I was a shy child who grew up to be a shy adult. More than once, my mother pushed me to take some initiative. She encouraged me to do things like invite my friends for sleepovers, rather than only going to ones they invited me to.
As an adult, I now appreciate that shyness is a selfish luxury. The shy person stands around quietly, waiting to be noticed and approached by the braver person who is willing to adopt all the burden of interaction. How many opportunities have we shy people discarded by not being willing to look foolish or face rejection? While I recognize this, I still struggle with it.
Another criticism my mother had of me was my lack of curiosity. For most of my life, I found this a ridiculous complaint; I was considerate… not prying!
No. Decades later, I finally understand. Along with sometimes taking the initiative to engage someone, it is good to express interest in the other person! Ask questions. Encourage the other to take the conversational spotlight for a bit. Fortunately, I figured out this skill long ago, but did not realize that this was what she meant back then.
What finally made me understand were recent experiences with a couple different very nice men.
Now, these men are genuinely nice… not jerks carrying the Nice Guy Syndrome (i.e. “I’m such a nice guy; why don’t the hot girls want me?”). The first is happily married with two children, and has good polyamory communication skills and healthy relationship rules. The second is a very generous and supportive friend. Both are capable of having good interactions with others. I mean it when I say they are nice…
…But they do not encourage a sense of mutual interest.
MarriedMan and I went on three dates. By the second date, I felt pretty sure that I was not interested. I went on the third date to confirm my lack of interest. Why was I not interested? Nearly everything about him seemed ideal: he was stable and smart, he did his relationship work, he seemed quite nice… I just could not shake the feeling that he more wanted a new girlfriend than he wanted me specifically. While he certainly was nice, he just did not seem interested in me personally. I asked questions, not just ones relevant to our potential dating dynamic, but about hobbies, work, general chitchat. He… did not do the same.
TeddyBear (the friend makes me think of a teddy bear: small, cute, and harmless) and I have casually known each other for over a decade, but have actually been becoming friends over this past year… particularly the past few months. At least, I think we are becoming friends. There is the problem: I feel like initiative to interact and the interest is one-sided. We have great times together, with a lot of easy laughs and light jokes. However, our conversations stay superficial. When I hint at sharing my more personal side, he shows no interest. He is willing to talk about his own personal side when I prompt him. In our e-mail exchanges, he sometimes writes at great length about himself — upon my prompting — but does not prompt me in turn, nor initiate new topics. As a result, I feel more like someone being tolerated during our times together: pleasant enough, but hardly his first choice for company.
Right now, I am trying to decide whether to continue fostering my friendship with TeddyBear. On the one hand, he is a kind and generous person who recently provided me real emotional support during a tough time for me, without even understanding the details. On the other hand, as the Henrik Egerman sings in “Later” from “A Little Night Music”: “It’s intolerable, being tolerated.”
Risk looking nosy. Provide prompts. Express interest in others. Be willing to share in turn, and to accept when someone does not want to share something… but show some curiosity.