It is my personal experience in India that someone who is shy or reserved is often perceived as arrogant/ cold/ selfish, though that may be a very inaccurate assessment. It has happened to me because I am somewhat reserved by nature, but unfortunately I have instinctively developed this same misconception at least twice myself when somebody was reserved with me. Later I realised that I had no reason at all to interpret their reserve as arrogance. My friends who live abroad say that this is a common perception in many cultures.

What is the basis of perceiving a shy or reserved person as cold or arrogant?

Also, how can such an impression be mitigated without putting on an act or actually changing one's personality, which is not at all natural and also very difficult?

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    Often, some louder more aggressive people may label someone shy/reserved as arrogant, just because they can, and that person won't speak back. So it maybe isn't being perceived as cold but maybe being deliberately smeared as cold. This doesn't happen a lot, but I think it's a useful special case.
    – aschultz
    Jul 20, 2017 at 23:38
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    @aschultz that is certainly a special case; but more generic, in my experience, at least in India, is the tendency to (mis)interpret an introvert's innate reluctance to engage in the typical social small-talk and shop-talk as 'looking down on others' -- they are suspected of rejecting the community's near-ritualised socialisation, which offends people's sense of communal self-worth and causes them to label the reserved person as arrogant. Again, as you say, the person will often not speak back to correct the misconception. Jul 21, 2017 at 0:25

3 Answers 3


When you do something that people don't expect, they usually feel the need to make up a reason for it. There are two possible reasons for being reserved in a particular situation:

  • the person is shy, or feels inferior and nervous with the people they are with right now
  • the person is cold, and feels the people they are with right now are inferior and not worthy of their time

Now you might expect that people would naturally choose the first one, since most people are nice, and a nice person can be reserved if they're shy. But many people themselves feel a little nervous and a little inferior, and so clutch on to the second explanation.

One thing you can do is assume that reserved people are not snobs and do not think you're unworthy. Be nice to them and accept that they aren't talking much or that they don't want a long conversation. You may find, if you meet them regularly, that they become comfortable with you.

Imagine yourself feeling reserved and nervous about talking to someone who is also feeling that way. If you interpret their reserve as "that person thinks I am inferior" you will probably become more reserved and less likely to talk to them. You can see how this will spiral, there will be no conversation, and you'll both leave feeling bad. But if you try a little harder to talk, imagining they need reassurance, you may find yourself in a pleasant conversation.

If you are talking to a loud blustery confident person, and you worry they will interpret your quietness as aloofness or arrogance, you can try saying some self-deprecating things. For example, admire something in your environment. Consider "That was such an inspiring speech! I wish I had the confidence to speak like that." or "I really enjoyed the dinner. I'm impressed by the cooking, and by whoever chose the menu." (Substitute music, décor, or any other thing that's happening around you.) This serves two purposes: it demonstrates clearly that you're not an arrogant snob, and it provides a topic of conversation that you're ok with. Your super-confident extrovert companion may continue to expound on their holiday plans, why their political candidate is the best, or what should be done about [climate change, immigration, interest rates, etc] but there's a chance they'll move on to something you're less nervous discussing. And even if they don't move on, they're less likely to see you as aloof or cold.

You can also try asking them softball questions. After a long speech about holiday plans or something else you don't feel comfortable talking about in turn, try asking a followup question. "Do you go there a lot?" "Is it crowded?" "How long does it take to get there?" "When did you start going there?" These don't have to be brilliant questions - they show that you are at least superficially interested in the conversation, while handing the turn back to the other person. This does require you to listen to the person, and pay attention, but I find most reserved people are quite happy to do this.

  • Thanks a lot for the detailed and excellent answer! Your tips for appearing less aloof are much appreciated because I'm an introvert and get exhausted by more than a little interaction with non-family people: specifically, I dislike discussing myself. I was called 'reserved' even as a child and therefore am least likely to be prejudiced against a reserved person, but the 'social influence' kicked in on those 2 occasions I mentioned in question, to make me resent those 2 persons being uncommunicative. In fact I was probably meeting 2 persons just like myself and got a taste of my own medicine! Jul 20, 2017 at 8:48
  • Many people dislike discussing themselves. Thing is, most folks you talk to don't really care if you discuss yourself. Either they understand because they have the same issue, or they LOVE talking about themselves and will do so every time you give them a nudge. If you ask questions every time the person pauses, chances are they will hugely enjoy your chat. And for the more reserved person, when you ask questions you are at least helping them through the talking process so that is good too. Jul 20, 2017 at 14:57
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    Very true, @Kate Gregory: and as somebody said, an introvert just has to provide the right cues for an extrovert to do (most of) the talking! Jul 20, 2017 at 15:20

I don't know about your culture, but in the area of the USA where I live, not smiling at people will be seen as cold. It doesn't need to be some large toothy grin, but some sort of acknowledgement that is warm that show you both met eyes briefly is good. You want it to be a friendly smile, without seeming familiar (unless of course, you know that person). Anything less will be seen as being unfriendly, which can be interpreted as cold, distant & sometimes as rude or arrogant. The reason it will be seen as rude here is that there is a social expectation that you will give a facial expression that is kind. People here don't seem to acknowledge that some people's "resting" facial expression isn't smiley, so therefore they will see as a willful gesture of being unfriendly.

Because of this, I have taught my shy children that they do not have to engage in any talk other than basic things, just smile. Because of the social rules where we live, I tell them it's a "polite smile". And I do require they say things like "thank you" or "no thank you" if offered something they do not want, if someone holds a door for us, etc. I tell them they do not have to hold conversations with people, or actually talk (just repeat phrases you know, like "thank you"), but there are socially polite things that we all do and speaking when spoken to is one of them. I know it's not easy for them compared to my outgoing child, but I also know it will be an obstacle for them as they grow up if they do not learn how to handle this in a way that is seen as socially "correct" for here. So far they seem to be handling it fine & I hope it helps them as they get older to have less trouble as being seen as cold. They really are lovely little people, they just need time to get to know people. I mostly just teach them to smile when they do not want to say a word. At these ages, that seems like more than enough to work. It also works great for their dad. It's how he got me. I could see he was very kind, he just is a bit slow on opening up.

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    Thanks @threetimes for this very perceptive answer and for sharing your life experience. A pleasant smile is certainly expected when we meet people we know, or even those we don't! To clarify, I was asking about the type of person who may often smile in a friendly way, but speaks very little even when spoken to: "keeps his mouth zipped" might be the colloquial expression. Jul 24, 2017 at 10:32

Two excellent answers so far. I'd add two things...

Firstly, I can't recommend reading "Quiet" by Susan Cain enough. She discusses the place of the introvert in different cultures and highlights areas where introverts can have a natural advantage over extroverts.

Secondly, I worked in a company that ran a Myers-Briggs training course. (If you aren't familiar with it, it classifies personality types as a combination of Introvert/Extrovert, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perceiving). I've forgotten most of it by now but I'll always remember the final exercise we did as it has helped me a lot. (For what it's worth, I'd always have been very skeptical about that kind of wishy-washy training)

We had all done our Myers-Briggs test to determine our personality type. The instructor got us to write our name on a piece of paper twice - once with each hand. She asked "how did it feel with your dominant hand". She got answers like "natural, simple, normal". Then she asked about the other hand: "weird, strange, awkward, clumsy, etc.".

Next, she asked if, with practice, you could get better with your non-dominant hand. Everybody agreed that, over time, we could.

Her point was this: We had been classified as Introvert or Extrovert, Thinking or Feeling etc.. and this was the natural modus operandi for each of us. But, she explained, we were all capable of being the other type of the two, it just feels uncomfortable and takes a little more effort to do it. And, if we made a conscious effort to push outside of our natural comfort zone, we would, over time, feel less uncomfortable doing it.

That doesn't help you so much in the short term but it has worked wonders for me and given time, and a little effort, it can for you too. For example, I'm quite shy and don't really celebrate birthdays because I hate being the center of attention, yet I've performed stand up comedy and have actually enjoyed giving presentations to over 300 people in work. It's taken a lot of effort to get to that point but I'm a lot more comfortable now in situations where I'd have given anything to be home with a coffee and a good book.

In the end, my answer to your question invites you to a different approach: try to improve your handling of situations where shyness would normally result in you being perceived as cold or arrogant, in order to help minimize that perception. Take it easy, small steps, and don't quit if you haven't succeeded from the first time(or second, or third).

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    This is an interesting answer, but I don't believe it answers the question "What is the basis of perceiving a shy or reserved person as cold or arrogant?" or the follow up of how OP can minimize this perception.
    – scohe001
    Jun 21, 2018 at 17:33
  • Working at improving your handling of situations where shyness would normally result in you being perceived as cold arrogant would not help minimise that perception? Okey doke
    – amcdermott
    Jun 21, 2018 at 17:37
  • Improving yourself is good advice, but you don't specify how OP should go about this...they also specify they want an answer "without putting on an act or actually changing one's personality."
    – scohe001
    Jun 21, 2018 at 17:40
  • Thanks @amcdermott for adding an important dimension based on your personal experience: "we were all capable of being the other type of the two, it just feels uncomfortable and takes a little more effort to do it. And, if we made a conscious effort to push outside of our natural comfort zone, we would, over time, feel less uncomfortable doing it." __ that is for me a new way of looking at it, in terms of being more comfortable developing a less natural social skill: I upvote! Do you suppose an introvert could eventually be quite at ease with it without drastically altering their personality? Jun 21, 2018 at 21:08
  • @amcdermott, I've edited your answer to include your conclusion. Hope it's OK. Feel free to edit as you think.
    – lukuss
    Jun 22, 2018 at 6:12

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