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Background

I moved about 1000 miles from home after graduating college, and most of my friends are scattered all over the US. I'm not an extremely social person, so I didn't make many new friends after I moved. My wife, along with many of her friends, studied theater and subsequently moved to New York to pursue careers in performing arts. Since my wife has a lot of friends from college who live in the same city as us, we mostly are with them when we spend time with friends. For example, this past week for Thanksgiving, we had 7 people over for dinner, all of whom are her friends from college (with the exception of one significant other).

The Issue

I like my wife's friends fairly well, so it doesn't bother me that we mostly see them. The only problem is that every single time we get together, the conversation eventually turns into everyone reminiscing about college. They tell stories of the shows they were in, talk about what their other friends who didn't come to New York are up to, and on Thanksgiving they even ended up watching a recording of one of their musicals from college.

It's nice that they have wonderful memories that they share, but they spent 5 hours on Thanksgiving having a conversation that I couldn't take part in because it was focused entirely on people I've never met and events that I wasn't part of. Since this happens every time we hang out, I end up spending most of my time with these friends feeling awkward and excluded.

What I tried

I've tried joining the conversations when I can by asking questions or giving one off comments about the story, but that doesn't really help me stay involved. I also talked to my wife about it after everyone left on Thanksgiving. She had noticed that I was a bit excluded and she tried to change the topic of conversation, but it always came back to the stories of college.

My Question

In situations like this, where I am the "outsider" in an already established group, how can I integrate better with the group so that the conversation doesn't always preclude me?

  • 1
    Could you explain a little more about how asking questions doesn't work for you? (That's basically what I would answer based on my own experience, so I'm not sure if I shouldn't bother, or maybe there's more specific things about asking questions I could suggest..) – Em C Dec 2 at 16:37
  • When I ask questions they are usually either to help clarify things in the story or to bring in information from previous stories I've heard. For example, if someone is talking about a specific person, I'll ask something like "Oh, he was the on who was your RA right?" It gets me involved in the conversation for a moment, but then I'm just right back where I started. It's a bit much for me to have my only participation in a long conversation be to ask one-off questions. – Rainbacon Dec 2 at 17:06
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I've experienced this too when my sister invited me to get-togethers with her college friends (she was also in the arts, in a very tight-knit cohort). The main strategy I used to re-insert myself into the conversation was indeed asking questions. You mentioned that you did ask questions, but usually to clarify. So I hope this doesn't repeat too much of what you've already tried.

There's two main drawbacks to clarifying questions:

  1. They're not very interactive - the person talking can just give a quick answer ("yep, that's the guy") and carry on, like you describe.

  2. While they sometimes work as a polite way to signal "hey, outsider here", the group might not pick up the hint. Even then, it's easy for conversation slide back into the same topics anyways simply because they're the majority. (That happened at one event I attended, even after someone said "Hey guys, Em is being left out, let's talk about something else".)

Instead, identify points that you do have some interest in, and ask open-ended questions to prompt them to talk about that. Finding common ground is a good principle for conversations in general! For instance, you might not care much about Some Theater Show that they were in, but maybe you're curious about set design or how they change costumes so quickly. (Based on my experience with friends in college musicals - even if you don't think they were directly involved, they probably still know something about it.)

Even if you don't really know anything about what they're discussing, it can be a very effective conversation starter to make a guess - "I think I heard something about such-and-such, is that really true?" - and they'll be happy to correct you if you're wrong (see also: Cunningham's Law). Or, pick something that's common to most college experiences and comes with a story you might be able to relate to - times you stayed up too late, worst classes, favorite professors, etc.

Asking these types of questions usually resulted in a back-and-forth exchange - they answer, I follow up, etc. It lets you steer the conversation a bit, but still within the topic they're already discussing, so it's more likely to "stick" (and hopefully is more interesting for you to listen to).

For events where you know in advance who will be there, you can also try to come up with some questions beforehand. (A strategy used by Churchill1: "I'm just preparing my impromptu remarks.") I definitely encourage enlisting your wife for help. She knows these people best, and can help steer ("Oh that reminds me, Rainbacon likes photography, tell him about...") or facilitate introductions to new friends ("This is Anna, she likes cats too!").

Another / complementary strategy is to take a playful approach. Since siblings tend to tease each other, I used that as a way to interject too. You could try something similar with your wife - "Oh really, I heard you all went there for spring break, but I didn't know that! What else is she keeping from me??" My sister's friends were all too happy to share more, and I felt more engaged, because 1) they were watching for my reaction, and 2) it gave me an opening to share stories about our shared history ("That doesn't surprise me, did you know this one time she..."). Of course - this depends on the context, and whether your wife is comfortable with it :)

Finally - if questions don't work, distractions might. Even when I couldn't contribute to that part of the conversation, we still had fun playing board games together. It didn't stop their college reminiscing, but it did guarantee we had a common topic (the game) to chat about while playing.

And.. if I can give some more intrapersonal advice -- manage your expectations. I was more satisfied when I expected to be outside my comfort zone and treated it like "how well can I fake having social skills", than when I hoped someone would take an interest in my college/career path and was disappointed. It also helped me to have a temporary "escape hatch" when I felt too lost and awkward - maybe you could arrange something with your wife beforehand, like excusing yourself to go clean up the dishes while they watch their recording.


1Well, maybe - if anyone has the original source, please drop a link!

12

I experienced a similar situation when I moved to my husband's home state as a newlywed. "Our" friends were his friends from college and single life, plus a few of their significant others.

I found a few things that helped.

First, shared activities. When just sitting around, it's tempting for the established friends to fall into in-group jokes and stories of the past. When playing a card game, cooking together, building some IKEA furniture, whatever, the conversation is naturally more on the immediate situation and you can start to build new memories, new inside jokes, new good times to 'remember when'.

Second, treat her friends as your friends. Pull aside someone who particularly interests you to have a side conversation, invite them do something together, whatever you would do with someone you wanted to start a friendship with if they weren't already an old friend of your wife. Try to see them as your potential friends, rather than your wife's friends; try to build an actual, mutual, not your-wife-based friendship with anyone you feel you like or are compatible with.

Last, pull in those equally-excluded significant others of the main circle. They are probably feeling similar to you, and would welcome a topic they can take part in. They are your natural allies in the fight against a full night of rehashing college.

4

I've faced the same problem, but from your wife's position. I've lived in this area for 40 years. I get together about once a month with an old friend for dinner and to catch up, and we often talk about former co-workers and jobs. When my wife joins us, I'm sure it can get a bit tedious for her.

There are two separate approaches for dealing with this. One is that I recognize when we are drifting into people and events that my wife doesn't have the background for, and I make sure to chip in some explanations and information to make it all interesting and intelligible.

The other is that my wife and my friend each have adult children and so part of the get together is them catching up on their kids' statuses and activities. In other words, they have some common ground, completely separate from my history with my friend.

This all works well, my wife enjoys our dinners out and catching up, even with some parts of the conversation not being particularly relevant to her.

So two approaches: one is that your wife needs to be somewhat aware and give you context and information so you can enjoy the reminiscing. The other is that you need to look for common ground with the friends, just as you would look for common ground with any group of people.

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