Learning social skills

There’s surprising amount of resources, and actual classes, worksheets, internet discussion, as long as you identify as having low social skills. A quick overview confirmed that it is helpful in most extreme cases, and gets you up to the mediocre level. The target audience of my blog are those who are trying to take a leap from mediocre to socially successful, whatever that means. From being able to get through all the conversations in the day without embarassing yourself/offending anyone – to actually attracting conversations, being valuable for your peers, being invited everywhere and considered the very best friend.

The way people learn that is by copying their role model. By being around very social people, observing how they treat their friends, and actively wanting to be like them. At first a person may embarass oneself in this imitation, but it’s all typically happening even before high school, so embarassments, though painful, are not the end of the world.

Now, the problem is that people with good social skills that you may learn from tend to use them on their friends, people they care about. And then they just autopilot around everybody else. And if you don’t already have good social skills, chances are they will autopilot around you. So even if you spend a lot of time with them, you may not see much of what you can imitate. To grow, you need to actually talk your way into the company of friends, where everybody cares about each other and has better social skills than you. Typically those people won’t care about you, unless they need you for something. But luckily that’s not the goal here. Goal is to be around them and observe how they treat their friends, not to be their friend.

Ideally, every person who’s in tech careers with rare chances to learn social skills should have an opportunity to surround oneself with more social people and get up-to-date. Unfortunately, the opposite happens for me – I spend most of my time with people who are even less social than me. Not that they are bad friends, but it shouldn’t be my job to get them to improve their skills. I should focus on my career – there are tons of less successful in their careers but very social people around our school to help us all.


Stuff bloggers say on a bad day

This vintage ad board is an obvious exaggeration, and also making fun of women’s mood swings is considered sexist nowadays. Of course, all the posters from the 50’s are sexist. However, my mood is also not that stable. I’d like to give an example of ups and downs that a guy would experience, in words that I used 2 years ago to talk about myself:

Down: I was barely able to sit in one room with other people without wanting to kill them.

Up: Today I’m remembering how am I supposed to live, have fun and be friendly. Maybe even cheerful, but it’s still far from that. So, I’ll try asking people: What are you doing over spring break? Do you want to friend me on facebook? Your new haircut is nice. Can I help you?

Obviously, my description of “down” state from back then is alarming. Pretty much everyone here is familiar with the school shooting stories, so it is not okay under any circumstances to express how annoyed you are by saying you want to kill somebody. Only if it’s clear that it’s a joke, like with that vintage ad. Or else people would be unnecessarily worried. So one needs to find some other words to express your negativity. Here are some more lines from back then, which maybe work better than “wanting to kill them”:

(1) What I thought to be just my imagination, is rapidly becoming a reality. I notice things that are just not supposed to happen. Every step in my life becomes dramatic as if it’s a cheap farce. Why couldn’t I just see her boyfriend in the crowd, or catch a glimpse of his nametag! No, he had to come onstage and let them make a clown of him. So symbolic. But I don’t need this second meaning anymore..

(2) Why couldn’t I just see (another her) boyfriend in the cafeteria in the middle of the day? No, in the cafeteria she walks alone. It had to be after I waited 4 hours for her to appear at the party! Imagine how I felt, when she appeared with a boyfriend. And she never let go hugging him. I thought I would be able to just dance beside her, but no.

(3) So I wasted all my pickup lines on that girl, and all along she had 6feet boyfriend somewhere. She never told.

This works a little bit better. Basically, here I complain about the ambiguity that girls around me like to keep about having a boyfriend or not. Although they don’t have to publicly announce their status, learning it the hard way actually hurts.

One may think that because of these disappointments I would become a skirt chaser: stop respecting women’s choice and try getting them to be with me by all means. Pushing girls to talk to me, making them uncomfortable. But none of that happened. I didn’t chase anyone in the US. Every time I report an awkward episode on this blog, it’s typically unintentional. I’m just an uncomfortable person to be with. Too serious, too asocial.

One may think I am traumatized by the events described in the quotes above. But in reality, I did’t blame anyone for the fact that my life was so boring. I seriously considered lying about my life back then, just to make it sound more like lives of other people.

So unlike most of internet dwellers, I possess both of the character traits: the sad emotions about girls I barely know, and the fear of being wrong if I hit on them. I am not intrusive at all, I always stop at the slightest doubt that it may be uncomfortable for other person.

But the ‘I’ from Russia ago didn’t have these properties. I liked everyone in the world, didn’t care about ‘macho men’, and was hitting on the girls and embarrassing myself all the time. Let me conclude with the motivational speech I used to give myself on the pages of this blog:

I think I have to resurrect that personality from 3 years ago. I have never used this personality in the US. In California, at least. But I think it’s time. World is calling for me. That’s why I kept this blog – so that I can leap back in years and get that carefree feeling back again.

By ‘world is calling’ I mean two Asian girls who looked at me today, on Pie day. I don’t even know them. One liked my rollerskates, the other reached for her backpack in the library, and our eyes met. She laughed and smiled to me (maybe, I didn’t really look straight at her). The current me didn’t really want to start a conversation (I’m old!). But the me from the past certainly would say something!

Complaints and who to address them

In a world centered around success, be it in classes or in career, it’s perfectly okay to complain about the obstacles you find there. In everyday lunch conversations you can hear people complaining about their work/coursework being not where they want it, as well as lack of sleep and stress that comes from it. It’s also okay to complain about weather, rudeness of strangers and high prices/low quality of consumer goods. But is somehow not okay to complain about one’s personal life in a casual conversation. To find a way to channel the latter complaints, one need to either contact a therapist, or invite a good friend out for a meal. Then if that person values you for some other reason, he may patiently sit through your complaints. Notice: if other complaints can be voiced when they arise, for personal complaints you need to schedule a time, possibly a few days later in the week, and rely on resources that are not always available (not everybody has friends who would listen to them, and even among those not every friend is approachable to talk about personal issues).

Writing them in a blog is a good way to alleviate this delay. Other issue is that some complaints are person-specific, and only make sense to those who know the person in question. For that case, finding a person in the same circle and starting a conversation with them may be a good choice. Complaining directly to the person who causes you personal troubles is likely a bad choice, as well as being public about it on social media.

(Headline photo: in a Chinese company, there’s a special day when employees are allowed to wear masks so that they don’t have to force the smile on their faces)

Time management on a convention

For many of the “fringe interests”, there are conventions to make people feel they are not alone. Anime Expo have gathered 80 thousand people last year. Comic Con is coming up. Back in Russia we had LARP conventions, and the ones that are biggest around the world are probably computer game conventions. There is also DefCon in Las Vegas.

One thing that organizers do to occupy so many people is to have many events and attractions going on at once. It works as divide and conquer: the crowd is not uniform, some people have more serious pursuits, some have no idea what they came for, some are just having fun on the con. The list of con events is pretty much a slice of life, with all possible interests and ways to spend time represented. What to choose to meet new people? First, I tried to pick activities for the day that are not completely boring for me, in part so that people I meet are those I can relate to. Here are the choices that were available to me on Anime Expo:

  1. Cosplay photohunt. List of cosplay gatherings is not official, and is available here.
  2. Shopping …
  3. Panel discussions on pretty much everything. They even had scientists writing their research paper about anime organized in some sort of symposium.
  4. Karaoke.
  5. Club dancing and bars.
  6. Workshops to learn skills.
  7. Stage dance performances and singers.
  8. Cinemas and music videos.
  9. Celebrity meet’n’greet.
  10. Comedy shows and interactive shows like Dungeon master.
  11. Food court with a maze of food trucks.
  12. Museum of old computer games where you can play any.

You get the idea – once the number of people scales up to tens of thousands, the event naturally starts to imitate a big city, with all the urban infrastructure. One difference is that in a real big city you have to go to work, while here it’s entertainment all day long. Having so much entertainment packed into just a few days makes it easy to find out what is your favorite pastime. However, for me it was more like running around, trying to catch a glance of every single activity, confirm that I’m not missing out on anything. Quite a few points on the list were genuinely interesting for me, but they either ended fast or didn’t keep my attention for long. So if I’m asked – what kind of person I am, what kind of interests should I list on twitter to pick people to follow – is this an acceptable answer? That I don’t care that much about any one thing, I just want to run around and see everything?

I guess not. One should have well defined interests, to select and focus attention in this sea of 80 thousand people. Indeed, even thought I didn’t shriek in excitement when I saw any particular character cosplayed, or didn’t wait in line for 2 hours to see my favorite show/celebrity, I still had some guiding principles to direct my choices. And the lines were never a problem – I was almost always able to get into the events I want just by showing up at the doors 20 minutes after the time it starts (except only the premiere of LWA2 and Cosplay Wrestling (???)).

Of the workshops, I went to the ones about writing fan fiction. Of the panels, I went to any discussing diversity in the geek community,

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 10.55.35 AM

and also accidentally the one with Touhou shoot’em’up playthrough, which was an incredible feat of dexterity. I went to all comedy shows, avoiding the ones with particularly perverted theme (which were everywhere on Saturday evening). I didn’t go to dating event or to maid cafe, they are overcrowded by default. I went to watch the J-pop and the K-pop dance performances (the latter being bustling with fans, so one can hardly see the stage), then I danced at the club dance night. The latter convinced me that my current outfit is not suited for dancing, so I went on to look for party T-shirts and diode gloves in the shopping area. I was putting off exploration of the artist’s alley till the last day, and walking there is so overwhelming that I ended up not having time/energy to see more than 20% of it. Moral: visit artist alley every day for short periods instead of trying to marathon it. Besides T-shirts, I followed my interest for Art Nouveau – inspired paintings – there were quite a lot of artists borrowing from that style. I also looked out for menacing gothic helmets, but found none. Guess they didn’t get very popular. Surprisingly, I saw t-shirts with Girl Genius comic prints, even though official site doesn’t have any t-shirt in their merchandise.

Food trucks managed to keep my hunger away – the lines for them may look intimidating as they are under the sun, but ironically the trucks with healthy food never had lines in front of them. Ok, so of all these activities, which were the best to get to know other anime fans? There were a lot of really drunk folks on the dance, I could’ve interacted with them if I wanted. My anime club organized a meetup with Japanese cosplayers of the same anime, and that was a very eye-opening evening. There I met quite a lot of extremely Japanese people, and even had a chance to practice my language skills a bit. So the stereotypical ways to meet people: through friends and at the bar  – probably work best. The 21+ lounge had a rock concert every evening, so there was something to do even for those who don’t drink. Besides them I talked to a very cheerful person in line for Dungeon Master –  he even let me borrow his katana for a pic:


Artists are always up for a chat. I addressed some of the cosplayers with “What is your character”, and also “Where did you buy those” – which was very helpful to get directions in the shopping area. As I said, I don’t get overwhelmed by fan feelings no matter what I see, but if I did, shouting the name of the character you recognize is also acceptable.

For the time management – the main advice is to avoid being overwhelmed by the visual impressions of other people’s costumes and merchandise in the shopping area. Limit your time spend walking through the hallways to 15 minutes, take breaks, even by stepping in a random movie screening room. Take a break in a shopping area for a chat with someone, or to check your phone. Twitter was not very useful during the convention, but maybe I don’t have enough twitter experience to benefit from it. Many people complained about tired feet – make sure you have good shoes, bag on wheels is also a good choice if you are to carry heavy camera around – but make sure to leave it at the hotel/bag cheek-in before the dance. Have plenty of plastic bags to keep food away from other belongings – in my case, a very tasty chicken sauce spilled over my camera and my costume and ruined a bunch of photos:


Structuralist and Post-structuralist analysis of survey below

First of all, one may argue with each of the opinions that responders voiced in my survey. This is not post-structuralist deconstruction yet, but it is a place to start. The scary terms in the title will be defined shortly.

  • “Grad students with minimal income and no family” – there are tons of professions that live basically on minimal wage, unless you hit the jackpot. Music journalists, movie actors, standup comedians, aspiring writers, software engineers and traveling salesmen. We’re in a good company. A structuralist approach will claim that feelings of people in all above groups are essentially the same, but more on that below.
  • “Talking to people … not… interesting. If they come and talk to us, of course we would keep the conversation” – there’s an inconsistency right here! This is more of a deconstruction – we find flaws in the text by careful examination of it, not even bringing in external evidence.
  • “A movie star!” – is an interesting substitute for real people who have to struggle with real problems, maybe very different from ours. It is somehow easy to think about movie stars.
  • “You meet a lot of people when you’re young, but then it shrinks to your coworkers and friends.” – that’s only true for introverts, as another voice pointed out.
  • “We can’t talk to people – in one minute we’re back to talking science.” – that’s just a TV trope, we’re not actually like this.
  • “There was a sci-fi book” which was obviously intended to be popular among scientists, thus exploited the stereotypical thing we can relate to.
  • “Extroverts are not in gradschool” – well, there was one right in that room, and the last two responses are from him.

The takeout message from the common sense approach is that grad students indeed perceive isolation from other sides of life, but are not very good at explaining the reasons for it. The attitudes fall into three categories: personal choice (this is interesting for me thus I’m here), born like this (I’m talented in this field not in others thus I’m here). The third category is not voiced easily, but shows up in the tone and details of responses: unfair rejection (they won’t talk to me so I’m here). Imagining that “a movie star won’t talk to you” is one of the examples.

Now lets look at the same text using structuralist tools. The term means for our purposes: we expect to find the same structure in the text as in other texts coming from seemingly unrelated sources. Or we split the text in pieces and use the templates already developed by famous structuralists for individual pieces of other texts.

Unfortunately we don’t have access to similar surveys made in closed groups like IT support, undergraduate students, students of other departments or less-known theater companies. We expect them to have the same uncertainty about how other people see them, the same societal pressure about low income and no way to support a family. They may have hard time talking to people who don’t know the inside jokes of their group.

What about monasteries? The book mentions a postapocalyptic version of them, where scientists are kept inside by force. In the real world it’s more of a conscious decision. The religious culture makes them hide away any regrets they may have about joining the monastery, so a similar survey may have only silence as an answer. Yet even our free and witty grad students hesitated about voicing their regrets, so the structure holds.

Let’s use a simple structuralist template signifier-signified to keywords in the responses.

  • “Hollywood” signifies “being born white and winning in random talent contest.”
  • “Gradschool” signifies “a way of avoiding real life for a few more years. And maybe, indefinitely.”

So what does “real life” signifies? It is just our impression about how other people are. And it is the key concept in structuralist psychoanalysis – from their point of view, all our problems stem from inconsistencies in our models of other people, and our desires for them.

The other is very flexible: its signifieds range from “people from other departments” to “Hollywood stars” to paternal figures of our subconsciousness. The famous discoveries made by structuralists are often about how the signified is shifting dynamically or even becomes a signifier-signified pair itself. An example of this kind of nesting is a flower on Valentine’s day which signifies just giving a flower which signifies passion. This kind of nesting is (arguably) in the other that responses mention. We think it signifies actual other people that we don’t know, but instead it signifies our model of them. The actual other people are likely not even aware that grad students living next block are feeling themselves isolated.

Another structuralist tool is to observe that a relation between the two parts A and B is the same as relation between C and D. It is very impressive for a non-math person to come up with a functor this way. I don’t see any functors in replies, maybe only between the surveys of different groups.

Finally, time for a Post-structuralist deconstruction. It basically starts with getting personal and points out that

  • I was concerned about forgetting how to talk to normal people, but not so much so after I stopped  dating a non-physics girlfriend.

can be read in two ways: is it the girlfriend that was leading to the concerns about how to talk, or the concerns about ‘nothing to talk’ led to stopping to date. In fact, the first thing that deconstruction notices is that the question “who we are” cannot be satisfactory answered. That is in the original books by Derrida. The self is impossible to pinpoint, there is always something unclear about the answer. We noted that indeed most of the responders hid their real feelings about the unfair rejection, societal pressure and a barrier before talking to other people (instead saying that it is uninteresting).

We assumed a working model of other but in fact it is all over the place. We would think of Hollywood stars instead of normal people, we wait for them to come talk to us, we can’t even explain how come we had a girlfriend in the first place! So a flaw in the imaginary model of other cannot by itself be our important finding – there are always flaws in one’s model of other, unless you talk to Sherlock Holmes.

Instead, our conclusion will be that there are easily falsifiable flaws in the way we think about our grad school, and for some reason our mind suppresses ways of thinking that may notice the inconsistensies. Like that there was an extrovert in the room. Note that the conclusion is on the meta-level compared to the “common sense” conclusion. We still do not know if it is a good idea to point out these inconsistencies to people, or it will just be irritating for them.

A comparative list of ways to meet people

  1.  At a social event or networking event. The one where you get free food, name tags  and questions like “where are you from?”, “what’s your major?”. Pros: You can friend them on facebook afterwards. They typically won’t mind. In a big school, there are no free food for everyone, but social service club meetings were basically the same – you get tons of names, and you can add them on facebook. In my case, in ucsb, it was circle K. When the food is involved, the above is not time-consuming at all. You do need to get your meals somewhere. Cons: It may be a little bit frustrating – nobody really tries to be original while getting to know you. I never got one interesting question for all these years. Also, the people of younger age group (students) may very well friend you, but they actually have zero interest in anything you can tell them, and will react with surprised silence if you ask them to meet with you for lunch. Not that I tried too many times, but I can tell that it feels so out of line. Just keep that in mind.
  2. At a non-networking event: in a class, on a public lecture or panel, on a tour, in a gym. The criterion is: no name tags, and it’s not about having fun. You typically have a few minutes before, at intermission or after the event – and then everybody leaves. Pros: this is where most of the new people we see during the day would be. I can’t overestimate how many people one would meet if one just puts a little bit of effort here every day. Cons: There’s nothing to say. And here, you’re the one who’ll have to initiate the conversation. Ideally, the event itself can be a topic of the conversation. Like asking for help in the homework. But it’s not something you’ll do often. So you can get contacts from some people, but then only if they’re into chatting in fb you have any chance of getting to know them. And, believe me, there are not too many people who are into fb chats with strangers, and your top choice certainly isn’t.
  3. Dating websites – these ones are for meeting the opposite gender. Pros: you get a priceless experience of what the typical “lots of fish” are like. Sometimes, you even get a response. Sometimes, you get a date. It’s a best place to practice buddhist mindset for such things. Cons: Other times, you just waste time. You may as well practice your pickup lines with the wall.
  4. Through friends – now that you’ve met some people who consistently hangs out with you, there’s a chance that an extrovert, a very social person will be among them. Pros: Then you’ll end up spending time with that person’s friends Cons: whoever they are.
  5. At a dance class – you don’t need to come with a partner, there will be a rotation so you’ll hear the names of all partners present in the room. Good luck remembering them! Pros: you may meet people who are there for the same reason as you 😉 Cons: you have to waste an hour feeling like you’re a beta male/ <whatever women feel> while the most attractive and popular dance class regulars are dancing in the middle of the room with all the moves you’ll never learn.
  6. At the bar. Or other “fun” place. A party, a dance club, an open-air. Pros: that’s where we should meet people, the mass media says. Cons: it involves drinking, and the communication in the noisy environment may be hard for non-native speakers. Also, most of the people come there to hang out with their own friends. So be prepared to just stand there. For hours.

We omitted the hikes, which are healthy and much alike #1 – the nametag events. The only problem being, people who go on hikes will never do anything except hikes in their life.

A valuable lesson on rejection

In a movie to come out about high school a teacher is encouraged by his students to hit on another teacher. When he approaches her, he asks her instead to slap him to “teach the kids a valuable lesson in rejection”

So I realized that one of the things that makes me who I am (a shut-in) is a still-present fear of rejection. It is so strong, that I put huge efforts to make “safe” the actual situations where I need to talk to strangers. That is, even if I need to ask directions, I can only ask it if I’m sure the person will reply. I won’t ask a person with headsets on, who is facing away from me, because I’m not sure I’ll successfully attract their attention to start talking. And the situation when I tried and failed is so scary, that it discourages me from trying. Obviously rejection isn’t that scary, but how to explain it to my subconsciousness?

(this post is inspired by Scott Aaronson’s speculation that his own teenage fears were coming from bad counseling and extreme stygma against having sexual attraction to girls)

Desperate because no friends and no girlfriend

Many of us find ourselves in this situation (yeah, the following will be guy-specific, sorry gender equalists). Some advice how to improve is also available, but it is often no good. There has been a recent violence in the place where I live, and the murderer has posted a lot of videos filled with anger and frustration about the topic. I feel like writing a belated reply to a person who is expressing these feelings on the web. In fact, I had an idea of addressing the fellow lonely guys long ago, but abandoned it because I was feeling inadequate for the job.

So here it goes. I’m not giving any advice, because who will listen to a not-so-successful speaker. I’m not really suggesting you the ways to cope, that is the job of the counseling. Just trying to understand the situation better.

First, guys often feel that they cannot ‘fit the social’ environment of this or that place. I remember myself saying many times that ‘no girls like me’. Although I hardly felt any hatred for girls in general (come on, they are the stars of our life), I did get angry with certain girls I hardly knew for not paying me sufficient attention or some other absurd reason. A survey is in order, but I feel like at least 20% of guys in a conversation with me expressed dissatisfaction with their personal life, even without being asked about it. Luckily, almost none of them has psychological disorders that turn these feelings into aggression. Most of us do not escalate these feelings, and thus our lives do not ‘turn into a living hell’, they only feel bad at times.

Second, teenagers and young adults do have pride. So if somebody suggests to them to just wait, as if there is nothing they can do about their loneliness, it hurts their pride. If somebody suggests to hang out with not-so-cool-kids, it hurts as well. Actually, social networks and dating services hurt no less – feeling of being evaluated by the number of likes can get very strong during the first year out there/ in the new group. So, before we fully grow up, we are trapped in a cage of pride, and stepping over our pride sometimes means not being ourselves.

I myself sailed through puberty on easy mode: I had a strong support of my family, and a big achievement behind me (a gold medal, whatever). It was long and lonely 8 years, as if I had been deceived: everybody expected me to have outstanding and bright personal life full of adventures, instead I got nothing and questioned myself: is there something wrong with me? Or maybe I didn’t learn something essential for ‘social scene’ during my childhood? By the end of my youth, these questions got partly answered. Thanks to people who tolerated my teenager personality back then! I feel like the answers that I found are not applicable to everyone. Thus I conclude:

A lot of guys face failure on daily basis. Some guys faced failure once and shut in. The more screwed up perception of reality you have, the more situations you identify as failures. The killer had a very screwed up perception of reality. That’s why it’s really important to subject your own thoughts to criticism, and understand yourself better. My few failures are written in this blog. There is really no competition between guys, nobody will take all the girls. I would like to resume writing and cover more details about teenage experiences, as well as some topics of controversy. Meanwhile, we can watch teenagers peacefully expressing their sexual feelings: