I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phenomenon of social retardation. That is, the inability for many people I know (mostly nerds and geeks) to observe basic manners and, well, interact well with others. This is a long post, and I write it with self-awareness of my own shortcomings (historical and otherwise).
A long time ago, those of us working at Organic in the content engineering department (CE-SF Forever, Foo!) were a very tight-knit bunch. We were also complete and utter failures at interacting with each other – not to mention anyone outside of our circle. We were (are) a bunch of nerds, and (like most nerds) want to think of the world from a pragmatist perspective.
A guy I worked with (his name is Huff) was probably the least socially retarded among us, and he said this once, in all seriousness:
“I work with you guys, and you’re all brilliant motherfuckers, but you’re all socially retarded.”
And he was right. We were (still are, to a great extent).
That comment was very, very important to me, and I’ll explain why.
To me, it was a shocking eye-opener. To realize that someone I whose opinion I cared about perceived me in that way. It sometimes takes a friend to tell you the bad things about yourself. I like to think I’m independent and self-aware, but the fact is that we all have blinders on when it comes to our weaknesses – especially in the arena of social interaction.
The first lesson in becoming competent at anything is being able to recognize your own incompetency.
So, I am saying this to you, my friends reading this, those I care about:
You are socially retarded.
Now, your first emotional response upon hearing that phrase is likely a defensive one. Quite possibly you are thinking to yourself, “Hey, fuuuuuuck you. What the fuck do you know?”
This is a normal reaction. I’ll allow you a moment to work through it. People will not usually tell you when you are fucking up so it is up to you to be open to the possibility that you have a flaw. If you truly are a pragmatist you’ll stop for a moment and rethink your history and actions and realize that I’m right. At that point, we can continue the conversation.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
o/~ da da da, i’ve got soul but i’m not a soldier… o/~
You okay? Good. Let’s move on.
Everyone is on the Short Bus of Social Interaction to some degree or another. Everyone. $DEITY knows I am – though I like to think I’ve come a long way in the opposite direction over the past decade since he said that to me. I can list off a shit-ton of things I do poorly.
(For example, for the past year I have been keeping a great deal of people who like me at arm’s length simply because I’m afraid that they won’t like the person I am if they really get to know me. That’s socially retarded. It implies that I know more about their feelings about me than they do.)
Here are some things I have learned about this. Things that I have personally been guilty of (and/or still struggle with). Not all of them may apply to you; I am speaking very broadly. However, do not take that statement to mean that you should not hold yourself up to a microscope with regards to any one particular issue: failure to do so is being dishonest to yourself.
Let’s do a list.
1) When someone gives you a compliment, the correct response is “Thank you.” Do not think that you should respond with a level of humility and downplay the compliment: that insults both you and the person who complimented you (you are basically telling them that they have bad taste). Feigned humility smells like three-day fish.
2) When you ask someone for advice, and they give it to you, the correct response is “Thank you.” Even if you think the advice is bad, or unwarranted, or coming from a position of ignorance. Someone else has taken time out of their lives to respond to your request, regardless of its value. Certainly do not downplay their contribution.
This also goes for people doing you favors of any degree. Someone has put themselves out on a limb for you, whether it is as simple as a ride to the doctor, bringing you chicken soup when you’re sick, or even as heavy as getting you a job.
Don’t think that because someone is a good friend that you can get away without saying these things, either. Taking someone’s help for granted is a totally retarded thing to do.
3) When someone offers to buy you a drink, the correct response is “Thank you.” (You may also say “cheers”.) You are not obligated to accept the drink, but you must decline with taste (see below). You are not obligated to buy them a drink in return: people do this because they like you and enjoy your company.
It may seem weird – that someone may want to spend time with you – but that’s why.
4) When someone offers to buy you a drink, and you must decline, do so with grace and thanks. You can say anything: “Thank you, but I need to drive, so I’m on water for now,” or “Thanks, but I’ve had too much,” or “Thanks, but I have to get back to work.”
There are a ton of excuses, and the only one that doesn’t work is “I think you’re an asshole.”
5) You do not always have to be right, even in your own field, even when you are. It can be irritating when someone talks out of their ass about something you know a great deal about and the first impulse for many people (myself included) is to crush, maim, and destroy. That’s testosterone talking.
It is okay not to argue with people, especially if it may put a strain on a friendship.
This is a trap I fall into a lot.
6) Further, you do not always have to be right. Seriously, there are many, many people who know more about the things you think you know than you.
Back when I was a crazy anarcho-leftist in college earning my FBI file, my crew and I attended a speech given by William F. Buckley, Jr. at my school. We were there to raise trouble. During the question and answer period, one of the women I was with stood up and made some stupid accusatory comment or other about conservative economic policies.
Buckley took a beat, a breathe, and then, in less then ten words, annihilated everything she said, everything she would ever say on the subject, and totally destroyed our cause. We had walked into his House, and our arrogance in thinking we knew more about it than him was telling.
This one can also be summed up as “Don’t talk about shit you don’t know about.”
7) Few people wish to hear about your level 17 Paladin. Sad, but true. There are people who do. These people will make themselves known to you. This applies to everything nerdy, not just games: consider the last time you got in a conversation with someone about SMTP headers and their eyes glazed over.
Nerdism finds nerdism. Your braggadocio about your World of Warcraft accomplishments can wait until you’re talking with other Warcraft players.
8) Don’t make excuses for being a social retard. This just makes you look more socially retarded because it says, effectively, that you do not believe yourself to be bound by the polite rules of society.
There is a difference between a reason and an excuse. With reasons, you take responsibility for your actions; with excuses you do not. “I was drunk,” “I have OCD,” “I have low-grade Asperger’s” – these can be used in either vein.
No one will tell you when you are doing it wrong, so it’s better not to bring up a reason or excuse.
9) If you make plans with someone, and then must cancel, let them know. Further, offer to reschedule. Any reason will do except “I decided that I don’t like you.” Be serious about rescheduling, even if you don’t want to do anything. This is just being polite.
There is a further point here: if you are going to be late, let your appointment know.
10) If you decline every invitation from someone, they will eventually stop sending you invites. At some point, you may be stuck wondering why no one invites you to anything and get all wound up and depressed. Well, that’s why.
(There is a solution, though: invite people to do stuff.)
11) Be aware that what you do impacts other people. This can be taken very broadly, but I mean it in a more minute sense.
When you light up a cigarette, are there people around? Is the smoke drifting into their eyes? When you leave a building, and let the door swing shut, did you just smack someone in the face with it? When you leave a building, did you just step into someone’s way without looking? When you play music in your apartment loudly at two a.m., are your neighbors being forced to rock out with you?
Before you throw ten gangster rap tracks onto the jukebox, see what people are listening to. You can listen to your own music at home; forcing it on a populace just drives people away and makes you an asshole.
12) Everyone wants to be the center of attention. You do not have to be. Seriously. Some people have a “performer” personality (I do) and that’s fine, but if you get more than one person like this in a group, what follows is a series of one-up-manships that just irritate people. If you really are as cool as you think you are, you can let someone else take the spotlight for a while.
13) When in a conversation, listen to your friend instead of simply waiting for your turn to speak. This is an art. It takes a lot of practice (lord knows I trip up on it a lot). Over time, though, it becomes easier, and you will derive empathy towards people and learn social cues better.
14) If you are angry with someone, or they have hurt you, and they seem oblivious to this fact, you must tell them. Fact: socially retarded people are not good at giving cues. Fact: socially retarded people are poor at reading cues. Fact: most people are socially retarded.
A week or so ago, I was involved in a conversation with a couple people, and one of them was pretty drunk. In response to something I said about some sort of political thing, he called me “un-American.” It was a pretty hefty insult, given the situation, and it pissed me off. At the time, I let it go: he was deep in the sauce.
The next time I saw him, I said, calmly, “the last time we spoke, you called me un-American. And frankly, that pissed me off a great deal.” He got this totally surprised look in his eyes, apologized profusely, and bought me beers for the rest of the evening. Things are cool with us now, but if I hadn’t said anything it would just have festered for weeks, poisoning our relationship.
People are not able to read minds, even people like me with Batman-level perceptive abilities.
15) Don’t be “that guy” who sits in a corner and doesn’t talk to anybody. You know exactly what I’m talking about, too. Maybe you’re at a party and you really only know one person there. Maybe you’re in a bad mood. Whatever.
When you do this – sit in a corner – you exude a passive aggressive hostility. What you’re saying is that you are waiting for someone else to come and talk to you – that you are too important to make the first social move. Well, guess what? You’re not.
Remember, everyone is socially retarded. Here is the big secret to making friends: 90% of the work is simply introducing yourself. That may seem like a high wall, but it doesn’t take much. “Hi, my name is Brandon. I overheard you talking about foobar earlier, and I like foobar.” Bam! Heavy lifting done.
16) No one wants to be disliked. Everyone wants to make friends. This is the third tier of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It is present in every human. With that in mind, it is usually a good practice to assume “good intentions.”
Socially retarded people will make dumbass comments. Well intended, but dumbass comments – they’ll sound like backhand compliments, for instance. What you do here is take it in stride, recognize it for being a socially retarded comment, and move on.
If they really are trying to be hostile to you, well. That’s their problem, and you can safely ignore them. Just back out of the conversation and find something else to do.
17) When you yell at a customer service representative, you are being an asshole. Seriously, you’re being a total fucking douchebag. Not just to the person on the other end of the line, but also to everyone within earshot. They’re just doing a job, my friend – they are not personally trying to fuck you over.
Shit happens; how you deal with it says a lot about you as a person.
18) Be a good customer. Calculating an exact tip makes you an asshole. Tip well and tip often. The people who work in restaurants and coffee shops? They have shitty jobs. They deal with assholes yelling at them all the time. Don’t be the asshole.
When you do tip math, you look like you are unwilling to give them a tip, which makes you an asshole. If the service is horrible, leave a small amount, but if it’s even mediocre, go at least 15% (higher for excellent service).
If you have a coffee shop or restaurant you are a regular at, drop a hundred bucks in the tip jar at Christmastime – you’ll find that you get more than a hundred dollars value out of that gesture over the course of a year.
Be the good customer – the one they want to come back. The one they smile at when you walk in.
19) Iconoclasts do not get invited to prom. Sure, sure, angst and intentional non-conformity was cool and all when you were 19, but welcome to your thirties. When you rock the boat just to rock the boat, you piss people off and create headaches.
This can be especially fucked up in a job situation: your manager is going to catch hell for your actions and may have to go out on a limb for you (maybe he already has). Now you’ve made him look like an asshole: someone who was looking out for you. When you create one too many problems, you’ll stop getting invitations (or perhaps be forcibly dis-invited from somewhere).
Again: what you do affects other people.
20) Terse replies do not foster communication. Sure, sure. TCIP headers are compressed, and a lot of information can be displayed in a few simple words.
We live in a world of Twitter, txtmsgs, and Facebook updates so we are used to short communication bursts. However, most of the time people like elaboration. Email and the internet are horrible methods of communication because so much subtext is lost. Be aware that terse replies come across as passive-aggressive or even hostile.
In face-to-face communication, terse replies make you come across as a cold fish. Leave openings for questions. Elaborate.
If someone asks you, “Do you like Battlestar Galactica?” they’re really asking you why or why you do not like it. Simply saying “yes” or “no” ends the conversation. Even a simple, “yes, I like it because Number Six is smoking hot,” will do.
There. That’s twenty, which is a nice round number. Many of these overlap but like similar tools in a toolset have subtle differences and applications.
Now, I have to get back to being a surly iconoclast.