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“Why can’t I talk to people? Sometimes it feels like I can’t hold a conversation with anyone. Is this normal, and how can I fix it?”
If you don’t know how to start a conversation, what to talk about, or what to say when your mind goes blank, you aren’t alone. This article contains practical strategies that can help you.
We’ll also talk about deeper reasons you may feel you can’t talk to people.
Small talk can feel meaningless, but it’s a critical first step to get to know someone. It helps us warm up to more meaningful conversation down the road. You don’t have to say anything smart or profound. You can memorize a few opening lines for different social situations, like work, dinner parties, or socializing as part of a group.
- Where are you from?
- What department do you work in?
- How do you know the host?
- Have you heard the latest about [current news story]?
This article contains dozens of conversation starters.
You can also start a conversation by remarking on something in your environment. For example, can you smell coffee in the air? Is there an attractive painting on the wall?
Asking a question about the situation is another good strategy. For example, if you are in the break room at work, you could ask a coworker if they know how to work the coffee machine.
To move past the small talk stage, ask follow-up questions, and share something about yourself.
Use the IFR method to keep the conversation balanced and interesting. IFR stands for Inquire, Follow up, Relate.
You: I love the new plants in the office. They brighten the place up.
Them: Yeah, I really like the cactus in particular.
You: Do you have any cacti of your own? [Inquire]
Them: Yes, I used to grow a few different varieties, actually.
You: Cool. What’s your favorite variety? [Follow up]
Them: Hibotan cacti. The flowers are beautiful. They look great on window sills.
You: My mother had a few of those when I was growing up. [Relate]
You can then repeat the cycle to keep the conversation flowing:
You: Have you always been into plants?[Inquire]
We go more into detail in our mega-guide on how to make conversation.
“I can’t look people in the eyes when talking to them. What can I do?”
Try these strategies:
- Look at the person’s nose, mouth, or chin if looking them in the eye feels too intense or awkward.
- Break your gaze every 3-4 seconds. Research shows that the average person is comfortable with 3.2 seconds of eye contact from a stranger.
- When taking a break from eye contact, nod or make a gesture. This seems more natural than simply looking away.
- Make eye contact 70% of the time when you’re listening to someone and 50% of the time when you’re talking.
- When you look away, don’t let your gaze move around. Making sudden eye movements can make you appear shifty.
For more tips on making and keeping eye contact, see this guide.
Rejection isn’t always a bad thing. It can hurt, but it serves an important purpose: it helps filter out people who aren’t a good match for you. Every time you are rejected, you are free to move on to other potential friends and partners. Reframe rejection as a sign that you are taking healthy risks in your social life. Give yourself credit for taking a chance.
Another way to overcome a fear of rejection is to stop caring so much about what others think. This article will explain how to accept yourself, including the parts you think are flawed. Remember that most people have some form of insecurity, even if they are good at hiding it.
“I can’t focus when people talk to me. I get so caught up in my own thoughts and worries that I lose track of what they are saying.”
If you are dwelling on what someone else thinks of you instead of what they are saying, you may feel self-conscious and freeze up. Try switching your focus to the content of the conversation instead. It can help you feel less anxious and make it easier to come up with things to say.
Ask yourself questions about the other person and their experiences. For example, let’s say someone tells you that they are tired because they stayed up late to watch a movie. If you allowed yourself to be curious, you might start to wonder:
- What movie were they watching?
- What was their favorite part?
- Have they seen any other films by the same director?
From there, you have several questions ready to go, e.g., “Cool. Which movie was it?” or “What was the best part?”
Here’s an exercise that can help you focus on others: Make it your mission to get to know something about the people you’ll meet.
Here are some examples:
- Learn what people like with their jobs
- Learn where someone’s originally from and why they moved
- Learn what someone likes doing in their spare time
A mission like this can help you be curious in people and ask them questions in a more authentic way than just asking for the sake of asking.
Having a mission can give you a purpose with your interactions. With a purpose, social interaction tends to feel less awkward because you know in what direction you want to move the conversation.
“I can’t talk to people my age. I’m OK if someone is older or younger than me, but talking to my peers fills me with anxiety.”
Question any assumptions you make about people your own age. For example, not everyone in their early twenties loves to drink heavily and go to parties all the time. Some do, but many do not live up to popular stereotypes. You probably want to be appreciated as an individual, so extend that courtesy to others.
Try to see everyone you meet as a human being with a unique story to tell, not as someone who happens to be a certain age. If you stay curious and willing to learn, you’ll find that the basic rules of small talk and conversation apply across the age spectrum. Age does shape someone’s life experience, but if you look for commonalities and have fun socializing together, it may matter less than you think.
“I can’t talk to people in person, but I’m fine over text. Why is that?”
When you’re messaging someone, you have plenty of time to decide what to say. You don’t have to interpret their body language or tone of voice, which makes communication less complicated. The downside is that you miss important cues, such as tone of voice and facial expression.
Online friendships can be great, but texting and messaging are not substitutes for an in-person conversation. If you want to get better at talking to people in real-time, you need to practice in the offline world.
Instead of making endless small talk online, suggest a face to face meetup. If that’s not possible, at least try video calling rather than text-based communication. This will help you practice reading nonverbal cues and keeping a conversation going in real-time.
In the previous chapter, we covered tips for how to talk to people. In this chapter, we’ll cover the underlying reasons that can make it hard to talk to people:
If talking to people terrifies you, you may have SAD. You can read more about this condition and take a screening test here. SAD is sometimes called “social phobia.”
Gradually exposing yourself to increasingly difficult situations can reduce your anxiety. Make a list of social situations that make you feel nervous, and rank them from least to most intimidating. Work your way slowly up the ladder.
For example, the first few items on your list might look something like this:
- Make eye contact with a stranger
- Smile at a stranger
- Say “Hi” to a shop worker or barista
- Smile and say “Good morning” to a colleague
Self-help can work well for SAD, but some people need a therapist to guide them. Try to find someone who offers cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Research shows it is very effective for this disorder.
We recommend BetterHelp for online therapy, since they offer unlimited messaging and a weekly session, and is much cheaper than going to an actual therapist's office. They are also cheaper than Talkspace for what you get. You can learn more about BetterHelp here.
If you have ASD, you might feel left out or confused in social situations, which makes you reluctant to try talking to people. Social anxiety and ASD often go together.
People with ASD often:
- Find it hard to understand what other people are thinking and feeling
- Talk about a narrow range of topics that interest them
- Find it difficult to take turns in a conversation
- Interpret phrases literally
- Have trouble talking about their feelings
- Have problems making eye contact
If these problems sound familiar, read more about ASD and take a free screening test here.
See our guide on how to make friends if you have Asperger’s Syndrome. You might also find the book “Improve Your Social Skills” by Daniel Wendler useful. (Disclosure: This is not an affiliate link. Daniel Wendler is a member of our review board.)
Daniel has Asperger’s Syndrome and understands the social difficulties that come with ASD.
People with ADHD can find it difficult to follow what other people are saying and to have a balanced conversation.
If you have ADHD, you might:
- Zone out when others are speaking
- Talk so fast that others can’t keep up with you
- Monopolize the conversation
- Interrupt people
- Fidget or move around during conversations
- Appear bored or aloof
- Be very sensitive to rejection; this is known as “Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria”
ADHD is not rare; 13% of men and 4.2% of women will be diagnosed with it at some point in their lives.
There’s no cure, but most people with ADHD can learn to manage their symptoms and improve their social skills. Medication can be very helpful. Take this screening test and talk to your doctor if the symptoms listed here resonate with you.
Research shows that adults who were bullied as children tend to have problems making friends and forming relationships. If you’ve ever been bullied or cut out of a social group, you may feel as though other people won’t like or accept you. You may be reluctant to trust them and choose to withdraw from social situations to protect yourself.
- Learning to speak to yourself more kindly
- Focusing on what you have done well
- Mastering a new skill or hobby
- Helping others and contributing to your community
- Spending more time with people who make you feel positive
Reading practical books on self-esteem can also help. Here’s our list of the best self-esteem books.
Introverts are not necessarily shy or lonely. However, because socializing drains their energy, talking to other people might not seem worth the effort.
If you are an introvert, you may strongly dislike small talk because you’d rather have deep, meaningful conversations than discuss trivial matters. This preference can put you at a disadvantage because small talk is how most people warm up socially.
Try to embrace small talk as a social custom that lays the groundwork for meaningful relationships. Here are more tips on making conversation as an introvert. With practice, you’ll become better at moving past small talk and on to more interesting conversations.
If you can find people who share your interests, making conversation may feel more worthwhile because you’ll have a chance to discuss something you care about. Consider finding a regular meetup group or a class full of people who have something in common with you.
Social withdrawal is a common sign of depression. If you’ve gradually become more reluctant to talk to people, you may be depressed, especially if you also have any of the following:
- Chronic sadness or low mood
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling intolerant of other people
- Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Feeling guilty for no clear reason
- Feeling anxious
- Thoughts of harming yourself
- Changes to eating and sleeping habits
- Unexplained aches and pains
If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor. They may recommend antidepressant medication, therapy, or both. With the right treatment and support, you might start to enjoy socializing again.