Learning to socialize

One of the biggest changes in my life in recent times is that I’ve gotten much better at socializing, making friends, etc. I can consistently make friends with new people that I meet, hang out with them without rubbing them the wrong way, and be invited in return to hang out with them, etc. Although this might sound easy for most people reading this article, it has been extremely difficult for me to learn, and has taken me almost three decades! Here are a few aspects of learning to socialize that I wish to talk about

Learning to socialize is a bit like learning English

I was often complimented for my ability to read and write English at an early age. I was lucky enough to be exposed to books at an early age, and even luckier to have developed reading as a hobby. Hence, I could read and write reasonably well, and this opened doors to prefectorial positions, scholarships, and even a seat at my undergrad institution, which bizarrely had a section on English in its entrance exam!

English, famously, is not a very logical language, in that it cannot be completely developed from a small set of rules. However, it is self-consistent. Hence, the best way to pick it up is not to buy a book of English rules, memorize them all, and then use those rules everywhere. There are a bazillion exceptions to those rules, and ultimately those rules may hinder more than help. Perhaps the best way to learn English is to read and write frequently, until one has had access to a critical mass of the literature. The best analogy that I can draw here is training a neural network. After grappling with a big and varied training data, our brain becomes pretty good at recognizing where the phrasing “sounds wrong”, and how one should convey one’s thoughts in words.

In contrast with my access to English resources, I never really had any friends growing up. One major reason for that was that I was horrible at sports, and playing sports was how most of the guys in my apartment complex bonded. Hence, I was not exposed to enough social interactions to be able to pick up on a lot of the delicate and nuanced facets of socializing. It may be clear to anyone reading this that one cannot become good at socializing by merely reading a book on it. It is an acquired skill, and only comes after a lot of practice, after which it begins to seem easy and almost second nature.

I finally began to acquire social skills after noticing how very social people that I knew interacted (reading some psychology blogs also helped). I could pick up on cues that I hadn’t read in any books or come across anywhere at all. It’s funny that I picked up almost all of my social skills in a pseudo-simian fashion: blatantly copying the more successful members of the tribe.

There’s a pattern to the madness

I am not the only one.

Many grad students in Mathematics are socially inept in ways similar to me! I don’t mean to push a stereotype of mathematicians being introverted loners or something. Most of us want to socialize and have friends like other people. However, we are unable to, and for very similar reasons!

Some of us try too hard to sound nice and humble, but it comes across as fake. Others are too obsessed with coming across as smart, and would rather be thought of as intelligent rather than nice (inevitably, they’re thought of as neither). In other words, we lack the ability to tune our social selves to the optimal setting. Although it might sound like I’m pushing a bad stereotype, this correlation is easy as day to see, and it would be dishonest of me to not talk about it. There is something about being a social idiot that makes you want to study Mathematics.

So what really are some aspects of socializing that I picked up on?

I’m going to present some things that I picked up on as bullet points:

  • It is a mistake to look too eager to please someone, smile too much, etc. One should mostly adopt an attitude of helpful-but-uninterested. It converts the impression that you’re willing to help out if needed, but are not overly interested in getting close to them. Through this, you portray yourself as high status, and people mostly want to befriend high status people.
  • It is important to look like you’re willing to walk the extra mile for the community. It is also important to seem like you’re doing it for society at large than doing it for specific persons. Essentially, the more you make it clear that you’re helping out without expecting anything in return (including appreciation), the better the social returns might be.
  • Deeply religious people or people who demonstrate a willingness to follow any other arbitrary social code are often found to be more trustable than people who are not. If you can demonstrate that your behavior is tightly bound by known rules and is hence fairly predictable, you become easier to trust. This is stolen from Robin Hanson.
  • The people who try the hardest to sound humble are often the ones who are the most self-obsessed/arrogant. Perhaps the single most attractive quality in a person is not indulging in themselves at all. If someone tells you that they really enjoy playing music, don’t tell them that you suck at music and hence are impressed by them, or that you’re very good at it yourself. Don’t insert yourself into the conversation at all. Just ask them more about it.

    This is stolen from Freddie deBoer (in spirit).
  • A recent article on Putanumonit says that getting good at anything requires two steps: first learn the rules well enough so that they become instinctual, and then forget the rules so that you can approach any situation with a fresh mind. I would say that this works very well with learning how to socialize. One can indeed learn some rules first: be nice, don’t be overly eager, don’t put yourself in the middle of a conversation, etc. However, life can get complicated, and using these rules blindly may be sub-optimal. Hence, one should try and forget these rules after getting some practice with them, and play it by the ear.

    I have suffered on multiple occasions by directly copying something that a socially aware person did in a different situation, and then realizing to my detriment that a lot of what they did didn’t translate to my situation. Playing it by the ear is indeed a very important piece of advice.
  • Don’t be afraid to be rude with people when it is clear to both of you that they are trying to take advantage of you. People often have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness (even the evil ones), and if you hit back at someone trying to treat you unfairly, chances are that they will realize that they’re being unfair. Consequently, although your relationship will be strained, repair will be fairly easy. Remember to detail precisely how they’re being unfair to you, so that there is little room for misunderstanding, and you’re both on the same page.

It’s completely possible that this article is mostly unhelpful for you, as you’re already aware of all of the things that I’ve talked about. However, it has taken me a long time to figure these things out, and I am recording them here only to perhaps reflect on them years later when I’ve realized that everything that I’ve written here is wrong.

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Graduate student

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