When I was in high school, my sister approached me and told me, “Mom says that you’re the worst at being social. First it’s this sister, then this sister, then me, and then you.” While I was hurt, I couldn’t really deny it.
You see, one sister is an extrovert with so much life knowledge that she can actively participate in pretty much any conversation. The next sister has an English degree and such a witty personality that she can eloquently and interestingly explain herself and keep you entertained at the same time. And the last sister has such an imagination that any time she opens her mouth, she grabs the attention, adoration, and interest of any group. And I was an introvert who is so afraid of looking like an idiot AND felt like I had hardly anything in common with most people that I preferred to stay quiet and listen than participate in conversation.
So, she wasn’t wrong. And today people don’t necessarily mind being socially awkward. They even boast about it on social media. But, it was like one of those situations in a movie: “The only person who gets to call my brother a moron is me!” Except this time it was, “The only person who can call me socially awkward is me!”
Nonetheless, I wanted to get better. I am still not on the same level as my sisters – how could I compete with that – but linguistics school taught me some lessons that help me better communicate with family, friends, and strangers. Today, I’m more of an ambivert who isn’t afraid to talk to new people, the lady at the supermarket, the uncle I only see once a year, or the long lost friend who gets back in touch.
Here’s three tips to help you better communicate with your family and friends, too:
1. Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to
I think this one is very important. If you want to really communicate with someone, that is. I don’t wear shoes – as you may know. Many times I get stopped in the grocery store by old people who say, “Did you forget something?” They already know the answer. And they don’t care about my response. Which is fine for a random lady in a random store. Lighthearted chatting between two citizens. Great. But this isn’t good style when you’re trying to talk to a family member.
Don’t ask them a question you already know the answer to. Because that means you’re not interested in the answer. And that means you won’t listen to the answer. Set yourself up for success and ask things that you actually want to know. And if that’s hard for you, fake it til you make it. Practice being interested. It’ll become natural after you practice.
2. Pay attention to the other person’s communication style
One of my favorite things I learned about is Relevance Theory. Relevance Theory states that people communicate with as few words as possible based on what they know their audience already knows. Take for example this story:
My Great Aunt Mary Lou makes the best beef and noodles around. I mean, she makes the noodles from scratch – thick but thin, the perfect size – and the beef is tender and brilliant.
The first time I mentioned Aunt Mary Lou, I used her full name. The second time I said “she” because I knew you knew who that referred to. Inside the – -, I didn’t even say noodles, but I knew you knew what I was referring to. This is a form of Relevance Theory. This is small scale – it can broaden based on how far back a person’s immediate recollection goes. This is what makes many stand-up comedian punch lines work. The mention something at the beginning of a bit. Then they talk for ten minutes and then at the end use that same something with a gut-wrenching laugh as a result. This is what I would call “top of mind.” Based on what was just shared, I alter how I communicate.
Relevance Theory also includes shared knowledge. My sisters and I talk in movie quotes. When we use a movie quote, it’s not just words that get conveyed, but a full scale of emotions, an environment, and possibly an entire scene of back history. I can tell a sister, “If my dog was as ugly as you, I’d shave it’s butt and tell him to walk backwards,” and she’s not offended, she laughs hysterically and responds with, “You play ball like a girl!”
Basically, people choose what they say based on shared knowledge and what they find most top of mind. But each person has a different range of what their shared knowledge and “top of mind” topics are.
If you pay attention, you can learn some shared knowledge you two have. And if you pay attention, you can learn how far back a person’s “top of mind” goes. Knowing these two things will help you come up with conversation ideas and how to keep a conversation going.
3. Ask open ended questions
This one might be obvious, but my Ethnographic methods class really taught me that if you ask someone a yes/no question – you’ll get a one word answer. But most any question can be shifted from yes/no to an open ended question.
“Did you like your trip to Disney?” “Yes.” “Cool.”
“What did you like most about your trip to Disney?” “Well, I loved the rides. We went on all of them” “All of them? That sounds fun! What was your favorite?” “The Matterhorn.” “Oh, cool! Tell me more about that one.”
An open-ended question invites someone into the conversation. It gives them a chance to talk without having to come up with a conversation starter. And the right question will get a person to open up to you on a level that you might not have reached otherwise.
4. Don’t freak out when it’s silent
There is more than one way to communicate. People don’t always have to use their lips, tongue, and vocal chords. They don’t even have to use their hands. Every time you’re around someone else, you’re communicating something. Therefore, your words are not the most important thing about you. When you can be comfortable with someone in silence, you’ve reached a milestone in your relationship that many people don’t reach. So, don’t freak out when no one is saying anything – learn from their silence like you would learn from their words.
5. Remember He loves you
One of my biggest problems in high school was looking like an idiot. I didn’t want to look like an idiot because that was the only thing that kept people around – me being smart. (This wasn’t actually true, but good luck telling high school Kate that.)
If I would have remembered that most of the people I came in contact with loved me, I could have let my guard down. I could have been a little more myself. I could have been a little goofier. I could have been a little more personable instead of the silent, self-restricted girl that I was.
Your crazy family is crazy. Your whacked out relative’s cheese might have slipped off their cracker. Your quiet father is a man of few words. But ultimately they love you. You can be yourself and open up because they love your crazy. They love your whack. They love your quiet. And even if they don’t, Jesus does. And his opinion is more important than theirs. He validates you. He believes in you. He loves you. More than you know. And he wants to spend time with you and hear you talk. And he knows your true self, so you can be honest with him. What a joy to know he loves me.
What tips do you use to communicate?