How my social skills went from horrible to mediocre

Over the past few months, I’ve be­come aware that my un­der­stand­ing of so­cial re­al­ity had been dis­torted to an ex­treme de­gree. It took 29 years for me to figure out what was go­ing on, but I fi­nally now un­der­stand.

The situ­a­tion is very sim­ple: The amount of time that I put into in­ter­act­ing within typ­i­cal so­cial con­texts was very small, so I didn’t get enough feed­back to re­al­ize that I had a ma­jor blindspot as I oth­er­wise would have.

Now that I’ve iden­ti­fied the blindspot, I can work on it, and my so­cial aware­ness has been in­creas­ing at very rapid clip. I had no idea that I had so much po­ten­tial for so­cial aware­ness. I had been in a fixed mind­set as rather than a growth mind­set, I had thought “so­cial skills will never be my strong point, so I shouldn’t spend time try­ing to im­prove them, in­stead I should fo­cus on what I’m best at.” I’m as­ton­ished by how much my re­la­tion­ships have im­proved over a span of mere weeks.

I give de­tails be­low.

How I spent my time grow­ing up

I’ve been ex­tremely metacog­ni­tive and re­flec­tive since early child­hood, and have spent most of my time op­ti­miz­ing for my in­tel­lec­tual growth. Even as a child, the things that I thought about where very un­usual: at age 7, upon re­flec­tion, I re­al­ized that there’s no free will in the sense that peo­ple usu­ally think of it: that brain chem­istry drives our de­ci­sions in a very strong sense.

As I grew up, my in­ter­ests be­came more and more re­mote from those of my peers, and the pool of con­ver­sa­tion top­ics of mu­tual in­ter­est diminished rapidly as I got older. For this rea­son, I gen­er­ally found my in­ter­ac­tions with oth­ers to be very un­fulfilling: other peo­ple were rarely in­ter­ested in talk­ing about what I wanted to talk about, and I strug­gled to find points of mu­tual in­ter­est.

Be­cause I was much more un­usual than most of my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners, there was an im­plicit as­sump­tion that the re­spon­si­bil­ity of find­ing com­mon ground fell ex­clu­sively on me, rather than be­ing shared by me and my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners. Even when I tried re­ally hard to con­nect with my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners, it of­ten came across to my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners though I wasn’t try­ing, be­cause our in­ter­ests were so differ­ent that even if I bridged 95% of the gap, the re­main­ing 5% was un­com­fortably large for them, so that they would feel re­sent­ful to­ward me.

There were al­most no peo­ple who shared my in­ter­ests. So my choices seemed to be

  1. So­cial­ize and talk about things that I have no in­ter­est in.

  2. So­cial­ize and try to talk about what I’m in­ter­ested in, at risk of alienat­ing my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners.

  3. Keep to myself

Each of (1) and (2) tended to be very un­pleas­ant, which pushed strongly in the di­rec­tion of (3). I es­sen­tially never en­gaged in nor­mal so­cial ac­tivi­ties. In col­lege, ev­ery day I would see my class­mates sit­ting with their friends in the cafe­te­ria, whereas I would al­most always be sit­ting alone.

In the sub­se­quent in­ter­ven­ing years I de­vel­oped fur­ther and fur­ther in the di­rec­tion of hav­ing deep in­sights about the world.a strong fo­cus on ab­strac­tion and gen­er­al­ity. I es­sen­tially never en­gaged in usual so­cial ac­tivi­ties. In col­lege, al­most all of my class­mates would sit at ta­bles in the cafe­te­ria with their friends, and I would al­most always sit alone. I al­most never went to Less Wrong mee­tups, be­cause I had already thought about most of what peo­ple dis­cussed, so that it was more effi­cient for me to learn on my own.

I found these re­minders of my iso­la­tion to be de­press­ing, but didn’t think much about it. In hind­sight I see that I erred in not think­ing about the situ­a­tion more deeply.

I’ve found that Mal­colm Glad­well’s view that de­vel­op­ing mas­tery of a field takes ~10,000 hours is largely true.

When peo­ple tell me that they were bad at calcu­lus, my in­ter­nal re­sponse had be­come “When I was learn­ing calcu­lus I spent ~20 hours a week on it. it’s not at all sur­pris­ing to me that you wouldn’t be­come good at calcu­lus with­out hav­ing done so, in­de­pen­dently of whether or not you had the abil­ity to.”

How many many hours had I spent so­cial­iz­ing by age 29? Lots, but al­most ex­clu­sively with a small hand­ful of peo­ple who are very un­usual in the same ways that I am. When I was in a group con­ver­sa­tion, I would usu­ally find the con­ver­sa­tion un­in­ter­est­ing, and let my mind wan­der, with­out at­tempt­ing to par­ti­ci­pate my­self. Think­ing it over, I prob­a­bly spent less than 5% as much time par­ti­ci­pat­ing in usual so­cial con­texts as other 29 year olds had by the same age.

It didn’t oc­cur to me how sig­nifi­cant this was. The num­ber of hours that I had is per­haps as small as the num­ber of hours that most peo­ple have by age 10. In hind­sight it’s ob­vi­ous: of course I didn’t have good so­cial skills rel­a­tive to other adults, in the same way that a 10 year old doesn’t have good so­cial skills for an adult. I just hadn’t put nearly enough time in!

What went hor­ribly wrong

Through­out my life, I’ve yearned for com­pan­ion­ship, and have had a strong de­sire to con­tribute to global welfare. Up un­til the past year, I was ex­tremely so­cially iso­lated, and my pos­i­tive so­cial im­pact was ut­terly neg­ligible. This gave rise to a huge amount of cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. As Eliezer wrote:

I keep try­ing to say that ra­tio­nal­ity is the win­ning-Way [...] Be care­ful [...] any time you find your­self defin­ing the “win­ner” as some­one other than the agent who is cur­rently smil­ing from on top of a gi­ant heap of util­ity.

If I cared so much about con­nect­ing peo­ple and about con­tribut­ing to global welfare, then why wasn’t I get­ting any­thing done?

My the­ory of mind was based on my knowl­edge of my own mind (c.f. Yvain’s post Gen­er­al­iz­ing From One Ex­am­ple). I en­gage al­most ex­clu­sively in metacog­ni­tion and deep re­flec­tion. I there­fore had no refer­ence frame for what other peo­ple are like: I pro­jected my own style of think­ing on the peo­ple who I in­ter­acted with. The effect of this was that I be­came a figu­ra­tive space alien, al­most to­tally out of touch with the rest of the hu­man race.

Con­cretely, how was I so­cially oblivi­ous?

My im­plicit model of other peo­ple’s minds was along the lines “ev­ery­one always has ac­cess to a tran­script of all con­ver­sa­tions that we’ve ever had at his or her dis­posal.” This prob­a­bly seems loony, and rightly so. I was very fo­cused on care­fully or­ga­niz­ing my in­ter­ac­tions with ev­ery­one in my mind. It just didn’t oc­cur to me that my con­ver­sa­tions part­ners weren’t do­ing the same thing! My sub­jec­tive sense of what was go­ing on in my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners’ mind turns out to have usu­ally been com­pletely differ­ent from what was ac­tu­ally go­ing on in my con­ver­sa­tion part­ners’ mind.

Some of my com­mon self de­struc­tive pat­terns of be­hav­ior were:

(a) “Per­son X ex­presses in­se­cu­rity over Y. I spend sev­eral dozen hours con­tem­plat­ing how to re­as­sure per­son X. I then broach the sub­ject with per­son X with­out offer­ing any back­ground con­text, as­sum­ing that per­son X knows that I’m fol­low­ing up on a spe­cific con­ver­sa­tion thread from sev­eral weeks ago, and wants to con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion about the sub­ject. In per­son X’s eyes, it looks like I’m bring­ing up a trig­ger­ing sub­ject for no rea­son, and per­son X de­vel­ops an Ugh Field around me, of the type “when I talk to Jonah, he says things that make me feel bad, so I don’t want to talk with him any­more.”

My re­ac­tion to this was “this is so weird, these peo­ple are re­ally touchy, such that they’re un­able to have con­ver­sa­tions about top­ics that they them­selves bring up. How is it even pos­si­ble for peo­ple to have con­ver­sa­tions given how touchy they are?”

I didn’t know that when some­one brings up a sen­si­tive sub­ject, that’s not nec­es­sar­ily an in­vi­ta­tion to talk about it, and that they didn’t re­al­ize that I was re­spond­ing to some­thing that they had said weeks ago.

(b) A woman sends sig­nals of ro­man­tic in­ter­est, ei­ther ac­ci­den­tally, or whim­si­cally. I mis­tak­enly as­sume that she’s care­fully de­liber­at­ing over the pos­si­bil­ity of dat­ing me, as I would be in her po­si­tion. I de­cide to ex­press in­ter­est in her.

She hasn’t been think­ing about whether or not she’d like to date me at all, she was in­stead en­gag­ing in ca­sual pre­limi­nary flirt­ing and/​or wasn’t care­fully guard­ing against ac­ci­den­tally send­ing sig­nals of ro­man­tic in­ter­est. So from her point of view it looks like “This guy ex­pressed ro­man­tic in­ter­est in me with­out pay­ing at­ten­tion to how I’m feel­ing.” She re­ac­tively rep­ri­mands me, or cuts con­tact with me, usu­ally with con­no­ta­tions (even if slight) that I might not re­spect her bound­aries.

I mis­tak­enly think that she had care­fully de­liber­ated on how to re­spond to my ex­pres­sion of ro­man­tic in­ter­est. So I mis­tak­enly per­ceive the false di­chotomy:

  1. I’m a delu­sional po­ten­tial rapist, and she sees this.

  2. I’m not a delu­sional po­ten­tial rapist, she knows that she’s made me feel like I might be one. The woman who I loved has turned out to have so lit­tle em­pa­thy that she doesn’t mind the fact that she’s done this.

Both of these pos­si­bil­ities are ex­tremely up­set­ting, and I fall into se­vere de­pres­sion, to­tally oblivi­ous to the fact that she was be­hav­ing in a re­ac­tive way and that her re­ac­tion is nei­ther ev­i­dence that I’m a po­ten­tial rapist, nor ev­i­dence that she doesn’t mind me feel­ing like a po­ten­tial rapist.

(c) A lot of things that peo­ple find offen­sive I don’t find at all offen­sive. For ex­am­ple, if a stu­dent tells me that I’m the worst teacher he or she has ever had, it makes me feel bad be­cause I feel like I’m not con­tribut­ing value, but I’m not at all up­set with the stu­dent: my at­ti­tude is that the stu­dent is con­vey­ing valuable in­for­ma­tion to me, and that I should be ap­pre­ci­a­tive.

I always knew that it’s best to soften such things, but I didn’t know how trig­ger­ing un­ex­pected crit­i­cism is – I didn’t know that far more gen­tle re­marks can be trig­ger­ing for most peo­ple.

So I might tell a friend:

“There’s strong ev­i­dence that there are only a few peo­ple in the world who have a chance of solv­ing the math re­search prob­lem that you’ve been work­ing on for the past few years. It’s very un­likely that you have the in­nate abil­ity to solve it re­gard­less of how hard you work on it. You’re a good math­e­mat­i­cian, you could make a lot of progress on eas­ier prob­lems, and that would prob­a­bly make you hap­pier.”
In my mind, what’s salient is the facts that I want him to be happy, and that he’d plau­si­bly be hap­pier do­ing some­thing else. But that’s not what’s most salient about the situ­a­tion him: in­stead it just sounds like I’m just say­ing “you’re too bad at math to be able to meet your goals.”
(d) Often when I talk, I’m try­ing to illus­trate a gen­eral prin­ci­ple, and give an ex­am­ple to illus­trate it. Some­times I’m draw­ing an anal­ogy be­tween two gen­eral prin­ci­ples, and give an ex­am­ple to illus­trate one of them. Some­times I’ll state a gen­eral prin­ci­ple as a spe­cial case of a still more gen­eral prin­ci­ple, and give an ex­am­ple to illus­trate one of the two.
What’s salient to my con­ver­sa­tion is the ex­am­ple that I’m giv­ing, not the gen­eral prin­ci­ple that I’m try­ing to illus­trate. So my con­ver­sa­tion part­ner and I are talk­ing past each other: I don’t know that the per­son doesn’t know that I’m talk­ing about a gen­eral prin­ci­ple, or an anal­ogy be­tween gen­eral prin­ci­ples, or a gen­eral prin­ci­ple be­ing a spe­cial case of a gen­eral prin­ci­ple, my con­ver­sa­tion part­ner doesn’t know that I don’t know.
For ex­am­ple, I might say:
“Some­times our per­cep­tions of so­cial re­al­ity are very dis­torted. For ex­am­ple, I used to be con­fused and mis­tak­enly be­lieved that I’m the only good per­son in the world.”

My con­ver­sa­tion part­ner might re­spond to this “Look Jonah, you’re very con­fused, you’re not the only good per­son in the world!”, be­cause what’s salient is “I’m the only good per­son in the world”, not “I used to be con­fused and mis­tak­enly be­lieved...”
I mis­tak­enly in­ter­pret the situ­a­tion as “peo­ple are so ob­sessed with sta­tus that they’re to­tally blind to any­thing that’s not a sta­tus grab,” when the per­son doesn’t ac­tu­ally have any way of know­ing what I was try­ing to say, be­cause my strong fo­cus on gen­eral prin­ci­ples is so un­usual.

(e) I say some­thing that some­one doesn’t un­der­stand. I think “maybe the per­son needs more con­text,” and fol­low up by giv­ing more con­text. The per­son still doesn’t un­der­stand, so I think “ok, I guess I have to give even more con­text” and so con­tinue in the same di­rec­tion. In fact, the amount of con­text that I would need to give for my point to be clear would take ~100 hours to con­vey, so that what I’m do­ing is ac­tu­ally not at all pro­duc­tive. The per­son per­ceives the situ­a­tion as

Jonah is to­tally ig­nor­ing the fact that I’m not un­der­stand­ing what I’m say­ing, and keeps go­ing on and on about the same thing, oblivi­ous to my feelings

be­cause he or she has no way of know­ing that I’m ex­plic­itly try­ing to ad­dress the fact that the per­son is un­com­fortable about not un­der­stand­ing.

(f) I mis­tak­enly be­lieve that when peo­ple are un­happy with me, they’ll tell me, be­cause I know that I wouldn’t be offended, and be­cause I’m so ver­bal that I re­late a very large frac­tion of my thoughts when I talk with some­one.

So peo­ple will smile and show su­perfi­cial in­di­ca­tions of good will while be­ing un­happy with me, and I have no idea what’s go­ing on.

If you’ve fol­lowed what I’ve said so far, it’s prob­a­bly not hard to un­der­stand how my mi­s­un­der­stand­ings would al­most to­tally nul­lify my abil­ity to con­tribute to global welfare :-).

How did I es­cape?

(a) Learn­ing data sci­ence re­sulted in a huge boost to my in­tel­lec­tual cal­iber – the ways of think­ing about the world that I de­vel­oped are very pow­er­ful, and con­fer an ad­van­tage of the same mag­ni­tude as learn­ing about se­lec­tion effects and re­gres­sion to the mean.

After this, even my clos­est friends could no longer un­der­stand what I was talk­ing about, and told me as much, and I re­al­ized “Ok, I have some sort of se­ri­ous blindspot, my in­tu­itive sense is that peo­ple are un­der­stand­ing me when they’re not, I need to figure out what’s go­ing on.

(b) A rel­a­tive who’s a sales­man gave me very helpful ad­vice af­ter I had been re­jected from a large num­ber of jobs that I in­ter­viewed for ex­plain­ing “When some­body asks you a ques­tion, you’re giv­ing an­swers that are way too long and you’re not gaug­ing where your in­ter­view­ers are com­ing from. When they ask for you to de­scribe your pro­ject, they’re look­ing for a 1-2 minute re­sponse, not a ~6 minute re­sponse – from their per­spec­tive you’re hi­jack­ing the con­ver­sa­tion and talk­ing about some­thing that they’re not in­ter­ested in.

After this, I paid closer at­ten­tion to my in­ter­view­ers’ body lan­guage and how they were di­rect­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, and I saw that he had been right.

I re­cently got very helpful ex­plicit feed­back from stu­dents that made me re­al­ize that I was on a to­tally differ­ent wave­length from the stu­dents, when I had no idea that that was the case.

(c) I started so­cial­iz­ing more with peo­ple who are similar to me on di­men­sions other than the one that this post is about, and this re­sulted in me get­ting more use­ful feed­back, be­cause they could un­der­stand me more deeply than most peo­ple who had got­ten up­set with me for no ap­par­ent reason

(d) Learn­ing data sci­ence made me re­al­ize that I could use the Wis­dom of the Crowds to tease out what the com­mon prob­lem was in all of my in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple. It wasn’t easy: the differ­ent in­stances were su­perfi­cially to­tally differ­ent. It’s not at all a pri­ori clear what the two things

  • “I ex­pressed in­ter­est in a woman when she ap­pears to have sent sig­nals of ro­man­tic in­ter­est, and she re­jects me in harsh terms.”

  • “I told a friend that I think that the math prob­lem that he’s work­ing on is re­ally hard and prob­a­bly not fea­si­ble for him to solve, and he’s mor­tified and cuts con­tact with me.”

have in com­mon. But learn­ing data sci­ence gave me new ways of think­ing about the world that en­abled me to see the un­der­ly­ing pat­tern.

Figur­ing out what was go­ing on has en­abled me to im­prove my re­la­tion­ships with my fam­ily mem­bers, patch up re­la­tion­ships with friends who I alienated ear­lier in life, and in­ter­act more pro­duc­tively with peo­ple who I’ve just met.

Gen­er­al­iz­able takeaways

(a) Fo­cus­ing on un­der­stand­ing how one is similar to oth­ers and how one is differ­ent from oth­ers can be a bet­ter way to be­come so­cially aware than usual efforts to “de­velop so­cial skills.”

I knew that peo­ple thought I had bad so­cial skills, but they weren’t able to ex­plain the situ­a­tion to me in a way that I could un­der­stand, be­cause they were to­tally mis­in­ter­pret­ing me, on ac­count of not know­ing what was go­ing on in my mind. So al­most ev­ery­thing that they said about my so­cial skills seemed wrong – they would claim that I didn’t care about peo­ple’s feel­ings, to which my re­sponse was along the lines “What are you talk­ing about? I spend dozens of hours think­ing about my friends’ feel­ings.”

They didn’t have the in­for­ma­tion that they would have needed to help me: they didn’t know that they needed to say “I know that you’re think­ing a lot about peo­ple’s feel­ings as they ap­pear to you from the out­side, but you’re not think­ing about peo­ple’s ac­tual feel­ings: you can’t as­sume that you know what’s go­ing on in their minds, you have to care­fully feel out the situ­a­tion.”

(b) Fi­nally figur­ing out what was go­ing on cor­re­sponds to a huge boost in po­ten­tial pro­duc­tivity: I fi­nally have non­triv­ial prospects of trans­form­ing from

“The guy who has deep in­sights but who doesn’t get any­thing done, be­cause he he’s so­cially dys­func­tional so no­body listens to him”


“The guy who has deep in­sights and can use them to change the world”

(c) I now have re­al­is­tic prospects for hav­ing a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship, which was not the case be­fore.

My past at­ti­tude had been “The emo­tional cost of go­ing through yet an­other trau­matic ex­pe­rience of a woman get­ting an­gry at me for tel­ling her that I love her isn’t worth it. Even if I were able to make a fa­vor­able im­pres­sion, I wouldn’t want to date a woman who would hurt me so much just be­cause I ap­proached her in the wrong way.”

Now I see that the women in ques­tion had no idea what was go­ing on, so I can work on im­prov­ing my com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. Once I get to the point of be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate clearly, I can plau­si­bly have a happy re­la­tion­ship.

(d) The ex­pe­rience made clear to me the ex­tent to which the peo­ple who had ap­peared to be hos­tile to­ward me weren’t hos­tile to­ward me, they were in­stead hos­tile to­ward their con­strual of me. They wouldn’t have been at all hos­tile if they and known what was go­ing on in my mind.

I had always known on some level that this was true, but I didn’t feel it. I now have a deep un­der­stand­ing that there are many in­stances in which peo­ple ap­peared to be hos­tile to­ward me when their feel­ings weren’t di­rected at me, in­stead they didn’t know enough about what was go­ing on in my mind to be able to see that I wasn’t the per­son who they thought that I was.

I’ve de­vel­oped the ca­pac­ity to feel uni­ver­sal love and com­pas­sion the way Martin Luther King was able to. If some­body is an­gry at me and in­sults me, I know that it’s not me who the per­son is in­sult­ing, it’s in­stead the per­son’s per­cep­tion of me. So peo­ple can’t hurt me any­more. In­stead my re­sponse is “let me try to un­der­stand where the per­son is com­ing from, and help the per­son un­der­stand where I’m com­ing from.”

This has made my life so much bet­ter than it had been be­fore. I un­der­stand in­tu­itively that Martin Luther King wasn’t some sort of god, that he was hu­man like you and me, and that the hu­man race has the ca­pac­ity to shift in his di­rec­tion, and be much hap­pier than we are now.