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I am shy, introverted, and have social anxiety, so chatting with people I don't know is usually very uncomfortable. I've gotten better at it, but it's still a struggle. On a few occasions it's been pointed out to me how awkward I am being. When I hear that, I just want to shrivel up and disappear - obviously not a viable response!

A couple examples where this happened:

Trouble maintaining eye contact -

"You can look at me, you know!"

Meeting a new person (who was pretty blunt, but in a cultural difference sort of way), when I thought I was doing a pretty good job of being "normal" -

"So! I see you're pretty shy!"

I'm pretty sure they just meant it in a light-hearted fashion, but I get really embarrassed by attention being called to my social failings, which just makes it worse :(

Saying "Haha, yeah, I have social anxiety" is way too personal to share in these scenarios, but I have no idea what they were expecting me to do or say. Were they really expecting me to go "oops you're right, let me turn on the Social Butterfly switch!" What am I supposed to respond with when this happens?

(For what it's worth, I have a similar reaction when someone tells me to "speak up" or repeat myself because I talk softly, but at least I know what I'm supposed to do there!)

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    If someone points out you're shy, maybe you can make some joke like, "I just need a few shots of vodka then I'll be fine." – eternalGoldenBraid Aug 16 '17 at 4:48
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    @eternalGoldenBraid I can imagine making a joke out of oneself in this situation doesn't work if you are really shy… – glglgl Sep 7 '17 at 15:28
  • Making no eye contact is not so bad. Depending on what you work, one of the stereotypes include the inability to make eye contact – as in "How do you recognize an extroverted physician? – He is staring at your shoes (as opposed to his)." What do I mean to say with that? It is not bad to be as you are. Either things will change over the next years or decades, or they won't. 20 years ago, I was different from today as well… – glglgl Sep 7 '17 at 15:31
  • This is just the worst comment in a social situation. Nothing opens up an introvert like mentioning how little they speak. – shortstheory Oct 12 '17 at 16:42
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About feeling socially awkward

You mentioned that you're uncomfortable telling the other person that you have social anxiety. That's perfectly understandable. Although the other person might very well understand, and even respect you for your candor, many people find it uncomfortable to discuss their anxiety with others, and there's no reason you should do something that makes you even more uncomfortable.

I would, however, suggest that you not think of your anxiety as a "social failing," because it's merely a characteristic of your personality, not a failing. You might find enjoyment in the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. It points out the value that people who aren't naturally outgoing bring to their environment.

I would suggest keeping in mind that when another person draws attention to shyness, they don't necessarily mean it in a demeaning way. If they are outgoing themselves, they might not understand why someone would be shy, and their willingness to draw attention to it is a natural outgrowth of their own inhibitions and willingness to speak freely. Personally, I have been called shy by people who also expressed respect for me in other ways, so even though it took me off guard to be called out, I was able to take it without feeling like it was an attack on my personality, or an undesirable characteristic. Of course, that doesn't mean handling these situations is simple, for me or for anyone.

What you can do when someone draws attention

Most people do understand that everyone is different, so if you're seeking a middle-ground between acknowledging the anxiety and trying to fake it, or pretend that the anxiety doesn't exist at all, there is the option of acknowledging what they say in a minimal and honest way. You can always say something along these lines:

That's just the way I am sometimes.

I'm just being myself.

That's just me.

If you try something along these lines, you might find that the other person brushes off the issue. They've met shy people before, and they probably won't push the issue further. If they do, and continue to needle you for being shy, then they might not be the sort of person you want to be associating with anyway. You could tell them, "Sorry, it's nothing personal," and allow them to either let it go or else you don't have to keep answering their questions. You're not obligated to be interrogated by other people because you feel uncomfortable.

Easier said than done

Out of the pieces of advice people receive for handling awkward situations, few of them are easy for a socially anxious person. People often say, "laugh it off," but sometimes laughing or grinning can be difficult during moments of anxiety, and attempting to fake it when you aren't really feeling it can cause more discomfort.

Similarly, brushing off a comment by saying, "That's just the way I am" might not seem easy at first when in the heat of the moment. Maybe try this sort of response the next time you feel as though you're in this situation, and consider it practice. If it doesn't feel right, you can either decide to keep practicing, or try a different approach the next time.

Either way, overcoming specific aspects of social anxiety -- as with other anxieties -- is often accomplished through immersion, or subjecting oneself to difficult situations until they become easier to handle. Think of each time that this happens as another step toward feeling more natural the next time.

  • I feel that those answers can be perceived as rude. It's like telling them yeah well that's how I am deal with it. – Voldemort Aug 15 '17 at 4:22
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    @Voldemort nothing rude about telling people "this is me, deal with it". If anything, it's the honest response. – Erik Aug 15 '17 at 5:44
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    @Voldemort I think it could be phrased positively! Like "yep, that's just how I roll!" vs. "Yeah, you gotta problem with that?" Since they weren't being accusatory, I could definitely see this working to move on in the conversation. – Em C Aug 15 '17 at 11:28
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A lot of these are pretty serious answers, but generally when someone makes an offhand comment like that, they aren't thinking deeply and aren't necessarily expecting a serious answer so I don't generally give them one.

I would probably crack a joke, even if it sounds forced, but not in a sarcastic tone. No need to be snarky or anything. Just deliver it very dryly. I have a few introverted IT buddies I work with that do this sort of thing. Depending on whether or not you know them well or if they're your friend, I might respond to a "hey look at me" like "well, I tried that but it hurt my eyes too much". I've also used "hey man, I'm in the zone" just from staring off into space all the time.

Or maybe when responding to a "you're shy" type of comment, come back with a joke better than "yeah, management doesn't let me out of my cube prison much so I forget how to conversate with other humans" or "yep, had to give up on stand-up".

Thinking kind of like Jim from the Office, or Dilbert. Not necessarily sarcastic, just dry.

In my experience, most people that make these comments are so extroverted that they're used to jokes. You just have to know them well enough to know whether or not they thought you were trying to be passive aggressive.

Background: programmer coming from extreme borderline OCD introvert in childhood and teen years to big extrovert.

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Well, it will take a frame shift for you, but it would be better for all parties if you took this to be useful feedback.

I have a co-worker at my office who is smart, capable, and incisive. But in a conversation with anyone, he very rarely makes eye contact. This dramatically impacts his effectiveness, and his ability to connect to others. I'm pretty sure that he's not aware of it: it would be life-changing for him if he was more mindful of this.

The people that are making these comments are almost certainly not doing this to be mean, but because your behaviours are making them uncomfortable, and they are hoping to correct it. And they're likely mentioning it because they would like to feel more comfortable with you. You are getting direct feedback about the things that make you seem socially awkward. That's valuable information.

I know that you feel knocked down a peg when someone says something like this to you, and I totally sympathise. But if it's your goal to become less socially awkward, it's really helpful to understand particular behaviors that lead to that impression, so you can work on changing them. Right now, it sounds like you are so deflated by the remark that you feel even more awkward. It's a chicken-and-egg dilemma.

It will take a shift in attitude and mindset to accept these "criticisms" with optimism and grace. The response you're so reluctant to make, "Haha, yeah, I have social anxiety," may well be the best and most productive response to these comments (or, if you don't want to publicly diagnose yourself with a clinical label, you could say, instead, "I'm sorry, but I'm kind of shy," maybe followed by "Thanks").

It may not be what you want to hear, but from what you wrote, it sounds like these people are not trying to be hostile, but to give you feedback.

I had social anxiety when I was younger, and it was largely appropriate, because my social manner was awkward: I was not coming across socially as the person I thought of myself of or wanted to be. Had I had that kind of (presumably) friendly feedback more then, I would have worked through it many years sooner than I did.

  • Yes, exactly! I know they mean well but I do get very deflated. Kind of like how telling people "calm down!" rarely works :) I have some painful memories of my parents telling me similar things (e.g. "this is why you don't have friends") which doesn't help either.. Giving the honest response is a little scary but maybe I can practice in situations where it's more personal. – Em C Aug 15 '17 at 11:22
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I've found humor to be pretty helpful in such situations. Not humor against the person or their statement, but something a bit more gentle and (from my sense of humor) a bit absurd or tangential.

For example, if someone says you can look at them, you could say something about admiring the view (of a blank bit of wall), or not wanting to look at something else that is past them - in the interests of not making a statement against them that may cause offense pick something like another blank bit of wall that has offended you. Preferably while looking right at them, to show that you took their statement as intended as well. Or a joke about them having teleported from where you were looking to where they actually are, or needed new glasses (if you have glasses).

Or for your other example, if someone says you're pretty shy, mentioning that "that's what you want them to think", or that you're "plotting and planning" - instead of being quiet from shyness. Or something about (jokingly) calling it a big secret or implying you were trying to hide it (like "Oh, no, however, did you find out", or "drat, the camouflage failed again"). Again, preferably followed by making a bit more (visible) effort to pay attention to, or be more involved in the conversation - may be asking questions.

This sort of answer seems to signal that their statement was heard and received - since your answer is intended to be non-serious you aren't denying the situation, but you are also not making it the topic of conversation. That way you can take their feedback and acknowledge it, instead of trying to pretend the whatever wasn't happening, while keeping the conversation light. Especially helpful if it's something you can immediately do like eye contact, and/or accompanied with a smile, or theatrical emotions consistent with your joke, while not dwelling on any reasons why you were doing or not doing whatever, to begin with.

I've found that if gently done, it can be used in almost any situation save the most formal. Most people use informality for friendliness, so a touch of it in the form of humor is usually well received. Especially since these kinds of comments are almost always from people or in situations where a bit of ease of friendliness is desired by the person speaking. I tend to shy away from anything that targets them or their actual statement, since it may cause offense if the joking intent doesn't quite come through.

More concretely, you will want whatever these bits of humor are to be in line with your personality and circumstances, it's much easier to keep it up that way. It may help if you can remember previous comments, or think of the habits you know about, and try to come up with potential responses in advance - even if you don't use them specifically, they may provide practice or inspiration for on the spot ad-libbing.

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When you know, you care. If someone has the same issues that you have, they won't ask or comment even if they notice it. That's the point of it.

So my suggestion of responding to the questions are as follows:

"You can look at me, you know!" Say sheepishly, "Yeah, I would but then again, you would be distracted by my beautiful eyes, and we wouldn't be able to focus on our conversation!" It politely conveys that the fault would lie with the person who made this comment and not you! It's also a joke that you are flattering yourself!

"So! I see you're pretty shy!" "Are you an extreme extrovert, for only an extreme extrovert could say this!". You are not admitting anything but instead reprimanding any self-proclaimed extrovert passing unsolicited comments on a supposed introvert!

If you want a light-hearted response, then you can also say, "Thanks for calling me pretty, but my name is "X" not "shy"!"

We all could use more "Empathy" in this world. Observing should never lead to judging. Unfortunately, that's how most of the world works!

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Even when people are not shy, there are situations they don't actually quite know how to deal with it.

For example, I am very extrovert. (a bit too much, other side of the spectrum but same reasons: self-esteem problems) A few years ago; I remember an older woman (friend of my parents-in-law) who said I looked liked her dead son. She kept saying that a few times and I totally did not know how to respond.

I knew why though:

If you are rude, then you might upset her, and having a son who passed away, it is not the best solution. But if you are nice, you may risk that she keeps wanting your attention, something I did not want either. That moment I chose to be silent for the first time in my life. It did not help myself, because I felt sour for weeks about it. But if it happened again today, I would do the exact same thing.

My solution is different than the other posters here, of course, they all have great examples how to respond.

I think your main concern should be:

"Why worry about it?"

And I believe that is where your solution is. You are focusing on their side. Why do they say that? And what do I have to say in return? While you rather should focus on: "I cannot do something about it. So I should let it go. I am who I am."

That way you can respond the way you always respond. Shy. Because so what? If people find problems in that, they shouldn't be in your life. ( and most of them are gone after that anyway... ) Good riddance, right? It's called selection. You personally select the people you want (close) in your life. Everyone else is just extra. It may sound rude, but it is the best defense system. If you keep worrying about their opinion, you only find yourself doing a lot of hard work, with no results. What a waste of energy, right?

Social anxiety is something you have to deal with. It's hard or even impossible to ever get rid off. But you can train to be less affected by it. And the best way to do that is professional help. They can give you the right tools to make yourself stronger and survive the mean, angry, extrovert world.

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You could try something like:

Ha. Ha. Thanks for pointing that out, it's super helpful...

Said in a sarcastic tone, it can indicate that you're aware of the social convention, but that you're also aware that it is kind of rude to call attention to someone's social anxiety. Admittedly it's more than slightly passive aggressive.

Another approach is to just ignore it, some people seem to think that everyone should be as extroverted as they are. You can always just sort of shrug it off like what they said didn't really register as something worth responding to.

Eh... Whatever.

In any case it's worth knowing that what they're doing in these instances is a little rude. They may not mean any real harm, but it's still not exactly kind. They're putting you on the spot, and they are at least aware of that much. You may be shy, but there's nothing inherently wrong with being shy. Feel free to put people in their place when they put you on the spot.

  • Thanks for the answer! I think these comments usually seem like (misguided) attempts to put me at ease, kind of like addressing the elephant in the room, so it would depend on how close my relationship was with them to respond with sarcasm. But I've definitely don't the "Yeahhhh... awkward shrug" a few times :) – Em C Aug 15 '17 at 1:56
  • Not sure why this was downvoted, other than lack of sources? I almost answered the same thing myself. – user2191 Aug 18 '17 at 16:44

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