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Derren Brown's 4 Tips to Boost Social Interaction

Posted on 17th October 2021 by Mark Skinner

In Happy, Derren Brown analysed the historical roots of the concept of contentment and exposed the flaws in the 'happiness industry.' Now, with A Book of Secrets, he takes an insightful look at social interaction - something many of us may well be struggling with after the events of the last 18 months. In this exclusive piece, Derren selects four invaluable tips to help us all communicate with strangers a little better. 

Whenever we offer advice, we’re advising our own former selves. That is probably the best I can offer. And another thing: we teach best what we need to learn. If things come naturally to us, it’s hard to reduce them to instructions. So I write as someone who is fairly shy in real life, with the capacity for occasional social brilliance when among friends or when I’m the centre of attention. But I hate parties, shrivel up at dinner gatherings and am haunted by the many times I have embarrassed myself before the great and good. So I offer these thoughts to lean into as a fellow traveller, certainly not as a sage. 

Go in determined to find points of connection

You will find yourself aimlessly wandering into that miserable cul-de-sac of small talk unless you offer lifelines to pull you or others back out. Boring conversations happen - and sometimes they spread into entire evenings - because you’ve never addressed anything that connects people at a human level. The initial aim, then, is to move away from the immediate level at which you have been presented to the group. If you’ve been introduced as essentially a job title – ‘This is Sarah, she’s a teacher at Lucy’s school’ – then your purpose is to get the conversation away from teaching into human things that you share with your interlocutors. Would you rather be leading a conversation about teaching, or laughing about people you know with aggressively bad breath? Or incontinent pets? How you balance child-rearing and wine-drinking? Have a good route prepared that takes you out of the job territory, and a similar escape route for the equally dull question of how you know the host of the party. When you’re asked such things, steer your answer away from the question (no one is really likely to care much about your answer because it doesn’t affect them) and into new territory that bristles with opportunities for others to find a connection. 

Stop asking people what they do for a living

Ask instead what they get up to. How they spend their time. It’s a great thought from a writer on such things called Leil Lowndes. Most of us dislike talking about our jobs and don’t feel they define us or offer the most interesting things we have to talk about. So a question like the above gives everyone permission to answer to steer the conversation how they like. 

Resist telling everyone how amazing and exciting their life sounds

We all know how far from the truth that is: we’re very aware of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, ingratitude, clumsiness and hopelessness; moments of panic, and what makes us feel overwhelmed or abandoned. Part of what can make social situations difficult is the fact that we forget other people have similarly troubled internal lives. They are usually presenting their best selves to us and others in company, and we forget that detail. We then make the mistake of comparing their fine outward presentation to our embarrassing inner lives and find ourselves lacking. The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson described this as a giant who follows us around everywhere: the enormous, lumbering manifestation of our private lives. We each have one, trailing along behind us, dragging its knuckles, but we can’t see anyone else’s. 

It’s tempting to sound like we’re trying to convince people how exciting their lives are. Wow, how amazing! That must be so exciting! – as if to acknowledge difficulty or disappointment is going to bring the evening crashing down in a heap of misery. The opposite is true. We all like to be heard and understood. We may gloss over our difficulties to put on a brave face, but if a stranger picks up on them and seems interested, and to understand, that can be enormously rewarding. If you’ve just moved out to the country, for example, you probably don’t want to hear someone insist how blissful that must be. On the other hand, if you talk to someone who is interested in how hard it must be to suddenly have to deal with a large garden, or adjust to living among very different people from before, or struggle with the problems of an old house, it is likely to feel like a huge relief. Even more so if you discover she has had a similar experience in her life and might even have some advice. So a good mood to aim for may not be one of breathless, buoyant support, but a quiet sensitivity towards anything that seems to say: I suppose I shouldn’t tell the world I feel this, but I do. Support that vulnerable admission rather than dismiss it, and be vulnerable yourself in return, and you can’t fail to make a connection.

Where you can, act like you’re with your friends

I’m always impressed at people I know who don’t seem to change character when they’re with people of high status. I meet my heroes or people of great celebrity and find I have nothing to say. I most likely give the impression I don’t like them. I find myself doing this again and again. And I know how powerful the opposite effect is: when someone I don’t know treats me like they have known me for years. So I think this is the hardest one to pull off, but it’s the central point, and incorporates all the above ideas. It’s quite magical when someone you meet at an event doesn’t seem interested in keeping up appearances and is happy to undercut formalities, as they would with their friends. Perhaps they actually listen, sympathize and don’t ask us about our jobs. Or they catch us off guard and make us properly laugh. Sometimes it seems that those people we immediately adore in this way must have a social skill with which we have not been blessed. But we do have it: we have it in endless abundance when we are with our friends. That’s where the magic lies. 

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