Why Being Socially Awkward Can Make You a Better Photographer

Why Being Socially Awkward Can Make You a Better Photographer

Hey introverts, it's the guy you've never actually met at a party because he was busy playing with someone else's dog in the corner, and I've got some good news for you: introversion is not a disease.

I have read book after book on being more extroverted, standing out at networking events, being the life of the party, winning friends, influencing people. None of it sticks. I'll get all wrapped up in the idea while I'm reading and get excited about going out and being outgoing, and then I put down my book and realize that real extroverts probably didn't read the manual first. What part of me is so broken that I not only can't do those things, I don't want to?

When I used to go to networking events, my only defense was to seek out people I already knew and stand near them nodding as they talked to their colleagues. I'd introduce myself with a rehearsed elevator pitch that felt as fake to them as it did to me. Why? The books! The "fake it 'til you make it," "anyone can do it," "stop being a pansy and get out there" books.

Not a single client booked me from those events. Shocking.

I talked more with this client during her shoot than with every person I've met at a networking event combined.

For nine arduous years in my career, I trudged through an extrovert's world thinking that introversion was something pulling me down from my aspirations in photography. This whole gig is talking to people, making connections, and creating meaningful work. How do you do that when you just can't act the part?

The switch flipped for me when I read the well-researched book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. If that title takes you to a happy place, it is a must-read. The book does not downplay the important role of extroverted people in our culture, but instead shows the balance and contribution that introverts bring to the world as well. She gives bountiful advice on making adjustments to your mindset in order to navigate societal interaction with an introvert's strengths rather than wearing an extrovert's mask.

Play to Your Strengths

People that are bad at talking are generally great at listening. It's really our only other option, unless you count finding a dog to play with. A few books I've read on faking extroversion said to just ask questions and let other people say all the things. While that's not a bad tactic for avoiding the spotlight, it's still a tactic. By that, I mean that the advice is being framed in the wrong way. Introverts are not seeking to be the recipients of word vomit, and using questions simply as a means to force conversation is a great way to start a boring dialogue.

If Cain's book teaches you anything, it's that introverts seek connection, not small talk. What may surprise you is that extroverts do, too, and as an introvert, you are in a prime position to provide that. Simply asking questions isn't the answer. Finding common ground and forging a connection is the goal. Yes, it may take questions to get there, but the end game is not idle chatter, it's forming a bridge between the two of you.

Start with the things you know well and ask questions that are unexpected, but accessible and easy to answer. Don't ask what color lightsaber they'd have if they were a Jedi (um, green, obviously). But, if you're a cinema buff, ask what their favorite movie is and start the conversation there rather than asking about their job or where they're from. Find topics that allow you to ask meaningful questions. Find shared interests that allow them to feel like they're talking to someone who understands them. Nobody expects to be asked those kinds of questions by their photographer, and I've had some of the best headshot sessions due to a shared interest in "Parks & Recreation."

Then, let them talk and use that time to learn about them in a way that is actually enjoyable. Connection made.

Some environments are more conducive to happy conversation than others.

Control Your Environment

Even better, don't put yourself in awkward situations to begin with. I haven't been to a networking event or a "mingle" in months and I don't miss it. Rather than wasting my time in an uncomfortable atmosphere, I choose to go places where common interests are already implied. For me, that's usually a brewery. It's much easier to ask a question you genuinely care about in a comfortable environment. Standing next to someone at the bar and asking, "Have you tried their new imperial stout?" can start a far more robust conversation than, "So, how long have you been in human resources?" It may fall flat, but at least you come across as interested rather than flubbing yet another elevator pitch.

On a shoot, it's even easier. The people in front of you actually expect you to talk to them, so icebreakers aren't necessary. If you're a studio photographer, you have ultimate control over your environment and you've got home field advantage. Out on location, you are literally standing on common ground and are there for a common purpose. Asking genuinely-motivated questions is much easier in that setting than it is under the buzzing fluorescents of a Chamber of Commerce meeting room.

Shooting on his old family farm, he told stories of years gone by. I never had to ask him to look somber or happy — his stories informed his expressions.

Now, Use It to Your Advantage

The goal of all this is to make your life and work as a photographer not only easier, but more meaningful. As a socially uncomfortable member of our industry, I can attest to the fact that the burden of introversion has lifted significantly since I stopped treating it like a shackle and started treating it like a gift.

Sometimes, I call it out from the get-go: "Hi, I'm Aaron. It's great to meet you. I'm a little awkward, so I hope you don't mind doing most of the talking." It's honest, it gets a laugh 7 times out of 10, and it gives my subject permission to speak freely without feeling like they're interrupting the process.

Guide the conversation with questions to draw out the emotion you want from your client. If you're wanting them to look happy and you know they love traveling, ask them about their favorite restaurant in Paris. Where extroverts can make people happy and smiley just by the outpouring of their personality, introverts can do the same with their own unique set of skills. It takes a little practice, but it's always genuine and never feels forced, and therein lies the difference.

As you meet people out and about, you'll be far more memorable if you make a positive connection based on shared interest than you ever will reciting mundane small talk. It doesn't have to turn into a sales pitch. Honestly, it's better if it doesn't.

So, go out and be introverted. But maybe only once a week.

Lead image by Gellinger via Pixabay.

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Simon Patterson's picture

The article would probably still work if the title was changed to "how to attract women". 😀

Aaron Patton's picture

😂 That’s perfect.

Simon Patterson's picture

I think this push to be an extrovert that you mentioned is a cultural thing, based mainly in some Western cultures.

But many cultures in the world are generally a little suspicious of extroverts, and being introverted is often seen as a more desirable trait. Extroversion can be seen as over-confident, attention seeking or showing off. Many people find this off-putting. After all, who wants to be with an over-confident attention seeking show off?

The advice this article seems good in cultures where extraversion tends to be rewarded, and also cultures where introversion tends to be rewarded. Bravo!

Aaron Patton's picture

Thank you! And you’re exactly right - in the West, we subscribe to the “extrovert ideal” (as Susan Cain puts it), as though it’s something anyone can be if we just try hard enough.

Vincent Alongi's picture

Simon, I think you've hit on something. Here in the states, and especially in NY, the entrepreneurial characteristics of outwardness and being an extrovert are viewed as a plus, generally speaking. Play the wallflower, and you can get left behind in many industries (photography one of them). But the US is the far west of western civilization. I don't want to broadstroke and cannot truly speak to the European culture on a day-to-day basis. I've spent time there, but not enough to be an expert. lol

On the extrovert, personally, they can wear on me quickly. For me, there needs to be a purpose to the conversation or 'presentation' of something. Someone who's always on is draining to be around... attention seeking, looking for validation, etc. I run the other way.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Great read, Aaron. I've put off starting portraiture for this very reason. I'm so awkward in front of new people, but I feel that there's money to be made from headshots in my area. It just scares the hell out of me. Good material to work with here, though, so I might just start putting some of it to the test. Thanks!

Aaron Patton's picture

Thanks, Mike! Headshots are my favorite test grounds for trying to be a non-awkward human 😂 I tend to attract people who also feel awkward, so it works very well.

Dave McDermott's picture

I remember how daunting it was when I first started doing portraits. I used to get really nervous before a shoot but I have done so many at this stage that its no longer an issue. The more shoots I did the more my confidence grew. I'd still consider myself an introvert but I'm much more comfortable meeting new people now.

David Penner's picture

How is being social awkward and being an introvert connected? I am very much an introvert but I wouldnt say Im socially awkward. Being an introvert just means I dont need to be around people at all times. It means that Im not talking all the time but I can still lead a conversation without overpowering it.
Do I sometimes say weird things? Yes... Mostly when Im drunk and honestly even then its mostly saying something weird because its funny and I know I shouldnt say it.

I hate (and most of the introverts I know) hate when people that are actually socially awkward use the excuse that they are introverts and that is why they are the way they are. No.. You arent an introvert. You are just socially awkward.

Aaron Patton's picture

As an introvert myself (INTP if we want to get Myers-Briggsy about it), it doesn’t bother me. There are awkward extroverts (you can’t miss them), smooth introverts, and everything in between. It’s certainly not a binary system.

However, I’d venture to say there’s a correlation between introversion and the feeling of social awkwardness, whether a person is perceived as being awkward or not, particularly in our culture. The quiet kids are pushed aside or passed over and many are goaded towards extroversion by well-meaning (albeit misinformed) parents/teachers. This fosters a feeling of being a misfit. Awkwardness can develop from that disconnect of personal and social identity.

So, I guess that’s the connection?

David Penner's picture

Yah I get that. Still bothers me that people use it as an excuse. If you are socially awkward you need to put yourself in more social situations if for nothing else then to get past the social awkwardness. Having an understanding of how to act in social situations is pretty important. Doesnt mean that you need to always be going out but when you do go out you want to make a good impression.

There is nothing worse then a socially awkward extrovert. Lol

Pedro Pulido's picture

the connection i think is simple to analyse. Most socially awkward people are introverts. For the simple reason they don't fit in, they don't push it and decide to be introverts.
On the other side of the fence, introverts don't need to be socially awkward and i do agree with that.

Michael Kuszla's picture

That so true Aaron. A pretty nice article.
For thus who sometimes to find their place between extrovert people, I just say — go out guy. Let your heart & passion speaking.
This is a part of my days that spending time to reassure friends and creative colleagues. As I am a great introvert guy who know himself :)

Great post!!