How my social skills went from horrible to mediocre

by JonahSinick 11 min read19th May 2015204 comments

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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" 

to

"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. 

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