Why Wallflowers Don’t Make Friends

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Photo: Michael Blann/Getty Images

I once had a friend who, when we went to bars, refused to drink sitting down. “I want to meet someone so we have to stand,” she’d say on nights when she was hoping for a hookup. Her logic: If you’re standing, you’re approachable. People can walk up and talk to you. Seated parties are complete and closed to outsiders. Standing parties are there to make friends.

(I mostly use this information to justify leaving places that lack seats. Sometimes you really aren’t there to make friends.)

This principle comes up in psychologist Ty Tashiro’s Awkward: the Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, a book that studies awkwardness and makes the case in favor of it — but is still kind enough to offer tips on avoiding awkward moments. On this week’s Sex Lives podcast, Tashiro explains that location is sort of everything when it comes to meeting people. You need to physically be in their paths. Also up for discussion: the unique awkwardness of nudity, why awkward people undermine their love lives, and the chicken-or-egg question of whether dating sucks because you’re awkward, or you’re awkward because it’s a date.

This is a partial transcript of New York Magazine’s Sex Lives podcast, edited for clarity and length. Call 646-494-3590 to leave a voice message.

There’s a moment in your book that I love, when you give advice to awkward people looking for social shortcuts, and you tell them not to be literal wallflowers.

It’s an unbelievably common-sense finding in psychology that disappoints psychological researchers who want a fancier result — in Boston College a few decades ago, they did this really intricate study in one of their dormitories. They gave everyone in the dormitory an exhaustive battery of psychological tests: intelligence, personality, attitudes, values. They wanted to see which of these variables would predict who is the most likable, or who has the most friends, by the end of the semester. The result was that none of those variables were the strongest predictor. It was just, “Whose rooms were closest to the entrances and exits?” Those were the people that had the most friends at the end of the semester. Literally: Don’t be a wallflower, just get into a high-traffic area. The more exposure you get, to more people, is actually the best predictor of whether you make friends.

So the housing department at every university controls who becomes popular?

That’s right. In fact, one time I had an opportunity to tell a student who had some housing conundrum, and they had the opportunity to move by the exit. And I told them, absolutely.

It works the same way in romantic relationships, and it seems so common-sense sometimes that we overlook it. You’ve got to show up. Showing up is half the battle, right? They say that in work-related things, but in romance it’s maybe even more important.

If you can weather the awkwardness of standing in the middle of the party, waiting for someone to talk to you, that’s something.

Exactly.

I once had a friend who, when we went to bars, would say, “I want to meet someone tonight so we need to stand.” If you stand, people walk up and talk to you. But if you sit, nobody makes eye contact and you’re closed off.

That’s a brilliant philosophy and a great way to enact that. In college I got really good at pouring keg beer, and part of the reason why was that it’s where everybody is going to go. So you’re in a high-traffic area. And in that case you’re actually doing a service for people, which can be advantageous.

One of the pressures that almost everybody puts on themselves, in countries like the United States, is that we have to perform. That we have to be charismatic and be interesting. But almost every communication study shows that it’s more about how you listen, and how you get the other person to talk about what they’re interested in, rather than what you have to say. So really, the way to make a conversation go, and to have the other person enjoy it? Get really good at asking interesting questions that get them talking about things they feel good about and are passionate about.

It’s a different skill. Instead of saying, “I’m this, I’m that,” it’s saying, “Tell me about this. Tell me about what you hope.” These kinds of open-ended questions elicit interesting responses. And then if you can show some genuine interest in what they’re saying, and really listen to them, people will walk away from that thinking that you were really interesting and charismatic.

But actually they’re like, “I am interesting, and we talked about something I like, so now you seem interesting, too.”

That’s right. It’s kind of a simple projection.

Why Wallflowers Don’t Make Friends