Ideas That Can Excuse Not Working On Your Legitimate Social Weaknesses

You're reading this site so this article may just be preaching to the converted, but here it goes anyway...

Sometimes people are unfairly criticized for having traits that aren't inherently bad, but clash with mainstream attitudes, such as disliking booze-fest parties. However, I think we can all agree that someone can have clear cut social weaknesses, and that they'd be happier if they worked to eliminate them. That could be anything from an off-putting personality trait, debilitating anxiety and insecurities, to a simple lack of knowledge about ways to meet people.

I think it's important to be aware of your social weak spots. What you do about them from there is your call. If someone says, "I know I'm not the best at making conversation, but I don't really care. I'm more interested in pursuing my hobbies than anything. If I'm not as good with people as I could be, I can live with that" then all the power to them. They're making an informed choice about what their priorities are.

What I think is less helpful is when people fool themselves about their legitimate shortcomings, or rationalize that they're not really a problem. They've unwittingly taken away that choice about whether they want to work on an issue or not. We all do this, of course. It's human nature. It feels better to think everything is okay. It protects our egos. No one wants to admit they don't measure up in some ways. The mindset doesn't just come from within either. Other people or resources will often tell you what you want to hear, or give you feel good "don't worry, everything is okay"-type advice.

Here's a list of messages and concepts that can gloss over true social problems. Some of them are things someone may come up with themselves, while others can be picked up from the broader culture. Due to the subject matter, it's hard to avoid the tone seeming like tough love lecturing, but I'm not trying to harangue anyone.

A romanticized view of loners

There's nothing wrong with choosing to spend a lot of time by yourself. However, sometimes when someone is on their own a lot they're just lonely and unhappy. They may try to ignore this pain by reframing themselves as an aloof lone-wolf.

There are a lot of romanticized depictions of loners in the media (there are also negative portrayals, but those aren't the ones the people I'm talking about latch onto). Lone-wolfs are portrayed as being capable, self-reliant, and above it all. They succeed on their own terms and make their own rules. They're too good to hang out with other people, and they definitely don't need them. They're misunderstood creative geniuses who have better things to do than talk about reality TV. They're noble warriors living on the outskirts of society. You can see how it would be easier for someone to see themselves this way than admit they're shy, lack confidence, and have a hard time connecting to others.

Mistakenly linking social skills to subcultures

This point involves seeing the world through a high school mentality. Some people who feel socially awkward also believe they fall into a non-mainstream or non-popular subculture. In reality how socially capable someone is and what social group they fall into have nothing to do with each other, but people can think of them as linked. "Regular" people, "the popular kids", and groups like jocks, frat boys, and preppies are thought of as having good social skills. Subcultures like "geeks", "nerds", intellectuals, gamers, and Goths are stereotyped as being weird and awkward.

As we all know the mainstream/popular and non-mainstream/unpopular subcultures are also commonly thought of as being enemies. The problem occurs when someone identifies as a member of a non-mainstream group, and they have some social weaknesses. They may view their awkward traits as part of their identity. They may confuse becoming more socially capable as selling out and becoming more like their rivals. But really, there's nothing stopping a tabletop gamer from, let's say, improving their ability to start conversations. Then they're just the same gamer, but with more tools to form relationships.

Seeing people with good social skills as shallow idiots

As I mentioned, mainstream people are stereotyped as having good social skills. They're also often seen by the people who dislike them as being dull and superficial. Some people make the illogical leap that if they improve their social success, that means they have to transform into vacuous celebrity gossip connoisseurs. Like I said, the two factors aren't automatically connected. Also, this article talks about ways people often aren't as boring and superficial as they may seem at first.

Being too rigidly non-conformist

I don't think anyone should follow everything they're told without thinking. It's always good to question the messages you get from society. Some of the ideas we're fed about socializing are wrong and harmful. However, many parts of society's collective definition of good social skills are reasonable (e.g., that it's rude to insult people). It's beneficial to conform to those standards.

The idea of conforming has a pretty negative connotation in Western culture. People who follow group norms are looked down on as unquestioning sheep. Non-conformists are thought of as trailblazing true individuals who have the mental strength and insight to avoid being a mindless follower. Like I said, some ideas from the larger culture should absolutely be critiqued and ignored. They're not all bad though, and just because someone is non-conforming doesn't automatically mean they're right.

When some people get feedback that they should improve their communication skills their knee-jerk response is to resist, because they feel like it's always a bad thing to fit into someone else's mold. This point is related to the one above, in that people often feel like it's the evil mainstream types who are trying to impose their social standards. They see themselves as members of an oppressed minority who's rebelling against the machine.

Seeing social skills as an unchangeable part of someone's personality

It's up for debate whether particular social traits are changeable or not. While I think that discussion can be had on a trait-by-trait basis, I wouldn't agree with the overall idea that nothing can be changed, and people are stuck with the social skills they have. Some people think of their current social skills in terms of, "This is just the way I am. Nothing I can do about it." I think that's a very limiting belief.

"I'm a huge loser, what are you going to do about it?!?"

Sometimes people embrace their flaws, exaggerate them, and throw them in everyone's face. As you can probably guess, the motivation is an over-compensating, defensive one. They're trying to say, "I'm trying to convince myself this doesn't bother me. I'll prove it by flaunting it!!!"

"I'm proud of having poor people skills"

Why would you be proud of that? Most reasonable people would say poor social skills are a real drawback. I understand the sentiment behind this statement, that you accept yourself and don't define your self-worth by your social abilities, but specifically being proud of being a bad communicator?

Going too far with the idea that everyone is fine the way they are

Yes, people should be self-accepting and comfortable with themselves. More practically, you can likely have some social success as you are now. You don't need to become a totally different, "better" person first.

However "You're fine the way you are" can also be used as a feel-good platitude. Sometimes people have faults that cause them to miss out on important parts of life. It doesn't help them to be told they shouldn't have to do anything to change, and anyone who says differently is too shallow and closed-minded to appreciate their innate specialness. A close cousin to this concept is that idea that no matter what you're like, there are people out there who will love and accept you for you. That might be true, but again, if you have toxic, self-sabotaging personality traits, does that justify holding on to them?

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"I don't have a problem. It's everyone else that does"

Some socially awkward people can get fairly negative about others and develop the attitude that it's the rest of the world that sucks, not them - "Everyone's closed-minded and intolerant. They don't understand me." Yep, people can be rejecting and intolerant, but you may still have real issues that could be addressed.

Another form of this general idea is the idealistic viewpoint that if the majority of people don't accept a certain kind of person (e.g., quiet, thoughtful, intellectual types), then the onus is on society to change its views. There's a point to this argument, but maybe hanging back and waiting for the world to come around isn't the most efficient use of your time. If you have traits that are causing you to miss out on important social opportunities, you may need to come up with a work around for them.

"I don't have a problem. Society just doesn't appreciate people like me."

A variation on the point above. A comment I've read several times is, "I don't see anything wrong with how I am. Society just doesn't appreciate creative, eccentric people. They don't value what we bring to the table." I can hardly argue there, but just because society isn't predisposed toward you doesn't mean you're totally off the hook. You may still have some handicaps alongside your overlooked strengths. Keep the good stuff, toss the bad.

"Everything is relative. My social skills are no better or worse than the next person's"

I've heard people argue that the definition of good social skills is relative, and that theirs aren't bad, they're just different from what the majority considers to be "good". If people like them were the majority, then they'd be seen as charismatic.

I agree that social skills are subjective. I also think there are areas where there's no clear agreement about which social custom is the best approach. However, in the practical day-to-day world there are social behaviors and attitudes that pretty much everyone agrees are problematic. If someone has a true impairment along those lines I think it's limiting and self-deceptive to consider it "Not bad, just different."

"Such-and-such tech mogul is socially awkward and they're one of the richest people in the world" or "So-and-so was considered socially inept as a kid and they did well."

There's a few angles from which I could go at this statement. Let's see: Whoever we're talking about probably succeeded in spite of their awkwardness. They succeeded because of many other factors, not just that they're socially clumsy. Even if they are rich, it doesn't negate the fact that poor social skills are a liability. And they're a unique case. The fact that one awkward person succeeded doesn't erase the fact that for most people having polished people skills is a good thing, and being behind in them is an impediment.

There are plenty of socially awkward people out there who succeeded and contributed to the world. I guess the question is, are there ever cases where someone's talent and their social ineptitude are completely linked - that their talents wouldn't exist if they weren't awkward? Would being better with people have prevented that tech entrepreneur from becoming rich? I understand sometimes we have to make sacrifices to pursue excellence, but usually we don't have to sacrifice our social lives to do it. You can be good at your passion and capable with people too. It's not an either-or thing. I think sometimes the "I'm trying to be the best programmer I can be, so I just can't learn how to make friends" reasoning is an excuse.

"People are just jealous of me/intimidated by me"

When someone knows people look down on their social skills they can construct the alternative explanation of, "I'm actually so awesome everyone's small, jealous minds just can't handle someone like me." In most cases this is pretty cut and dry wishful thinking. Sure there are cases of forward thinkers being shunned, but what I'm talking about here is simply being clumsy with people and making up justifications for it.

"People like me are becoming more popular in society these days"

This could be true, but it doesn't mean your genuine weak spots are suddenly not a problem anymore. Just because society may be warming up to some positive aspects of the subculture you're a part of, that doesn't erase the fact you're a nervous mess every time you go to a party.

"People give me a hard time, but what about them? They have lots of issues too"

Often the people criticizing you aren't perfect either, but just because they have their own problems doesn't mean you get a free pass for yours. It's not a black or white thing where only one side is right and the other is wrong. Both sides have a mix of pros and cons. They should each work to keep their pros and put their cons behind them.

The euphemism factor

Nothing wrong with a person being "charmingly quirky", as long as the term isn't sugar coating a more serious problem. That description could be euphemism for "abrasively random and insensitive".

"That's not what that term really means"

Sometimes when someone calls you by a certain vague term, which they were using to point out real issues of yours, you can go off on the tangent of arguing that they weren't using the word properly - "That's not what 'geek' actually means, etc, etc." The problem is all this talk of proper definitions can obscure the fact that someone was making a valid critique, even if their wording was wrong in your opinion. If someone calls you a "geek", meaning "arrogant and condescending", and you go, "No, a geek just means you're passionate about a particular hobby. It does not mean arrogant and condescending" that doesn't mean you're suddenly not condescending if you really are.