Symptoms That Flare in Social Settings

It's not unusual to experience these common adult ADHD symptoms that tend to flare up in social settings:

  • Feeling like you don't fit in

  • Having trouble following conversations

  • Having difficulty zoning out extraneous noises or music

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Feeling the need to dominate a conversation

  • Blurting out confidential, inappropriate, or irrelevant information during conversations

  • Being unable to read and translate body language, voice tone, facial expressions, or simple nuances of interaction

  • Reacting in an overemotional, defensive, or overly intense way

  • Jumping to the wrong conclusions

  • Feeling defensive

  • Feeling that others are criticizing and blaming you

  • Being reluctant to contribute or participate in a conversation because you're afraid of embarrassing yourself

  • Being viewed by others as standoffish, disinterested, snobbish, or bored

Practice Makes Perfect

Before going to a party, try rehearsing some responses to questions that typically arise in casual party chat. Standard questions you might be asked include “What do you do for a living?” or “What do you do for fun or to relax?” Try practicing your responses with an understanding friend, spouse, or therapist, in various fictional settings. For example, imagine what you'd say to someone at the buffet table, at the bar, around a formal dinner table, in a friend's kitchen, by the pool, around the barbecue, or while playing croquet.

Go to Social Functions with a Party Buddy

Instead of trying to weather a social function on your own, ask a close friend to go with you. You'll have someone on hand to translate conversations you have trouble following, interpret nonverbal cues, and give you a friendly nudge or warning look when you start to stray.

Your buddy can also test the waters of small groups at a party by joining the conversation first. If it seems like a friendly group and a conversation you'll be able to participate in successfully, he can wave you in and introduce you.

Listen Before Speaking

Before jumping into a conversation, listen for several minutes to make sure you fully understand what is being discussed. Collect your thoughts, quiet your mind, and think about what you could say that would add to the conversation.

Bow Out Before Blowing Out

If you find yourself in a small group discussion you either can't follow or can't keep up with, don't wrack your brain trying to think up an appropriate response that may not hit the mark.

If you're truly confused and/or bewildered by the train of conversation, or if the topic of conversation is simply over your head, find a good excuse to bow out politely before you've reached the point of no return, when your hyperactivity or impulsivity causes you to butt in or blurt out something that may be inappropriate or irrelevant. “Where's the restroom?” or “I'd better rejoin my friend,” or “I think I need a glass of water” are a few good excuses.

Essential

One effective way to bond with someone you've just met is to model their body language. If they cross your arms, you cross your arms. If they use hand gestures when talking, you do the same. The trick is to be subtle. If you're too obvious about modeling, the other person may mistake it for ridicule or mockery and become insulted.

Match the Tone of the Conversation

If the tone of conversation is silly and funny, don't respond with serious or heavy comments, or the conversation may stop dead. Or, if you're in a group that's discussing death or a serious topic, be respectful and solemn in turn instead of chiming in with a flippant or sarcastic comment.

If you're listening to a conversation about politics, religion, or a controversial topic and someone says something you vehemently disagree with, don't feel compelled to argue or make your point unless you're openly encouraged to by other members of the group.

Essential

If you sense you're seriously outnumbered in your opinion about something, it may be best to keep your thoughts to yourself. Unless you're an excellent debater and can argue your point without getting defensive, combative, argumentative, or flustered, you're better off not starting a heated argument that could force you to lose your cool or your temper.

If you feel like it's a good idea to try to argue your point, make sure you have your facts straight, then state your case briefly and politely — and with a smile to show you're not trying to convert anyone or start a fight. Remember that unless you're at a political rally, a party is not the place or time to get on your political soap box.

Be Upbeat, Not Negative

Before heading off to a party, remind yourself of the strengths you have that will make you enjoyable to be with and talk with. Maybe you're very generous, are a great mimic, or have a wonderful sense of humor. Embracing your gifts will help others see them.

Limit Your Personal Disclosure

Don't let your impulsivity or hyperactivity lead you to share too much about yourself with strangers or people you don't know very well. This could make them feel uncomfortable and pressured to reciprocate with personal details about themselves.

For instance, does a casual new acquaintance really want to hear all the gruesome details that led to your recent divorce? Do you really want to share the gory details of your bypass surgery with total strangers?

Fact

While it may be tempting to turn yourself into the center of attention for a few moments by spilling your guts, remember that sharing too much personal information with casual strangers may cast you in a negative or less-than-favorable light. People who don't know you well won't have enough positive information to balance out the negative input you're giving them.

There's also the risk that sharing too much overly positive information about yourself could come across as bragging or boasting. There's also a chance that some people might be left wondering if you're telling the truth, or simply exaggerating or lying to try to impress or intimidate them.

Sharing too much about yourself with casual acquaintances could have the opposite effect you were hoping to achieve. Instead of making people feel closer to you, it could send them running in the opposite direction and leave you feeling alone and isolated.

Don't Hog the Conversation

Because they have trouble reading nonverbal cues, many ADHD adults have a tendency to dominate conversations or keep talking long after everyone has lost interest.

If you're talking with a group of people, try to listen far more than you talk, and keep your comments short, kind, and honest (but not overly blunt). Also, be careful not to jump into conversations before you're invited, and limit your comments to the topic at hand rather than dominating the conversation with irrelevant or unrelated matters.

How to Master Small Talk

Even if you're an expert in your field and can converse for hours at a time on specific intellectual issues, if you have adult ADHD there's a good chance you find it difficult to engage in the sort of chit chat and small talk that is common at social gatherings. This is especially true if the conversation is about something you're not familiar with.

One of the easiest ways to make small talk is practice asking preset questions that can be used in a variety of conversations. For instance, you can tell someone you really like a part of their outfit and ask them who made it, where they found it, what is it made of, etc.

Another easy way to facilitate small talk is to read up on local and international news before going to a party so you have lots of easy conversation starters at your disposal.

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