The Art of Being Real With People

Here’s a puzzle: You’re sociable. You’re fun to be around. You’ve got self-deprecating stories and an archive of jokes that lighten the mood of any group. You’re spontaneous. You’re good-looking — so much so, in fact, that a night out often turns into a semi-romantic escapade. You’re genuinely interested in other people, and you always listen intently to their problems and offer advice.

In short: You’re friendly.

Yet, if you choked on your dinner this week, there wouldn’t be a need for a casket. By the time someone finally bothered to check up on you, you’d be decomposed and intermingled with the perennial filth and dust in your apartment.

In short: You have no real friends.

That’s the conundrum I’ve wrestled with for most of my life, from childhood to adolescence to my early twenties. I’ve provided great company, yet my interactions with my fellow classmates and co-workers have never gone beyond frivolous exchanges. I am not “one of the guys,” and I’m often only invited to large, impersonal parties — never to intimate gatherings of a few. For the life of me, for years, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.


wasn’t until I met the photographer Jimmy Nelson a few years back that I began to make headway in solving this riddle. He told me the key to connecting with people is to reveal your vulnerability.

Jimmy knows a lot about forging relationships, perhaps more than any other westerner on the planet. In his quest to celebrate and shed light on our common denominator — our ancestors — he’s spent years traveling to the most remote places, and into the homes of more than 35 indigenous tribes. Without a common language or cultural commonalities to draw upon, he had to find another way to connect.

His approach, as he put it, is this: “You have to get on your knees, you have to sweat, you have to cry — you have to show your humanity… and they can see that you are very vulnerable and that they can do whatever they want with you.”

I had a hard time connecting with humans because I myself wasn’t one.

Thinking of his words, it dawned on me — gradually, of course, for rarely is anything an epiphany — that I was lacking this sense of fragility. Or rather, I refused to convey this tone of vulnerability. In an effort to remain mysterious, I never divulged my concerns or insecurities. Instead, I dodged every personal question with an impersonal quip. When I broke up with my partner, she burst into tears. On the inside, I was crying, too. On the outside, all I could manage was, “Whatever.”

In short: I had a hard time connecting with humans because I myself wasn’t one. Rather, I was a mere repertoire of acts and facts.


modern society, showing our vulnerability doesn’t mean we should go around spilling our life stories during every chance encounter or crying our hearts out to our Tinder dates. That is, vulnerability doesn’t mean we have to be cringeworthy. It simply requires us to be honest about our feelings. And every once in a while, we must also have the courage to display them.

Like the indigenous people Jimmy Nelson encountered, the people we meet every day are constantly evaluating whether we’re somebody they can trust and relate to. The best way to convey that we’re trustworthy is by celebrating our shared humanity. Here’s how:

How are you? Are we giving them a terse “okay” or will we let them in on our idiosyncrasies?

How is your relationship going?Will we dodge the question, or will we have faith in their counsel and disclose that we had a falling out with our partner?

How are you doing in your new position? Will we act proud, or will we confide in our co-workers that we’re overwhelmed by the work, and perhaps even ask for their help?


ultivating this kind of predisposition toward candidness did wonders for my social life. It allowed me to finally transmute myself from a perennial acquaintance into a friend. Moreover, I began to realize how I, myself, was naturally drawn toward people who weren’t afraid to display the full gamut of their character. Often, it was moment when they confided in me that helped built deep rapport.

One time, an intimidatingly prodigious and prolific co-worker revealed his anxiety about the quality of his work. In another instance, a college classmate, whose extraversion I’d considered radically opposed to my introversion, disclosed his struggle with depression. In both cases, it was precisely this moment of vulnerability that turned an acquaintance into a confidant, if not a friend.

Opening ourselves up to others is just another way to make our conversational partners feel appreciated.

You might worry that by making a habit of broadcasting the personal issues that pester you, you’ll come across as needy and self-centered. Indeed, Nelson’s advice sounds like doing the thing most relationship gurus admonish against: focusing too much on ourselves. For example, one of the central tenets of the classic book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is that we ought to become good listeners and talk in terms of the other person’s interest, not in terms of our own. But this is the same sentiment Nelson offers, just explained in a different way.

Encouraging others to talk about themselves, about the things they treasure the most, makes them feel valued and important. We’ll be held in high esteem as the rare individual who allows others to indulge in themselves uninterrupted. As the psychologist John Dewey put it: “the deepest urge in human nature is the desire to be important.”

Opening ourselves up to others is just another way to make our conversational partners feel appreciated. In trusting them with our personal matters, we’re implicitly asserting their importance — their trustworthy character and valuable opinions. “Wow, he unleashed such a cascade of candor towards me. I must be quite a sage, indeed,” they think. Our companion’s subconscious pats itself on the back. Madeline Miller put it better than I ever could: “He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

If we die a little every time a friend succeeds, as the writer Gore Vidal observed, why not give our friends a bit of life by telling them about our failures? I was rewarded for it, and I bet you will be, too.

All Rights Reserved for Sten Sootla

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