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How Your Interests Can Affect Your Social Success

I think most of us notice a link that seems to exist between people's interests and how well they do socially. Those who are into computer programming and tabletop RPGs generally don't seem to do as well as the people who are into snowboarding and playing guitar. I think the connection between interests and social success is somewhat complex, and that's what this article will go into.

Your interests indirectly influence your social development

Your interests exert a strong, indirect effect on your social success by influencing how your people skills develop for the future. Some interests put you on better "life paths" than others. Having exclusively non-social interests in your earlier years can lay a groundwork for you having lackluster interpersonal abilities when you hit adulthood.

People are often drawn to interests that mesh well with their natural personalities. A solitary person is going to gravitate towards solitary hobbies. More social people will move towards more people-oriented pastimes. These choices can reinforce themselves. Over time the social person will improve their people skills and get even more enjoyment out of group activities. The solo hobbyist's social skills may fall behind, making interacting with people even less rewarding, and causing solitary pursuits to seem even more attractive. If you're interested in improving your interpersonal skills, having interests that foster these abilities is one way to go about it.

No interests are intrinsically better than others

No interests are inherently good or inherently bad. There's nothing about math, for example, that makes it better or worse than cooking or baseball. I think some interests carry more social cachet than others. But that's more related to the baggage surrounding them, not the interests themselves.

Certain interests carry more social value than others

It would be hard to argue that some interests aren't seen in a better light than others. If you spend hours pouring over dozens of statistics to pick your fantasy football team, you're seen as a red-blooded guy's guy. If you spend hours pouring over statistics to pick out the best equipment combination and attack pattern to beat a tricky boss in an MMORPG, then society as whole tends to paint you as a dork with no life.

I could go into more detail, but basically some interests get associated with various negative stereotypes. Like all stereotypes, they probably have some small element of truth to them, but are mostly based on exaggerations and ignorance. The stereotypes could be about the kinds of odd people who take part in an interest, or how the interest affects people's personality for the worse. In reality, most people who are into so-called dorky hobbies are pretty regular people. Take video games for example. For every basement-dwelling mole who fits the stereotype, there are hundreds of average people who enjoy gaming.

And what if your interest is low value? Whatever, do it anyway. Don't give up something you enjoy because society has a vague aversion to it. However, I can understand when people decide it's socially practical to downplay a certain hobby of theirs if they think their audience won't get it. Everyone does that at least sometimes.

Your interests affect the way people see you, but not as much as it seems

The last heading portrayed liking RPGs as something that makes everyone see you as a dork. But it doesn't exactly work like that. Most of us know people who are technically way more dorky than us in terms of how they spend their time, but also more engaging in how they come across to others. They're almost always seen as likable by the people they meet. Their likability cancels out, or is dominant over, the supposed dorkiness of their interests. Overall, the impression you make socially makes the biggest contribution to how people see you:

Let's take someone who's really likable and socially savvy. And let's say this person has interests that other people would typically see as "non-dorky" or even respectable, like mountain biking. This person is going to be viewed positively, and any interesting hobbies they have are only going to make them look better.

Take someone who's very socially awkward, and who has stereotypically dorky interests. People are going to see this person as a dork, and their interests are only going to help shore up any opinions that have already been formed.

A sociable, likable person with stereotypically dorky interests will still be seen in a positive light, unless their interest causes them to act very out of character. The dorky interest is just an abstract piece of information and doesn't have the same power as the their presence and charisma. If the person is really admired, people may even see the dorky interest more positively, or at least as a non-issue. Most people know someone who's fun and socially adjusted, and who also enjoys sci-fi shows or comic books. It doesn't really affect how they're seen.

Last, a socially awkward person with "non-dorky" or even admirable interests will still be seen as dorky overall. Their respectable hobby may give them a slight boost in credibility ("Oh, I didn't know you were into..."), but again, the social impression someone makes overpowers any abstract "on paper" qualities they have. If other people are being harsh, they'll even discount the dork's respectable interests as a try-hard attempt to win others over. Or they'll subjectively cast the interest in a negative light, but only for this case.

Most people will already have made up their mind about you before they even know your interests. When they know what kind of things you're into, it will do little to change the opinion they've formed. So there's really no point in giving up any of your interests for the sake of doing better socially. You find them fun. Why would you do that? If you want to do better with people, work on it directly.

How you approach your interests can turn people off

It gets more complicated. It's not just what your interest is. It's how you approach it. Certain behaviors can make almost any interest acquire a negative tint. If the interest is already low in social value, those behaviors make it look even worse. Even if an interest is normally viewed favorably, the wrong approach can make it look bad. Example: Working out is fine, but super intense, macho juice pigs are usually looked down on.

It's entirely reasonable that you may decide to do the following things anyway and not care what people think. It's not like they're all intrinsically horrible ways to act. But if you're more in the mentality where you want to manage how you come across to others, here are some things to watch out for:

Being obsessive about your interests:

People have radars for when someone has gone too far. It's an instinctive turn-off. This can include behaviors such as:

Going on about your interests to people who don't care about them:

A fairly basic social faux-pas.

Taking your interests too seriously:

I.e., displaying levels of emotion about your hobby that seem inappropriate to most people.

Not living in the real world because of your interest:

Some interests involve elaborate fictional universes. Others are highly abstract and theoretical, or involve belonging to a subculture that's a little out of touch with the larger reality. If you spend too much time on them, all of your mental space can become devoted to the comings and goings of these imaginary worlds. You'll fall a beat behind how most people act and come across as a little off.

There's a balance you may have to make between becoming proficient at your interest and developing yourself socially

I'm not much for giving up your interests entirely. You may need to tone it down though if developing socially is also important to you. You may need to cut down the amount of hours you devote to your interest each week, or take on some other hobbies to round yourself out more. But what about people who become experts in their area? Don't you have to single-mindedly devote yourself to something to get really good at it? There's definitely a point to that statement. There is a use for having a narrow focus. Art, science, and writing thrive on it. To become world class at something you will have to make sacrifices in other parts of your life, maybe in your social skills.

Like a lot of things, this can just be an excuse though. Deep down someone may be unhappy with where they stand socially, and realize their life is unbalanced, but it's easier to tell themselves they're nobly pursuing perfection in their field, and that their screwed up interpersonal life is a factor that's out of their control. With some exceptions, even the most devoted scientists, artists, and athletes don't spend sixteen hours a day, day after day, honing their craft. There's always time to be around people if it's a true priority. Also, it's not a simple case of 'Be really good at something --> Have bad people skills'. Lots of experts aren't any different socially from anyone else. How much that's the case probably has to do with their field though. The world's best soccer player will have had a far different social experience while becoming an expert compared to the world's best game engine designer.