How Do I Re-Learn How To Talk To Strangers and Make New Friends?

Dear Dr. NerdLove, 

I came out of a fourteen-year marriage a few years ago, and I’m still pulling myself together. While the marriage was over long before it was over, it was financially devastating, and I’ve just about gotten myself back on my feet. I’ve tried online dating, but I gave it up because it was very little reward for a great deal of effort, and I wasn’t attracted to any of the women who swiped right on me, so I looked bored most of the time (according to the one who actually went on a second date with me). Anyway, it’s not a priority, and that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

During the course of the fourteen years I was with my ex-wife, she separated me from my friends. She convinced me that my women friends were crazy, and my male friends were bad influences, so the only people I had left were her friends, who weren’t very interested in me, and she got full custody of all of them after the split. I have been a very isolated person since my last major depressive episode (I’m bipolar 2), and currently, I have exactly one friend. I’ve tried to rekindle the stolen friendships, but they’ve all moved on without me. I’d like to make new ones, which is tough at my age (46), just by nature, but to make it worse, I’ve completely forgotten how.

I work in a very upbeat, friendly office, where everybody will chat with everybody else during the course of the day, except for me. I don’t think they know what to do with me. My boss has no problem talking to me or anyone, despite the fact that everything she wants to talk about is really asinine. I am in awe of her. There are two coworkers there I get a good vibe off of, and I want to reach out to them. The problem is, I have no idea what to say.

I feel like I need to have a reason to approach them. I feel like I need a reason for not having approached them before—I’ve been working with these people for years, and I’ve hardly said a word to them. I feel like I can’t be asinine. I don’t think that anything about me is interesting enough to share with anyone (including my best friend, who does most of the talking). Do I ask them out? Now I need to figure out an activity to ask them out to that won’t bore or offend them, and I know nothing about them, so how am I supposed to know?

I can carry on a conversation, but I don’t know how to start one. When I was dating, I went on a number of first dates, and I was able to chat with these women, despite allegedly looking bored. I can chat with my boss no problem, and my best friend and I talk several times a day. But they’re the ones to initiate, and thanks to my resting bitch face (I forgot how to smile during the end of my marriage), not a lot of people are interested in doing that. The ball is in my court, it’s all on me, and I am stumped.

This is all in my head, I know it, but knowing doesn’t stop the roadblocks from going up. The simple act of walking ten feet and approaching these people has become so complicated in my brain that I’m overwhelmed and uncomfortable, and in my middle age, I’ve learned to avoid things that make me uncomfortable. How do I get over this block? How can I sweep clear all these doubts and assumptions and just stroll over and say hi? Especially since it would be easier, and I will have lost nothing if I just hide in my corner and work?

Quiet Man, Unquiet Mind

I’m sorry that you went through all of that, QMUM. It sounds like you’re still reeling from the pain and abuse that your marriage caused, and I think you should keep some of that in mind while you’re thinking about these questions. Yes, I feel comfortable calling this abuse; the fact that your wife isolated you from all your friends is classic abuser behavior. She wanted you isolated specifically so that you had to rely on her for quite literally everything, and so your friends couldn’t warn you just how bad this was.

And to be clear: this was pretty damn bad, and I’m entirely unsurprised you’re still dealing with the after effects of it all. The scars of nearly 15 years isn’t something that goes away on it’s own, even after a couple of years. Healing and recovery is an active process, not just something that you can sit and wait to happen. If you aren’t already, I’d strongly suggest talking to a counselor about some of what you’ve experienced.

However, it’s great that you’re ready and interested in taking steps in being more social again and rebuilding your social network! And the good news is: talking with people is a lot easier than you think. You’re correct: the problems and roadblocks really are in your head. It’s not that life has become more complicated, so much as you were forced into isolation by your ex-wife and your social muscles atrophied. But the fact that they grew weak through disuse isn’t the same as “are gone entirely”. Much like someone coming back from an injury, what you need to do is start to do a sort of social skill rehabilitation, as it were.

The first thing I would suggest is to see about working on your resting bitch face and get used to actually being expressive again. People are going to take a lot of cues about how you’re feeling or how much you’re enjoying talking to them from the look on your face. A lot of why people often struggle with talking to strangers or getting people interested in talking to them is that they give very little indication that they’re interested in talking to others. I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about “approach invitations” before – signs that someone wants you to come over and talk to them. Well, you need to be sure to give approach invitations to others, too and make sure they know you’re interested in talking to them… even if you’re the one who’s ultimately starting the conversation.

If you’re sitting there trying to start a conversation and you’ve got the same expression as Audrey Plaza biting into a lemon, they’re going to assume – not unreasonably – that either you see talking to them as deeply unpleasant, or that you’re going to have bad news. Neither of these are going to be terribly productive when it comes to actually connecting with folks. This is why a good start would be learning how to smile again. Preferably when there’re people around.

Yeah I know, it seems weird to have to specify “around people” but hey, you’ve been isolated for too long. Being around people, actually feeling things and expressing those emotions is going to be good practice for trying to connect with new people or reconnect with old friends. Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to go around stretching your mouth and face muscles into you have some rictus that approximates a smile while wandering the mall or something. What I think you should do is start working on reconnecting feelings with action; what does it feel like when you want to smile, what sort of things do you feel that make you want to laugh or smirk or roll your eyes? Feeling those feelings and letting your brain let its guard down so you can allow your face to express those feelings helps create a sort of mind/body loop that’ll help reinforce the connection.

But to take the pressure off – and ease any worries that you might have about looking weird or having to put on a performance – I’d suggest going to movies or shows. At the risk of leading up to “…but I am Pagliacci!”, going to the movies and watching a classic comedy or something that  makes you feel good can make it easier for you to feel as though you’re free to smile, grimace, smirk or gape in awe, without worrying about other people seeing it. At the same time, however, you’ll actually be out among other people, helping create the association of not just being in a social setting, but of letting yourself just be open and relaxed and feeling the full gamut of feelings. Not to mention there’s that great feedback loop of vibing off the audience as much as off the movie itself. We may smile or chuckle when we watch something at home alone, but being around others who’re feeling the same way amps up those feelings to a higher degree. So not only will the feeling of joy or humor or silliness be enhanced, but you’ll also be rehabilitating your sense of empathy and connection to others. Get those mirror neurons sparking again and you’ll start having a much easier time relaxing and relating to others.

The next thing I’d suggest you do is to worry less on needing an “excuse” to talk to people and instead, create openings for conversations to start. Consider how many conversations you’ve had that started, not because someone approached you directly, but because somebody created an opening for that conversation – saying something out loud that prompted a response, for example. If you were to, say, pause to listen to something being played over the in-office music system and say “huh, I haven’t heard that in forever” or “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song in the wild before” with a slightly surprised and pleased tone of voice, it’s likely that people would speak up and either agree (“yeah, now that you mention it…”), share their own experience (“man, I had that happen the other day…”) or even ask something about your statement. That open comment creates the opportunity for folks to join in without needing to be specifically invited, in no small part because it’s just… out there and people can respond or not as they choose.

By that same token, if you want to start talking to other people specifically, you don’t need an ‘excuse’ or ‘reason’ beyond “you just want to talk to them”. You don’t even necessarily need to “justify” why you haven’t talked much to them before. But the easiest and quickest way to clear both of those hurdles – especially if you need something for your brain to latch onto that would make talking to them easier – then all you need is just “be interested in them”. The easiest and quickest way to get the ball rolling would be to ask for an opinion or suggestion – you’ve got something that you need an outside opinion on or their particular well of information, and you wanted to get their take on it.

This has a couple of benefits. The first is, simply, we like it when folks want to know what we think about something or want our thoughts about a particular topic. It’s relatively uncommon for us to encounter folks who actually want to know what we think; more often than not, we talk to people who’re just waiting for their turn to talk. By asking for their thoughts or wanting their expertise, you’re doing them a good turn by giving them an opportunity to share their thoughts. This makes them feel good and, critically, they’ll associate those feelings with you. After all, we like people who make us feel valued or important, and asking for their opinion or advice does precisely that.

The other benefit is that this will actually start a sort of chain reaction that works in your favor, a type of Jedi mind trick that they won’t know you’re pulling. As I’ve said many times before, one of the quirks of the human psyche is that we don’t know why we feel the way we feel. Our emotions aren’t pure thought, creations that exist entirely in the mind; they sit at the intersection of mind and body. Our brains take in what’s going on around us and our own actions and decide the whys and wherefores after the fact. Rather than being a linear progression of cause and effect, we, quite literally, decide afterwards that we’ve done X because we feel Y. Why did we give that homeless man five bucks? Was it because we were feeling generous that day or moved by his plight? Or was it that we were carrying a warm cup of coffee on a cool day and that physical warmth made us feel more warmly inclined to others, and so we gave money? Often the answer is the latter; the physical sensations created the general feeling of warmth, and that moved us to feel more warmly towards others .

By asking somebody’s advice or asking for their opinion on something, you are, functionally, asking them to do you a favor. Sure, it’s an incredibly minor ask, something that takes minimal effort on their part and thus easy to agree to… but you’re still asking them to do something for you. But we generally do favors for friends or people we like. And here they are, doing you a favor. So clearly – the subconscious part of their mind says  – they must like you. This is known as The Ben Franklin Effect and it’s a useful way to get people to warm up to you relatively quickly. By asking them their opinion, you’re not just asking for a favor, you’re paying them a compliment as well. You’re tacitly saying that you recognize their expertise or superior experience in this area and that their thoughts are of value to you. That implicit compliment makes folks feel good; it feels nice to be told that your thoughts matter or that you have useful insights. That, combined with the Ben Franklin effect of doing a favor for you, helps create that mini feedback loop of “this person made me feel good and I’m doing them a favor; we must have a good working relationship at the very least.”

Now, you don’t want to stop at asking for a suggestion; you want to create that space for a conversation to happen. This may include asking more about their experiences with $THING_YOU_ASKED_OPINION_ON or explaining that you’ve just started doing $THING or never had tried it before but you were interested in giving it a shot. These give them an opportunity to talk a bit more about their thoughts and experiences with $THE_THING, which you can then use as a springboard for more questions or sharing your own experiences and thoughts. Go back and forth a couple of times and before you know it, you’re having a conversation.

Once you’ve gotten yourself over that hump of initiating a conversation with them the first time, it’s easy enough to show interest again later on. Really basic inquiries like what they did over the weekend or if there’s something coming up they’re looking forward to (the big game, a work trip, anything) flow that much more easily once you’ve realized you just needed to give yourself permission to talk to them.

But what if they ask (or remark) that you’ve not talked to them before? Well, that’s simple enough: you tell them that yeah, they’re right, you hadn’t. But recently you resolved to make a point to come out of your shell more and you realized that you didn’t know that much about them despite working together. So now you’re wanting to get to know them beyond just what’s required for work.

I’m sure this all sounds intimidating. Trust me: it’s much, much simpler and lower-risk than it feels. It takes very little to get small talk started, and if you’re in a space where socializing is expected, allowed or even encouraged, then it’s perfectly normal to just strike up conversations. And since I presume that you and your co-workers don’t exist in monastic silence or strictly keep any workplace chatter to the tasks at hand, some casual “hey Bob, is that a new sweater?” or “did you catch House of the Dragon last night?” is entirely normal, natural and not something that anyone will bat an eye at.

Take things slow, give yourself time to loosen up those metaphorical limbs, break the rust off and rebuild those social muscles. You’ll be back to being an expressive, social individual before you know it.

Good luck.

 Hello! Thank you for reading my question and answering it if you have the time.

Jumping right into it, I’m a 30 year old woman and I have never so much dated let alone held hands or kissed someone. I honestly didn’t feel any compulsion to, as I identify as being on the ace spectrum and I spent my better years dealing with medical schooling and I didn’t need any of that baggage or drama of dating. I am now currently practicing as a doctor and feeling stable enough where the existential dread of being alone has caught up to me.

I met a man online during my time in med school, we bonded over similar interests (video games and anime, specifically our taste in older male characters). We are the same age but live in different states. We’ve been friends for 7 years and we’ve talked about our OCs, we’ve talked about our lives, we’ve marathoned through entire decades long franchises together and gained more friends along the way. We and a motley gang of friends have gotten through the entirety of the Godzilla filmography and we’re very close to finishing up Gamera. 

I caught feels for him pre-COVID, I asked him if he would be uncomfortable if I had feelings for him and he told me it was fine but he wasn’t looking to date at the time. I told him that’s all cool but I would have liked it if he rejected me properly so I could get over him, but he told me he didn’t want to close that door too soon. This year he told me he liked me back and was ready to date, and that if it was ok that we can treat his upcoming trip to visit to me as a date. I’m super happy to, I hope that we both are equally attracted to each other IRL as we are online.

Now the question here is what do I do? He told me he’s only dated one person before back in high school but hasn’t dated anyone since, so we’re both 30 year old virgins with no real dating experience! We communicate well so I am positive things will work out even if the we end up not dating afterwards but I really want this to work. Do I treat this like a regular friend hang out and let the chips fall where they may? Do I ask if I can hold his hand or kiss him? What is too soon for intimacy? I even talked to him about this and he says we’ll figure it out when we meet but I’m nervous! Long distance confuses me too!

I’m afraid of messing this up. He’s the only person I’ve felt this in love with and I’m not in any sort of limerence with him, I promise. I had 2 years to wash all that out of my system and I want him in my life even if that means we aren’t dating. But I mean, how am I gonna find someone who is gonna tolerate my collection of ojisan yaoi manga and beta reads my gay fanfics, let’s be real. Finding a dude who is into that felt like I won the lottery! Thought of dating someone where I have to pretend to be a normal really makes me bummed out.

So coming from a tryhard, I know that meeting him with be fantastic, awkward, fun, and did I mention awkward? But how do I approach a first date with someone that will be long distance? If we do decide to date how do I maintain it? There’s so much I’m omitting but we talk every day and have watch parties twice a week (we’ve been watching Quantum Leap and are eyeing this new reboot with some apprehension, and then our aforementioned Gamera watch party with a group of friends) and we’ve sent lots of thoughtful handmade gifts to each other featuring our OCs. Do we just keep the course but now with the fun cool “girlfriend/boyfriend” label slapped on? What’s a pair of star crossed nerds living in other states to do on a first date?

– Ojisan-loving Orihime 

Alright, OLO, let’s just slow your roll a bit here. I know things are exciting and thrilling and you’re feeling particularly twitterpated right now, but you’ve got crush brain that’s going a mile a minute and the rest of you is trying its damnedest to keep up. First and foremost: you’re worried way too much about rules and procedures and orders of operations, and there really aren’t any. Every relationship, platonic or romantic, sexual or not, is unique and follows its own path. While there’re some general best practices – more on those in a second – most of the “rules” that govern our relationships tend to get made up as we go. We apply the ones we’ve learned in past relationships to new ones and find that some fit and others don’t, and then we adjust accordingly.

So for right now, take a deep breath and let your brain be still for a moment. Instead of getting too revved up about what may or may not happen, resolve and commit to taking things as they come and being fully in the moment with your beau. You want to be like a trained Jedi, not like Luke fumbling around – ” All his life has he looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing.” Being in the moment will help you relax, help you savor every second of the experience and, importantly, make it a lot easier to know what you want to do, when and how.

When is a good time for intimacy? Well… when it feels right and natural. That doesn’t mean you won’t be nervous or get butterflies or worry that maybe if you make a move he’s going to pull back… but when you (or he) does make a (welcomed) move, you’ll feel like it’s emphatically what you want and either it’ll feel like this was the exact right time or possibly even a moment of “well FINALLY.”

Should you ask to hold his hand or to kiss him? I think those are good ideas in general, and since the two of you are coming to this with relatively little experience, using your words and making your interest and intentions known will go a long way to avoiding confusion and keeping everyone on the same page. And even if things don’t work out between the two of you, then getting into practice of being clear about what you want and asking if they’re into it too will be incredibly useful to you down the line.

How do you date long distance? Well, I’ve written quite a bit about that, but much of it is going to require regular “dates”, finding ways to keep your romantic and sexual connection vibrant while you’re apart and, ideally, seeing each other in person as often as time, work and finances will allow. Keeping a long-distance relationship going is difficult under the best of circumstances – even in the age of Skype, FaceTime and free long-distance – and even harder when you don’t have a lot of experience with relationships in general. There’re a lot of challenges that will come up that you wouldn’t be facing if you two were in the same city or even within a reasonable driving distance from one another. Working through those is going to require a lot of clear and open communication and a willingness to discuss uncomfortable or difficult topics… especially when all you’re going to have are your words.

Now I will say that the ultimate key to making long-distance work is that you, ideally, want to be moving to a point where you won’t be long-distance any more. It’s easier to hang in there when you know there’s an end in sight, rather than a nebulous future where you can never be entirely sure what will happen between the two of you. While that’s obviously not something you need to focus on now, it’s something that’s worth keeping in mind for the future if you two get serious.

But all of this is very much putting the cart before the horse. It sounds to me like you two haven’t met in person yet, or at least in a long time. Certainly not since the two of you started your online flirtation that turned more serious. That’s going to be somewhat more important than worrying about how you’re going to make this long-distance thing work. It’s easy to forget – especially these days – that while you can have emotional chemistry and attraction with someone, love, as the sage says, isn’t brains, children, it’s blood screaming at you to work its will. That is: there’s a physical component to attraction and relationships. When we talk about chemistry, we’re not just taking poetic license; a host of chemicals and signals and behaviors directly affect whether we have an attraction to someone… and we only ever know if it’s there when we’re in the same physical space as them. Even with video chats, you can’t pick up on all the cues and influences that dictate attraction, because we can’t pick up on subtle, subconscious cues like how they smell to us, or how they taste, for that matter. The pitch and timbre of their voice is different over speakers than in person. We don’t know how their touch feels until we’re there.

Since you haven’t had that vibe check, as it were, all of this is very much theoretical. You may – and I stress may – get together and discover that the online hotness doesn’t necessarily translate into the flesh. This isn’t to say that your online attraction is doomed; you’ve got just as much of a chance of things working swimmingly and you don’t actually manage to do any sight-seeing because you find your clothes blew apart as soon as you meet up. But you don’t know and you can’t count on it happening one way or the other.

So for right now? Temper your expectations, look a little less to the horizon and keep your mind on where you are. Be excited, yes. Look forward to it all and be prepared to have a blast. Just don’t make all sorts of plans before you actually have reason to. Focusing too much on what could be or how to make things work four years down the line is a lovely idea, but take things one step at a time for now. This way, you don’t risk having your expectations dashed, but if and when things go better than expected, then you’ll have a wonderful surprise.

Good luck.

Dr. NerdLove

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