When I tell people that I'm shy, the universal response I get is "wow, you don't seem shy at all!"

Problem statement

Pop culture psychology has a single concept for "debilitatingly reluctant to approach people", and it's called "shyness" or "social anxiety" and is explained by "fear of rejection". I am debilitatingly reluctant to approach people, but I am very low on fear of rejection, what gives?

I propose that my 'shyness' can be explained by very high levels of what I'll call meta-fear of rejection, and fear of fake willingness.

Symptoms of being kind.

Friends I've talked to about this all identify as having these to different degrees, and what works out to be optimal social norms for each person depends on this 'rejection profile'.

But before we go into it, let's be clear about what the goal is: We want to maximise opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions. Popular advice is often all about benefiting the receiver of said advice, so people are encouraged to "just walk up to them!" to overcome fear of rejection with little consideration for how this might impact others. And this is particularly useless as advice for people with high levels of 3 and 4.

Another obstacle to forming optimal social norms is the fuzziness of the language we use to express invitations, requests, and offers.

O how I lament that my invitations are interpreted as requests sometimes.

Sometimes people pretend to make invitations when they're really making requests, and this lets them benefit from the other person's willingness while claiming to not be indebted to them.

It was just an invitation, I don't owe you anything!

Conversely, sometimes people pretend to have heard a request when the other person actually intended to invite them, and that way they can claim to be up a favour.

But I only did that as a favour to you!

These are all forms of social manipulation enabled by a fuzzy language. And the deception wouldn't work without a high frequency of honest mistakes in this area.

So when I walk up to someone and invite them "hey, wanna be friends?" I have to worry about 1) fear of rejecting, and 2) them mistakenly or intentionally misunderstanding my invitation as a request. I just want to be able to communicate my invitation as exactly what it is, and for them to turn me down without hesitation and pain on their part.

Two marginally better social norms

Rejection aid

When you approach someone, include some words to the effect that you'll gracefwly accept a rejection.

Hey, I wish to hang out with you. But I only wish to hang out with you if we are mutually happy about it. It would be sad if we wasted our time on something we didn't want, so I wouldn't want my invitation to be accepted if you're busy, unable, or just don't want to. :)

If you help them feel safe rejecting you, that benefits them because they'll be less anxious in the case they have to reject you, but it also benefits you by making sure that their 'yes' is truly a 'yes'. It reduces the likelihood that the person you're asking will (intentionally or unintentionally) misinterpret your invitation as a request.

Upfront rejection readiness

Be upfront about your willingness to give honest rejections if that's what you truly feel like.

You know, you can always ask me if I wish to hang out with you. If I'm too busy or don't feel like it at the moment, I'll just let you know. So you aren't harming me by asking, you are only providing me with an opportunity to do something we both happen to want, if we want it.

This prevents other people from misinterpreting your invitations as offers. And for people with high levels of social fear 3 and 4, hearing you commit to rejecting invitations if you mean it, will make us feel safer approaching you.

Beware of putting people on the spot; set up lines of retreat

pjeby points out that if you're careless about how you elicit someone's true preferences around doing something with you, you risk "putting them on the spot" in the sense that they feel like it's demanded of them that they be vulnerably honest with you.

Hey, wanna hang out with me? I don't want to hang out with you if you don't want it, so please tell it to me straight. Just say no if you mean it!

Reveal Culture is the art of sharing your own true preferences while not accidentally setting up a strong expectation that they reciprocate.

You want to share all the information that the other person could plausibly need in order to decide whether they wish to do something with you. But the more vulnerably you reveal, the more intense the expectation of reciprocity might feel for them. There's a tragic failure mode here of being someone who unintentionally assaults people with strong expectations to be vulnerable with you. Be honest, but don't demand honesty.

Therein lies the art of, when needed, designing a line of retreat for them by, for example, priming a topic that can easily be switched to, credibly signalling that you accept (implied or explicit) rejections gracefwly, providing them with a social script they can choose to follow ("I wish to do X with you, but I hear you're going to be busy with a deadline so I wouldn't want to get in the way of that"), and so on. This is hard to do right, and is very sensitive to context, which is why it's an art.

Try to bear the burden of potential awkwardness around truth on your own shoulders. Other people may opt in for a mutually beautifwl moment, but they must feel a safe line of retreat in case they don't want to.

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21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:03 PM

Easier than changing the social norms of western society is to change yourself. In particular, you should labor to erase from yourself the "kindness" of wanting to avoid others having to reject you, that level of self-effacement isn't healthy at all. Imposing "pain" on others on the level of making others decide to reject you is a useful and very commonly used life skill, an inability to do this is likely to make others see you as a complete pushover.

This is a bit of a tangent, but highly related.

So a while ago someone told me I was codependent. "What?" I thought, "that doesn't sound right; I'm if anything insufficiently dependent on others". But as it turns out codependency is a bit like neuroticism: 90% of normal people exhibit these traits because it's how humans normally function in social groups. They're adaptive behaviors that keep our society functional because, I'll claim, without them you need to do a lot of self-work in order to still be a member of society in good standing because the easy alternative to overcoming them is to become a pseudo-sociopath (think wolf-in-sheep's-clothing type situations where a person is a highly agentic bad actor willing to do unethical things behind the scenes to get their way because they don't worry enough about what other people will think).

Worrying a lot about imposing on others is a "symptom" of healthy levels of codependency/neuroticism. It's not healthy globally, but it helps prop up a local maximum that works well for a large number of people.

There are alternatives, but getting there without becoming a pseudo-sociopath requires doing lots of ethical training and having a commitment to being a good actor even though you aren't psychologically compelled to be one by being trapped by your own worries.

So I put this out there because I think it's possible to do what you suggest and in fact I'd say I try to do this, but it only works well so long as the person acting this way has something in place to help them remain a pro-social actor. Unfortunately it's too easy to do what you suggest in an anti-social way, hence why I think most people find it hard to consider it as a reasonable course of action.

Consider what norms are better on the margin. I can't change what other people decide to feel, but I can change how upfront I am about my willingness to reject, and I can change how I word my invitations to make them safer to reject.

Hey, wanna be friends? Keep in mind that I don't want to be friends unless you honestly want the same. I'll be happy if you say 'no' if you mean it, since that will have helped us both avoid wasting time on something we didn't want. :)

This is a weird example. Do you actually ask people to clearly label themselves as your-friend or not-your-friend? I never do. Even if it were very clear that it is just an invitation, I would still be a bit annoyed to receive such a question. There's no way I could answer "no" without being hit by a lingering sense of "being-a bad-person-who-doesn't-want-friends".

(is this a different type of meta-fear?)

Yeah, that approach replaces "I want you to be my friend" with "I want you to want to be my friend". That doesn't assuage any meta-fears in me. 

The way it works for me is to give them an easy way out. "Hey wanna do X on monday? Or are you still too busy with Y? In that case we'll just do X another time, when it's more convenient for you."

Then they can pick up the excuse I provided for them and if they really want to do X someday they now know that I'm interested. And of course the ball is in their court if they do say no. I certainly wont bother them again.

OK, granted. It was a silly example. Replace with "Hey, wanna hang out?" or some other invitation.

Situations like these are why i tend to prescribe to a notion of "Social Ninjitsu", that is: throwing things like compliments, invitations, etc and then ejecting yourself  out of the situation so that the other person cannot effectively respond, and does not feel it is expected of them on the spot. The only way for them to respond is to pretty much chase you down and stop you, which only happens if they have more than socially required desire to do so. In effect, those who do not chase you/try to find you, are emotionally and socially excused, and those who do chase you are already pres-elected as highly motivated to interact with you, AKA potential friends.

Great stuff Emrik!! I found value with this in my personal relationships :heart:

The funny thing is that I don't fear being rejected, but when I am I feel bad. But I normally fail to predict that I will feel bad. This can be harmful when you don't execute the proper emotional handling because you did not anticipate the emotions correctly.

The same happens when I turn down people. I might feel bad afterward. Somehow my brain did not really learn to anticipate my emotions, maybe because it did not get enough training data, as I am kind of a loner.

Maybe I'm being overly literal in this, but my first reaction to the chart of various fears is that the concept of asking to be friends is hugely underspecified. Like, what is the ask-ee committing to if they agree? ISTM that most of the problems in the chart are solved by replacing "let's be friends" with "Want to do (friendly activity)?" and iterating until friendship is achieved. This seems to fix problems 1-3 at the least, and maybe 4 as well.

Also, the frame of asking someone to be your friend seems wrong too. If, for example, you enjoy someone's company, why not just say that? There's nothing to "reject" in that case, just as the case for invitation to friendly activities. (Because turning down an invitation doesn't imply rejection of the inviter, so none of the fears or meta-fears really apply.)

Again, maybe I'm viewing this the wrong way, but the combination of this frame with the underspecified request itself seems like it practically invites rejection and all the meta-fears thereof.

From the bits of work I've done in the past with people with various social anxieties, a common theme is actually the person wanting not just to not be rejected, but actually wanting to be validated by other people... which does tend to result in over-asking and underconfident framing.

The anxious person is less likely to say something like, "Oh, you're cool, let's do X" because in their mind they are trying to get something rather than believing or feeling they have something to offer. The solution usually lies in addressing whatever issue created the need for external validation and/or the sense they have nothing to offer.

Using "wanna be friends?" as an example was me trying to be cutesy and it seems to have been confusing. But I disagree that just saying "I enjoy your company" doesn't have the same rejection fears dynamic. Statements are often veiled invitations or requests, so if you mean it to be nothing but a statement, it can sometimes be helpfwl to first clarify that it isn't an invitation/request.

To be clearer, I'm not saying to use any of the things I said as strategies or tactics. I'm more saying that if one is not trying to get anything from people and doesn't feel themselves unworthy of receiving, then it feels more natural to interact in ways that don't invite rejection and don't put other people on the spot.

Statements are often veiled invitations or requests

Exactly my point: IME social anxiety is correlated with a craving for acceptance or interaction that makes the statement a veiled invitation or request, and no amount of verbal disclaimers will fix that. Verbal disclaimers are just stating out loud the self-deception attempts taking place in the speaker's mind, and the dissonance will be felt by the listener.

If it seems like I'm basically saying, "don't bother trying to create norms to help social anxiety because nothing will help until you fix the (underlying cause of the) social anxiety", then yeah, that's pretty much what I'm saying.

This is confusing but seems valuable to try to understand. Do you mean that if I say

"Would you like to talk for a bit? Please say no if you'd actually prefer doing something else, and I'm cool with that. I only wish to hang out if it's mutually beneficial. :)"

...I'm somehow stating a self-deception out loud?

"Would you like to talk for a bit? Please say no if you'd actually prefer doing something else, and I'm cool with that. I only wish to hang out if it's mutually beneficial. :)"

I would say that a non-socially-anxious person would never say all of that, maybe not even the "Would you like to talk for a bit?" part. And that many people would respond with suspicion to the doth-protest-too-much-methinks length of your communication. (And other socially anxious or neurotic people may respond by internal agonizing over whether they are correctly evaluating the mutual beneficialness of a conversation, or the specifics of their own preferences!)

Just from an information coding perspective, the length of this utterance communicates, "I consider this to be a complicated circumstance requiring extra care in order not to go badly" -- let alone any other nonverbal communication that might be coming along with it. This will put a lot of people on edge, even if they're not sure why at first.

...I'm somehow stating a self-deception out loud?

The self-deception would be something along the lines of, "If I state things in the right way, I won't be a bad person or deserve to be rejected if they don't want to talk with me." (Or be a bad person who forced someone to explicitly reject me.)

Part of the self-deception here is that introducing yourself by giving other people rules to follow is more than a little rude and entitled, especially as you are asking them to expose their true inner state to you. (I mean, if they're from a Guess culture you're metaphorically asking them to show you their underwear... and by asking I mean demanding, because in Guess culture explicit asking equals demanding.)

So, the external part of the self-deception is, "I am making a demand for you to follow my rules for interaction, but you are not allowed to disagree or protest it, because my earnest disclaimer will make it seem like you're the one who's being rude or mean if you object or express upset in any way."

That is, "I am going to act like I'm being generous and magnanimous in catering to whatever your object-level desires may be, while completely ignoring any issues you might have about communicating them to me, because how I appear to myself/others is more important to me than how you'd like to appear to yourself/others in this interaction." (And so I might also be setting you up for some sort of no-win social framing attack, no matter what you answer.)

I'm not sure if this is clearly communicating what I mean. The part I am tagging "self-deception" in the outward expression is the part where you are creating a social frame where you can be the offended party/in the right, even though what you are doing is actually pretty demanding and potentially quite offensive in the very act of stating such a "disclaimer".

If you were intentionally doing it as a social attack, then it wouldn't be self-deceptive. It's self-deceptive in the part where you're sincerely believing you're being polite or considerate or whatever, despite the whole thing being about protecting you from having negative opinions of yourself, and not really about consideration for the other person at all, except insofar as the appearance of doing so lets you feel better.

(Because if you really cared what they thought, vs. how it would reflect on you, you might consider the part where you're imposing rules and demanding legibility from someone who might not like doing either of those things, or that even if they normally do prefer being legible or having clear rules for an interaction, it doesn't necessarily mean they want to be suddenly pressured into it by a relative stranger without getting any say of their own about what they're willing to be legible about, or which rules they're willing to follow.)

This comment is excellent and I would give it more upvote if I could!

I like this point too:

Just from an information coding perspective, the length of this utterance communicates, "I consider this to be a complicated circumstance requiring extra care in order not to go badly"

I don't wholeheartedly agree with everything you say here, but I updated the post to point out the risk of putting people "on the spot" .

When you approach someone, include some words to the effect that you’ll gracefwly accept a rejection.

In most social situations outside of some really weird cases, it is no use to add disclaimers or clarifications. Doing this says one or more of

  1. "I'm more worried about rejection than the average person who doesn't use those words". Being more worried about rejection than the average person is considered undesirable and itself makes you more likely to be rejected.

(This is true even though the statement claims to say that you are less worried about rejection. Because if you really weren't worried about rejection, you'd have no reason to say that you aren't worried about rejection.)

  1. "I don't understand how to communicate my attitude towards rejection in the normal manner, so I'm doing it in this unusual manner instead". Not understanding how to communicate is undesirable and makes you more likely to be rejected.

The reason I say that I'm not worried about rejection, is that I am worried about their fear of rejecting. I personally have anxieties about 3 and 4, which makes proclaiming my lack of fear 1 the logical thing to do.

But you make a good point: Some people are likely to misunderstand what I try to communicate, and end up concluding that I actually fear rejection.

I like that spelling "gracefwly". It reads right phonetically while looking cooler than the usual.

I would unironically suggest discussing this type of shyness with a good therapist or counselor, because it can arise from some rather detrimental habits of thought that you might benefit from identifying and thus gaining the ability to choose whether you want to modify them.

Levels 2 and up in your graphic read to me as ultimately fears of immaturity, and misplacement of personal responsibility.

Consider framing level 2 as fear of interacting with someone who lies to you about their preferences for whatever reason. Nice people lie for good reasons sometimes; it doesn't automatically make them bad people or something. But if you're interacting with someone who chooses to lie to you, and then suffers as a result of having made that choice, do you really want to make that suffering your problem?

Consider framing level 3 as an extreme desire to control someone else's experiences. By not approaching the person, you're saying that your idea of what's best for them is more important than giving them the choice of whether or not they want to interact with you. You're doing something uncomfortable for yourself in an attempt to control another person's experience in a way that doesn't seem to me like it ought to be any of your business. Try generalizing this to other parts of life, to see its absurdity: what if the stranger next to you in the grocery store had a really bad experience with your favorite food one time? Should you try to protect them from being reminded of that bad experience by not buying your favorite food, lest they see it in your cart? Not a perfect example, for sure, but it's another case of trying to control someone else's experiences in a way that's unreasonable to expect of yourself and ultimately not good for you.

Level 4 is like a combination of the two: fearing that you can't let other people make their own decisions, and living in a world where adults shouldn't be given choices lest they suffer due to the consequences of their own actions.

If you insist on holding a paradigm where you're responsible for others' experiences to the point of withholding choices from them, it seems you could turn it around as an argument for social interaction: What if these poor incompetent hypothetical people, who can't be trusted to say what they think or do what they prefer, actually want your friendship but are too shy and untrustworthy to pursue it first? What harms are you bringing them to by withholding your company?

Think of the norms I'm proposing as cheap social interventions for mental health. You can say 2-4 are misplacements of responsibility. They're symptoms of an overactive anxiety. But I think there's a limit to how much we should care about where responsibility lies when considering how to behave in order to bring happiness. I think taking the anxieties into account (by being upfront with willingness to reject, and helping others reject you if they wish) can improve our relationships and communities regardless.