I was socially inept for most of my life. Growing up as the only child and preferring to be by myself didn’t give me the training the other kids had. Luckily, I met socially savvy people that taught me social skills that I want to share with you today.
Here’s how to know if you are socially inept, what it really means, and how to become socially skilled instead.
What does socially inept mean?
Being socially inept means lacking in skill, competence, or ability in a social setting. A socially inept person could suffer from social anxiety, have a low level of empathy, be on the autism spectrum, or simply having too little social experience. The opposite is socially adept.
1. How do I know if I’m socially inept?
“I feel like such a social retard sometimes. How do I know if I am one?”
Here’s a checklist to know if you are socially inept:
- Socializing makes you nervous and you want to end interactions around people you don’t know as quickly as possible
- People often misunderstand your jokes or take offense
- You have a feeling that people sometimes avoid you
- You often say things you regret afterward
- Your conversations don’t really flow and then there’s awkward silence
2. How do I stop being socially inept?
The good news: You’re not alone. A large chunk of the population struggle with feeling socially inept.
Here’s the thing: Social skills are just that – skills. If we don’t practice, we can’t expect to be as good as someone who does, just like how people who don’t practice soccer tend to suck at soccer.
If you want to be good at soccer, you need to practice playing soccer. If you want to stop being socially inept, you need to practice to become more socially adept.
This may sound obvious, but I thought I lacked something fundamental rather than just practice, so I want to make this point clear. Let’s get to it!
3. Socially inept examples
Here are 5 examples of things socially inept people do:
- Causing awkwardness because what they said was out of tune
- Don’t pick up on the mood of the room or the person they’re talking to, so they create a disconnect with the one they’re talking to without understanding it
- Making people upset because they make plump or offensive jokes
- Getting stressed when they talk to someone new (especially if it’s an intimidating or attractive person)
- Avoiding social interaction or trying to get out of social situations
So what are some practical strategies for how to stop being socially inept?
4. Study socially savvy people and mimic them
Look at people who are socially savvy and see what they do differently. How come their jokes turn out well? How come their conversations flow so nicely?
I developed the habit of secretly analyzing these people and mimicking their behavior. As the saying goes in Japan: Copy the masters until you master the craft. When you do, that’s when you can develop your own style.
The next time you’re around someone socially savvy, specifically pay attention to the following:
- How are they crafting their jokes?
- What kinds of things do they talk about?
- How do they ask questions?
- What’s their energy level like?
- How are they adapting to the other person’s mood and the topic of conversation?
5. Improve your empathetic capabilities
This took me long to realize about socially savvy people: They are highly empathic. Learning to be more empathetic helped me to overcome being socially inept – and I learned it from socially savvy people I started hanging out with.
When you’re empathetic, you’re able to pick up on the subtleties in others feedback. That helps you understand when you’ve acted in a way that made people uncomfortable.
Now, this isn’t about being a doormat. You want to decide if you want to change your behavior or not. But empathy helps you pick up on the information in the first place.
Here’s a list of signs to tell if someone wants to talk to you. Picking up on those signals is a powerful way to be more empathetic.
6. See socializing as a practice ground
Ever been in a social setting and felt pressure to not make mistakes? Or felt pressured that you should try to make friends?
A few years back, I was about to move from Sweden to NYC. Because I knew that I was leaving, I saw all social interaction as practice for the USA. I had some unexpected results:
You see, because I started seeing socializing as a practice ground rather than trying to be perfect, I took the pressure off me. But that’s not all. Ironically, I became much better socially, just because I was no longer stuck in old patterns of who I should be.
In your next social interaction, see it as another opportunity to practice your social skills for the future. If you mess up – great, another experience to learn from. If you don’t make any friends or they don’t like you, that’s fine – you’re only practicing.
Read more: How to be social.
7. If someone tells you something, it means something to them. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk
A trait of socially inept people (me included) is that they tend to be bad listeners. (I didn’t even know that I was a bad listener before I learned what it means to be a good listener.) Socially inept people tend to think about what they should say next while others talk. Socially savvy people, on the other hand, focus their full attention on the story.
Here’s a rule of thumb you can use:
If someone tells you something, it means something to them. It means that we get an opportunity to show that we value their thoughts by…
- SHOWING that we listen by keeping eye contact, humming, and a sincere “wow, cool!” when it fits
- Ask a sincere question about their story
- Tell your related story AFTER you’ve given them some genuine interest in what they just told you
8. Use the IFR method to have a natural flow in your conversations
Ever ended up in a conversation doing all the talking, OR, ended up just asking way too many questions?
I often felt lost knowing what rhythm of the conversation I should have before a friend of mine, who’s a behavioral scientist and coach, taught me something invaluable: The IFR method.
It goes like this:
Inquire: Ask a sincere question
Follow up: Ask a follow-up question based on their reply
Relate: Mention something related to what you just asked
And then repeat by inquiring again.
So an example would be:
Inquire: What do you do? – I’m a photographer.
Follow up: Cool. What kind of photographer? – I take photos for a newspaper so I help the reporter at the scene with the footage.
Relate: I see! I took a lot of photos a few years ago and it was so much fun but I got out of it. Do you (immediately inquiring again) still think it’s fun or is it mainly just work?
And then you follow up, relate, inquire… A loop like that.
You see how I showed sincere interest, but also shared a bit about myself? In behavioral science, this is called a back-and-forth conversation. People get to know a little bit about each other over time, the conversation flows better, and it doesn’t get one-sided.
9. Make an effort to make people like being AROUND you
So this was another huge shift in mentality for me. I had always tried to make people like ME. It resulted in things like humblebragging, neediness, self-centeredness and being a bad listener because I just waited until it was my turn to talk. This didn’t work in my favor, then I learned this:
Don’t try to make people like you. Make them like being AROUND you. If you try to make people like you, you come off as needy. (IE you need their approval, and it’ll shine through.) If you make people like being around you, they’ll automatically like you.
Here’s an example of what this means in practice:
Don’t tell stories because you want to impress people. Only tell stories if you think they add enjoyment to the moment. (Am I telling this story because I want to come off as impressing, or because I think people will truly enjoy it? Honestly answering this question is a good way to know.)
If someone’s telling you something, give them the stage! Focus your full attention on them. Care about their story. Don’t try to break their story by coming up with a cooler story.
If someone does something good, praise them. If a friend has a new T-shirt you like, compliment on it. If a friend is doing well, congratulate them from your heart. If you appreciate a friend, show that you’re happy to see them (as opposed to trying to play it cool and non-reactive).
10. What to do if it feels like people won’t like you
Whenever I walked up to a group of people, I got this strong feeling that they probably wouldn’t like me. I think that for me, it originated when I was bullied in school, and then that feeling lived on whenever I was about to approach a group of new people.
The problem is that if you assume that people won’t like you, you’ll automatically come off as more reserved (while you wait for them to show you liking, first).
Here’s the thing: They won’t. If you come off as reserved, they’ll take it personally, and they’ll be reserved back. That’s how my behavior was reinforced:
People won’t like me -> I’m acting reserved -> People act reserved -> “Proof” that people won’t like me.
We have to break that cycle by DARING to be warm and approachable when we meet people. (This doesn’t mean needy or over the top.) More on how to be approachable without being needy here:
11. On being stressed and wanting to end the conversation
Making conversation stressed me out because I just felt the awkwardness level rising and rising. So I did anything I could to get out of the conversation as soon as possible. I didn’t understand it back then, but people (who obviously didn’t know why I tried to cut conversations short all the time) took it personally, assumed I didn’t like them, and didn’t like me back.
Finally, my friend who’s a behavioral scientist taught me something:
While the natural reaction is to get out of the stressful situation as soon as possible, the key to stop being socially inept is to see the moment as a GIFT:
“Here’s my opportunity to stay in the conversation for as long as possible and practice!”
You see, to stop being socially inept, we need to spend as much time practicing as possible. So, whenever you’re in a conversation you just want to get out of, remind yourself of the following:
You need a few hundreds of hours to be good at something, and a few thousand hours to be REALLY good at something. As long as you’re in that awkward conversation, you’re slowly becoming a little bit better.
Feeling nervosity and awkwardness = Improving.
12. Get yourself a job in retail so that you can constantly try new things
A friend of mine who was both shy and socially inept started working in retail. Remember how I said in the previous step that we need a few hundred hours to be good at something?
Retail is amazing in that sense: It gives you an unlimited stream of people to practice social skills on (and you even get paid for it – much cheaper than getting a personal coach 😉 ).
Here’s my guide on how to be more outgoing. It’s perfect to be inspired of what to improve in your next social interaction.
13. Build rapport
I was always reluctant to build rapport (That is, adjusting to whatever way of acting that’s appropriate for the situation).
I thought it wasn’t sincere. But as it turns out, to build rapport is a fundamental part of being human: We act in one way around our grandma and one way with our friends, and that’s how it should be.
I even think it’s beautiful that we can bring forth different parts of our personality based on the situation. It makes us more nuanced and complex in a good way.
Make sure to adjust your behavior to the situation. Some examples:
- If your friend just woke up and is slow and sleepy, you’ll be much nicer to be around if you tone down your energy a bit, too.
- If someone’s really excited about something, share their excitement rather than responding with low energy.
- If someone’s positive about life, you want to bring forth your positive personality, too.
Here’s our guide on how to build rapport.
These are my steps to stop being socially inept. If you have some additional questions, ask in the comments below.