How to Talk to Shy People
by Laurie Wilhelm
We’ve all come across shy people at work or in our social circles. Unfortunately for some shy people, their shyness can be wrongly judged as arrogance, conceit, or superiority when, in fact, they’re just shy, reserved, or quiet. I’ve met many shy people over the years and once I’ve gotten to know them, I’ve found that they’re often interesting, expressive, chatty and fun with a good sense of humour and several of them have become good friends of mine. You just have to take the time to get to know them.
Here’s a list of suggestions on how to better interact and socialize with shy people. (Please note that I’m talking about shy people, not introverted people. There is a difference. Check out Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch to find out more about what is an introvert.)
1. Be friendly, not boisterous.
Be friendly but not so energetic and loud that it overwhelms them and makes them uneasy. Just smile and be welcoming while speaking in a moderate tone.
2. Ask them questions which they can respond to with more than a yes or no.
Try to be specific with your questions rather than general. “How’s your day going?” will commonly receive the one-word, generic response, “Fine.” Instead, focus your question on something that has a conversational direction and requires some elaboration when being answered, “What projects are you working on?” or “What do you think about the new program we’re trying out?”
3. Wait for the answer.
Sometimes, shy people may have to formulate their response in their mind or find the right words before speaking them. Making motions for them to hurry up and say something isn’t going to lead to a quicker response. It may well increase their potential nervousness because now they’re under pressure to live up to your subjective and self-determined time allotment to respond. It’s unnecessary to push them along. So it takes a few seconds for them to put together their answer – big deal. Give them some time and space and just relax.
4. When they answer, don’t interrupt, find their words for them, or complete their sentences.
Taking over their response shows that you’re not really interested in what they have to say and how they want to say it. (Of course, interrupting is not OK in any conversation whether the other person is shy or not!)
5. Don’t put a shy person on the spot in front of a group.
Putting a shy person on the spot in front of a group by asking for her input can make her nervous and freeze up because now the group’s attention focused solely on her. This can be very uncomfortable and stressful for a shy person. If you do ask her a few questions, be aware that the situation may cause her to respond with short and jumbled responses. Don’t leave her hanging. Pick up the conversation and keep including her. On the other hand, if it appears like she has something she’d like to contribute to the conversation, she might not be comfortable to speak up on her own so invite her by saying something like, “Shelley, it looks like you’ve got a comment…”
6. Shy people tend to prefer one-to-one conversations or interactions at first.
Understand that if you invite a shy person to do something together, avoid inviting half a dozen other people he doesn’t know to join in. One or two others should be fine but more than that can be stressful until he gets to know them better. I’ve found that often when shy people get to know others individually first, they’re much less shy – and even not shy at all – when meeting up with these individuals in larger social groups.
7. Finally, never, ever, say to a shy person, “You’re so quiet.” or “You don’t talk much.”
How is he supposed to respond to that? He already knows he’s quiet and doesn’t need you to point it out, especially in front of a group of people. It’ll just make him more uncomfortable and it serves no purpose.
This isn’t a finite list on how to talk to shy people, just a few tips on how to better interact and improve your social skills around them. When you find yourself in a situation where there’s a shy person, keeping these points in mind might start off the conversation on the right foot and create a social environment where everyone can enjoy themselves, shy or not.