and engaging so I'm not going to be unrealistic and tell you to give them up entirely. Hey, if you're into something like programming, physics, or drawing concept art you could be working toward a rewarding future career. If it's all you do then you're hindering yourself in the long run.
Hang out with people more than you currently do
If you already have some friends then consciously try to spend more time with them. If you just have some acquaintances who you hang out with at lunch, or talk to in class, then try to do things with them outside of school. Joining a team or club is a pretty standard way to get some friends, along with the other benefits they provide. Try to have opposite sex as friends as well, so that you start to see them as regular people, and not these mysterious, intimidating creatures.
For advice on making friends in the first place, see: How To Make Friends And Get a Social Life
Overall, just rack up those hours of social experience. However...
Don't hang out with people who treat you like crap
I've heard quite a few people give stories like this one:
"Man, back in high school there was one weird, dorky guy who kept trying to hang around our group. We'd make fun of him to his face and try to ditch him whenever we could. We used to make him buy us cigarettes to be able to come over to our houses, then we'd kick him out after ten minutes. The only reason we even really kept him around was because it was amusing to rip on him all the time. When he learned to drive we all used him for the free rides... In hindsight we were awful to that kid, but you know what? No matter how we treated him, he put up with it and still wanted to hang around us. What's with that?"
Don't be that kid. It's no secret that people in middle school and high school can be cruel jerks. If the group you hang around treats you badly, then take a hint and stop tagging along with them. Don't get sucked into the mentality where you'd do anything to hang around the popular kids, even if it means taking their abuse. Any benefits you'd get from technically being in a popular crowd are outweighed by the fact that you're going to be bitter and scarred later on in life. This isn't to say I think all so-called cool kids are evil, that's too simplistic, just that you shouldn't hang around the ones who are personally mean to you.
Get some new friends if you have to. Lots of people's high school experience changed for the better when they switched to a different, kinder social group. Even hanging out with supposedly dorky people who are nice to you is much better in the long run than tagging along with a supposedly cool group who tease you mercilessly. If you hang around the dorky, nice people, in the end you'll come out a little socially clueless maybe, but more or less well-adjusted. You can always catch up in the social skills department later. But if you've been picked on to the point of picking up some psychological damage, then there's a harder road ahead for you.
Get your appearance in order
You don't need to become uber-fashionable to have a decent social life, but it does help if you don't make any big style or hygiene missteps. Some kids get a harder time than they need to in high school because fashion isn't on their radar at all, and they make easily avoidable mistakes like wearing the same outfit several days in a row, or having unflattering, patchy facial hair.
Be a social dabbler and don't put all your chips in with one clique
Try to be friendly with as many groups and types of people as you can. You can learn a lot from each of them. Try not to fall in with only one clique or subculture and develop an Us vs. Them / This Scene Vs. That Scene mentality.
Be open to having friends from other grades
In high school there can be a mentality that it's odd or you've somehow failed if you have to resort to having friends from other grades, especially younger ones. Yeah, if you're a senior there's probably going to be a big maturity gap between you and a freshman, but not with a junior. You can meet students from other grades in extracurricular activities. Take advantage of all your options.
Expand your social circle outside of your school
Try to have some friends that go to other schools, or who you know from other places. It's harder to care about how popular you are in one little building when you know there's a bigger world out there.
Get a job as soon as you can
First of all you'll earn some money, but it's also good life experience and makes you that much more mature. Consider getting a position that will improve your social skills to some degree, like working retail. Being in a workplace that employs lots of people your age never hurts either. Without being a pesky kid, try to hang around some of your slightly older co-workers and absorb a thing or two from them.
Learn to drive as soon as you can
Aside from being practical, knowing how to drive also increases your maturity and independence. Even if you don't see yourself as needing a car, or being able to afford one, for years to come, learn how to drive anyway. If you put it off it's more of a hassle to pick up the skill later in life.
If money isn't a problem, take up any chances you can to go on trips
If you have the opportunity to go on an exchange to another country for a semester or two, go for it. If there are optional ski trips or excursions to other parts of the country then think about going. Go on Spring Break. It's an accurate cliche that traveling really makes you grow as a person.
Find a sport or athletic hobby you like
This will get you in shape, help keep your emotions nice and balanced out, and give you a good boost in confidence. If you hate team sports, try something solitary like biking, dancing, martial arts, or rock climbing. If nothing else, just work out a lot. Don't put pressure on yourself to be amazing at it. Just stick with it and have fun.
Some students have a chip on their shoulder about sports, because of bad experiences they've had in gym class, or simply because they resent that the rest of the world seems so obsessed with football while they just don't care. That's not the fault of all sports themselves though. There are a lot of positive aspects to them. Giving them a shot may give you the firsthand experience that helps you reduce your baggage toward them.
Go to parties
I'm not saying you have to drink underage or smoke lots of drugs. Many people never get into that stuff. But at least see what parties are like and build up some familiarity with that environment.
Go to dances/proms/formals, etc.
Might as well. Go with your friends. There's fun to be had, or at the very least some learning opportunities. But again, keep it all in perspective and don't believe anything you hear about Senior Prom being the most important night of your life.
Go to bars whenever you can
That's another situation it doesn't hurt to get some experience with. You'll be giving yourself a head start, so they're not totally intimidating and alien to you in your early 20's. I'm not saying to get a fake I.D., but if there are all ages nights or all ages concerts you can go to, give it a try. Try going to outdoor festival-type concerts or parties as well.
Learn about the world and shed your innocence
Toward the end of high school and in early university some socially awkward people will frequently get told that they come across as really naive and innocent. That's because their life inexperience is showing through. Try to learn about how the world works, by reading about other people's experiences, and so on.
If you do go to university, prepare for it ahead of time
Here's an article I wrote about getting a social life together at college that has a lot of suggestions: