Yesterday I posted my elevator pitch. I called it my new elevetor pitch because that sounded good to me, but in reality, I've never had an elevator pitch. That got me thinking about other situations where having some canned responses to common questions, like "what do you do?" or "how are you?" would be helpful.

The truth is, I am not very good with social responses. I may not smile when I see you, or I may give you a strange reply to some bit of small talk. For example, someone might ask me "Can you believe this crazy weather?" and I might reply, "What weather? Oh." Or maybe I just won't even respond. Or maybe you say something that makes me feel uncomfortable, so I just turn around and leave the room.

The problem with this is not that I'm trying to be rude - the problem is that I am so spaced out thinking about some problem and am not present in the moment. I am ignoring you and not giving you the attention you deserve. When I am not ignoring you, I often don't know how to respond to you because I never learned how to simply talk to someone. I'm discovering that small talk and friendly chitchat, while seemingly unimportant to someone like me who likes solving challenging problems, serves the important social function of creating meaningful connections between people.

My plan for improving involves brainstorming canned responses for smalltalk questions and then using those responses in real conversations before work, after church, in the line at the grocery store, or wherever they happen. For example, my typical response to "Did you watch the game last night?" would be something like "What game?" But instead, I could reply with, "No, I missed it. What was the final score?" This response not only shows that I listened to you and would like a response in return, but also elicits a response that gives me some clue of what you're talking about so I can continue the conversation in an intelligent manner if I choose.

Another situation I could improve is when I need to exit a conversation quickly and gracefully. Perhaps I have a meeting or am just in a hurry to get to the men's room. Usually I just walk away without saying anything or am stuck listening to a person ramble on and on about something (I am surprised when these people can't read my body language that says wrap it up I have to be somewhere else). I realize a graceful exit may not always be possible, but interrupting and saying something like "Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I'm late for a meeting with my boss. Let's talk more later," would be a much better response than saying nothing at all. It's much less insulting at least.

If all of this sounds really weird to you, then you probably don't need it. Go read something else. But if you're still reading this, it means you, like me, did not learn proper social skills growing up and find yourself, as an adult, fumbling around in an increasingly social world.

Anyways, enough rambling (detecting and short circuiting rambling is another good conversational skill to learn). Here is my process for improving my social skills by automating social responses.

  • Remember an awkward conversation you had today.
  • Write down at least three ways you could have responded differently that could have resulted in a better conversation.
  • When you have similar conversations, use one of your new responses.
  • Continually refine your new responses based on whether or not they resulted in better conversations.

That's it. This is not a process you can finish. You probably do this naturally in your ahead most of the time. Some people are naturally better at this than others and having a defined process can help those of us who are not social butterflies.

Also, don't get the wrong impression about me - I am great at having deep, meaningful conversations and very focused, technical conversations. I struggle with first impressions and general friendliness.