by Sara Ness
Hi, I’m Sara, and I am an awkwardvert.
An awkwardvert (self-titled) is a mix of extrovert tendencies with a lot of social anxiety. I want to meet you, but I also want to run away. I have always struggled with, and searched for, answers to the following questions:
What are the rules for relating? The unspoken social norms that everyone seems to understand? The right words to use? The right activities to offer? The amount I should speak, or listen?
These constant curiosities led me to become a connection teacher. Who better to teach communication than someone who has parsed it out of need? I teach mostly through facilitation, leading others to discover their own norms and way of being. Over the last decade, I’ve found something interesting.
I tried to come up with universal “rules” of behavior. Yet, people are different (profound realization, I know). Some like small talk, some judge it. Some ask questions, some never do. Some don’t seem to like speech at all. Some do better when they have something in their hands.
Being a brainy type, the next question for me was: “Ah, but are there distinct WAYS we are different? Ways that, if understood, could allow us to relate with absolutely anybody?”
Turns out — I think — the answer is “Yes”.
….you are at a party.
You float from conversation to conversation, drink in hand, trying to find the one where you belong. Over here they are discussing politics — nope, not your thing. Over there, a group is laughing loudly — nope, not part of that. Another crowd seems to be telling long stories — nope, that will be boring, and you never feel like you have the right story to tell.
None of these groups feel right. You wish you just had something to occupy yourself while you interact. Lightbulb! — you head towards the kitchen, to see if you can lend the hostess a hand.
One of your friends, in the storytelling group, watches you go. He’s confused, because it seems like you never want to hang out with him. You get fidgety when he’s just trying to tell you about his day. Then again, he gets uncomfortable when some other people tell him stories: some people seem to want to perform, to have all of the attention, when he’s more interested in the details of what went on. Some people just can’t communicate, he thinks.
Who is right about the best way to communicate? Is it the conversationalists? The jokers? The storytellers? The person who just wants something to do? Is it the people who tend to ask questions of everyone else, or the ones who stand on the side and observe?
What if there is no right or wrong? What if we’re all correct, but like visitors to each others’ mental countries, we’re speaking different languages that don’t quite translate to each other?
This question has obsessed me for the last ten years. How can I walk into that party and join any conversation, talk with anyone, or at least understand the way they speak?
Here’s my hypothesis.
The Relating Languages
Many of you may be familiar with the idea of “Love Languages”: relational preferences for physical touch, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, or acts of service. Just as we have languages of love, I believe we also have communication or Relating Languages that we prefer to speak, or have spoken to us.
Each of us speaks at least one language. We learn it when we’re young, from watching our parents and friends; we develop it as we grow, from noticing what others respond to. We add other languages through time, at different levels of competency, from entering groups that don’t speak the same way we do. Some of us even become polyglots, able to speak many different tongues. That’s why the Relating Languages is both a typology and a developmental system: with practice, any of us can learn any of the languages.
We have types we go to when we feel safe, and types we use when we don’t. We have types we like to be around, and types that bug the heck out of us. Annoyed by holidays with your family? They probably use different Relating Languages from you.
Groups tend to find common languages, based on what the most socially powerful or longest-standing members speak. If you feel like your family “never gets deep” or “is too intrusive” or “never takes things seriously”, most likely they’ve normed to Conversing, Questioning, or Joking — and, being around them, you have too.
The hopeful part of this? If your language isn’t being spoken, chances are, members of your family are feeling the same strain. You just need to figure out their languages 1:1, and then you’ll have way more options for what is possible.
Each language has two Dialects, which lie on a spectrum. People are rarely all the way at one end or the other, although it happens. The lefthand Dialect is internally oriented, the righthand is externally oriented. This refers to how much of a person’s attention is in on themselves vs out on the other person as they speak.
For example, a Maker (Doing type) is self-sourced in their Doing. They are fascinated by particular topics, they’re creative and creationary, and they don’t always have a lot of attention for things other than their fascinations. A Helper, on the other hand, is a Doer who wants to assist in others’ projects. They’re more comfortable in the kitchen than in a conversation; they’re so willing to lend a hand that sometimes, they forget about their own needs.
A Teacher (Conversing type) is sourcing information from themself in the conversation. When you bring up a topic, their reaction is to find a piece of knowledge that relates and tell you all about it. Their counterpart, the Turn-Taker*, just wants to keep the conversation going. They’d rather introduce a new theme than let one person dominate, although generally they’re happy as long as people are engaged.
*Note: these names are not final — the system is still very much in development!
Now let’s see what happens when these types mix.
An Afternoon at Annie’s
My friend Annie Lewis is an incredible artist. She just finished a Kickstarter for an oracle deck she made, and, after long COVID-based delays, 10,000 decks arrived at her house. I showed up to help package and send them out.
I love Helping, so this was a fun job for me. I was also excited to show up because Annie is one of the few people I can be a full-on Clown with. Usually, I’m nervous to show that side of myself because I’m not great at picking up on social cues (see: awkwardvert), but Annie and I have known each other long enough that I’m not worried about offending her.
I didn’t know that Annie had also hired someone to help with the decks. When I arrived, she confided in me: “I’m totally exhausted. I hired extroverts to help — I’ve never talked so much!”
Annie, and her partner Eric, are Makers. They can go hours without conversation, happily engrossed in their projects and often helping with each others’ work.
When Annie’s employee arrived, I understood the issue. It wasn’t that the woman asked a lot of questions, or talked for long periods of time. She just really liked to discuss. She brought up topic after topic, keeping a constant flow of conversation going, genuinely interested in everything that was said but not leaving a lot of gaps for a Maker to relax in. She was the definition of a topical Turn-Taker.
I had a really good time helping that day. But, I did miss the clowning Annie and I usually got to do. We both normed to the strongest voice in the room, which in this case (not always) was the Conversationalist. It would have taken hours or days of time together for us all to find a rhythm that each other liked — or, not finding that, to work in discomfort, or split apart.
An Overview of Types
Tells stories that document a whole experience or interaction. They focus more on completion of the thought, rather than engagement of who is listening.
Tells stories meant to engage others. Bards are highly aware of other people’s attention. They respond to listeners’ nonverbal cues, and use animated expressions to enhance the story.
Asks questions that seek to understand people’s lives and perspectives. Questions are often “leaning forward”: pointed, focused, insightful, often internally building or testing a theory about a person, or about the world.
Asks questions to help others feel seen and cared about. Questions are often “neutral”, non-judgmental, and open-ended, leaving space for the other to expand. Spaceholders can find it hard to turn attention back to themselves.
Stands back and watches before engaging. Comments on contexts at a meta-level — social commentary, incisive sarcasm, unspoken truths. May have a hard time being “part of things”.
Engages fully in the conversation with unfiltered, improvisational comments and jokes. Laughs loudest at themselves.
Focused on their particular interests. If they are engaged in conversation about these interests, they will become animated and talk at length; otherwise, they may mentally or physically wander away.
Most comfortable when they’re active and assisting. Likes to offer help, especially tangible services or resources.
Makes comments and gives advice about things they know, have seen, or have studied that relate to the conversation at hand. May talk at length.
Brings up and engages topics to keep the conversation flowing. May create “small talk”, or discuss complex matters; content is not always as important as form.
Does not speak unless they feel they understand the context and can say something useful. Can become frozen.
Comfortable in silence. Does not often feel motivated to speak, but is usually happy to do so if asked.
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You can also email me at [email protected] if you would like to help research, give ideas, or use the Languages in your own work.
This is Article 1 of the Relating Languages series. Find Article 2 here.
Image: “Inner Child”, by Alexander Milov