John: The world is a huge place, and it would be foolhardy to try to tackle it without some friends. Whether you're looking for homework help or trying to find a job, knowing more people will put you ahead. Social networking is the process of gathering a large pool of people from whom you can draw support. Businesses often devote huge sums of money to this task, and a new career field (human resources) has emerged because of it. Up-and-coming teens should get a head start by meeting people right away.
Always keep an outgoing attitude. Whenever you attend parties, weddings for funerals, make a beeline for a person you don't know. Most people will appreciate the company. Ask them questions about themselves (people love this subject), and make every effort to remember their name. You may be surprised at the ways these people can pop up again in your life.
Also make sure to keep in touch with the friends you already have. It sounds cliche, but sending cards is always a good idea. Try to collect cheap cards, often available in 99-cent packs. At the beginning of each month, fill out a card for everyone who has a birthday that month. It may seem awkward to write all your cards in one sitting, but it makes quite an impression on the recipient. Also remember to write down the names of everyone who sends you cards or money for the holidays, and send thank-you notes promptly.
No discussion of social networking would be complete without mentioning Facebook.com. Web sites like this provide an incredible opportunity to be "in the know" about your community. With a click of the mouse, you can learn about upcoming events, read up on your friends' lives or create an online resume. Although it was originally for students, the site has become so useful that adults and employers are jumping on board. But you must remember its limitations. A wall post never will substitute for face-to-face conversation, and of course there are plenty of people who simply aren't inclined to use these sites.
Dr. Wes: Social networking comes easily for some. For others, it's like a painful day at the dentist. But like it or not, there's no arguing with John on this topic. When discussing the job search, you've heard cynics say, "it's not what you know, it's who you know." They're rarely wrong. Ask anyone and you'll find that there are very few self-made men or women. Most have used social contacts at least as effectively as their knowledge skill. In fact, just this week I learned that self-made billionaire and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg started out as the son of poor immigrants. On his way up the ladder, he once worked for a fellow who loved to smoke at the start of the business day. Bloomberg made sure he just happened to be there with cigarettes to offer the guy every morning. Ingratiating? Maybe. But Bloomberg can finance his own run for the presidency now, and that's saying something about the value of making friends and influencing people.
By the way, that's also the name of Dale Carnegie's famous book on this topic. With its first printing in 1937, it was at No. 99 last week on Amazon.com with nearly 400 four-star reviews. So the topic of connecting with others for fun and profit is far from new - yet still absolutely relevant.
So where does this leave the shy people? In the market for social skills enhancement. As we've discussed before, more than anyone else the socially uncomfortable and awkward need human involvements, even as they struggle to find them. The Internet has been a blessing for many people in this regard, as well as a curse. We'll review its downside in a couple of weeks. But even with aggressive use of online social networking, or, for the over-18 crowd, online dating sites, one still has to be able to do the face-to-face work at some point. In my view, the real value of the online world is NOT in forming online relationships, but in creating and enhancing some real-world connections. Sure it's fun to know people in Bulgaria, but for the purposes we're discussing here, it may not affect your daily life in school, your hometown or future endeavors.
Most of the shy teens I see are really amazing when you get past their fearfulness and they open up. Working with an adult mentor or even a socially skilled peer really can help connect the dots for many young people. For those who are struggling a bit more, therapy can make a difference. Social coaching, encouragement and matching younger teens in church, school or other natural settings also can help. Regardless of which path you choose in life, social networking is a tool that none of us can toss out just because it's hard or uncomfortable at times.
Next week: A mother tries to cope with her children's disappointment in high-profile adults.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.