January 26, 2010 3:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I ask my partner to be more subtle/modest/attentive?

I normally date - and am primarily attracted to - shy, modest, unassuming people. I recently find myself involved with someone who is none of these things. I like a whole lot about her and am really enjoying our time together, but a few things are getting to me. I'm guessing I know the solution to all of them (communicate, duh) but I thought I'd ask your brilliant minds for input.
As a shy, quiet, and modest person myself, I find it hard to have a conversation with her, as it often comes back to her, or she will talk and talk and I don't feel like interrupting. I start to get a little resentful that she doesn't want to know more about me (even though she's made it obvious that she's crazy about me). I also find it hard to listen to someone talk a lot, esecially without enough give and take, but I kind of need to be prompted (or at least given time) to resond to what she's saying. Also it's hard because it's often about aspects of her life that I'm not involved with, and I end up feeling a bit like a therapist or a simple sounding board.
In addition, I've always gone with the philosophy of not bragging or even speaking much about your accomplishments, and just letting people figure them out naturally, whence they'll be all the more impressed. She apparently doesn't espouse this philosophy, and I find it hard to feel proud or happy for her when she's obviously so proud and happy for herself (is that messed up?).
I'm not sure if this is stuff that could be addressed with communication or if it's just a personality clash. Tips on how to talk to her about it would be great.
posted by whalebreath to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If you are nice about it, yes, communicating is the only way she is going to know how you feel. Unless she suddenly becomes telepathic.

I only know one couple who are paired in a very similar way to you two, and they make it work, so you probably can too. You won't know if you don't tell her, though. Even if it doesn't ultimately work out, you will at least know that you said what you felt, instead of quietly resenting her for not being more like the kind of person you'd like her to be.
posted by bitterkitten at 3:21 PM on January 26, 2010

Honestly, repeating what you've told us her and then discussing it should be fine.

My partner and I have discussed similar issues - the situation which finally made it all make sense to me was how we shared meals: I will mostly be quiet during a meal, and concentrate on eating. She intersperses eating with continuing to talk, often at length. As a result, I finish my half long before she does. More often than not I won't notice my allotted half is up, and just carry on eating - after all, if she really wanted more, she would have eaten it by now, right?

That's how she feels about conversations. She's from a large, loud, Irish-American Catholic family, and figures that, well, if you wanted to make a point, you'd just interrupt, wouldn't you? If your partner's the same as mine, she probably assumes you are very happy to just listen - because, if you wanted the conversation to be about you, you'd steer it in that direction, wouldnt' you? And if you didn't want to listen to someone talk a lot, you'd be talking, or at least telling her you were done talking for a while.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 3:27 PM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

I don't know about your specific situation, but as someone who tends toward the chatty myself, I would wager it's a personality clash. But perhaps your own behavior has something to do with it.

I am a talker, much like your lady friend, and often I talk because I either don't get feedback that I should stop/modify my talking, or I feel that the other person isn't listening to me. Sometimes those two things go hand in hand: if the other person doesn't care about what I'm saying and waits for me to stop talking, whatever they say in response will not have anything to do with acknowledging me and what I'm saying.

Previous partners have put me down to try to shut me up, and that has been mean and hurtful. You bet I would have avoided it if it were possible.

My current partner is a wonderful active listener, and I find that my talking has gone way down (both with him and in general) because I don't feel like I have to repeat myself to be "heard." This is a big change from, oh, everything I've ever experienced in my life. So yes, it can happen nearly overnight with the right combination of listening and genuine kindness.

And I think you might be off base with your characterization of her as "happy for herself." She probably mentions her accomplishments because she wants SOMEONE to recognize her worth. She may be either unhappy with herself and wanting someone to convince her otherwise, or she IS happy with herself but would maybe kinda sorta like to know if her partner feels the same way about her. The answers she seems to be getting don't really fall in her favor either way.

The wacky thing? I'm probably an introvert, but you'd never know it. I'm just really persistent and don't give up hope that someone who hasn't listened will suddenly listen. There's only one relationship in my life where I let that happen anymore, though: my mom, who isn't worth losing.

One of you needs to change for this situation to work out, but I know from my own experience that it isn't just something you can try to wish away. There's something more fundamental, and I'm not sure whatever that is is worth changing.

From what little you've written here, I don't think this will work out.
posted by Madamina at 3:41 PM on January 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

I've always gone with the philosophy of not bragging or even speaking much about your accomplishments, and just letting people figure them out naturally, whence they'll be all the more impressed.

Not to be a jerk, but hoping people will notice and be impressed by your modesty isn't really all that modest.

Is she a good listener? A lot of people talk a lot, but they also listen a lot. I personally like these people. Maybe she is just waiting for you to volunteer stuff, like she does. But yeah, everyone is different, and you just need to talk to her about it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:50 PM on January 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

In terms of how to have the conversation: keep the focus on "I" statements. For example: "I feel like we're not as communicating as well as we could because I haven't been sharing how my style works." "I'm interested in our conversations, and want to respond to what you're saying, and it would help me if you would ask me for my thoughts directly, or stop and give me X amount of time to process my thoughts." It's not that either of you are doing anything wrong, just that you do things differently.

It might not hurt to ask if she's comfortable with silence between the two of you. Something I've realized only fairly recently myself is that there are some people who don't relate to "a comfortable silence" between people, and will talk constantly to fill the gap. Maybe it would help her to hear you say that she doesn't have to talk, you enjoy her company even if you're just quiet together. That you like her, and she has your attention even if she's not working for it.

As for "I find it hard to feel proud or happy for her when she's obviously so proud and happy for herself (is that messed up?)." It's not certainly not the most charitable attitude, and it is a pretty fundamental style conflict. What you see as "bragging" she might well just see as sharing what she likes best about herself. But if her pride and enjoyment in asserting her accomplishments comes from confidence, you might just have to decide to live with it (or not). If it comes from insecurity, it might be something that changes over time, but that's entirely up to her.

On preview, seconding Madamina. If you want this to work out, it will take work from both of you. Speaking up is one step you can take. Another is being very conscious that your way is the right way for you, but not necessarily the right way for her. But the only way to figure out whether the issue can be resolved or whether the two of you should let this go before you drive each other crazy is to talk about it.
posted by EvaDestruction at 4:14 PM on January 26, 2010

sound like you want to change her. do you really want to date someone whose wings you want to clip?
posted by elle.jeezy at 4:15 PM on January 26, 2010 [6 favorites]

Madamina sounds like my twin - I'm pretty introverted and extremely shy. I try to cover up for that by talking about myself. A lot. I suspect this might be the case for your partner, as well.

My spouse is very quiet and reserved. For a long time after we started dating, I tried to curb my talking (which led to lots of looong silences) until I outright asked him, "Is there anything you want to talk about?" Turns out, not really. So it's possible that your partner just thinks you don't have anything to say.
posted by muddgirl at 4:22 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

She may not be aware at all that her method of conversation is not compatible with yours, so yes, you need to let her know how you'd like conversations to work. Like good sex, a good conversation should have some give as well as some take, and you need to teach what you like. Some folks, once they are aware of what they are doing, can become much better at sharing a topic. Other folks...can't. But making her aware that her conversation style clashes with yours is a very good first step. Like Jon Mitchell said above, it all depends on how she was raised and on her perception of what makes a conversation a good.

Like a lot of things, I've found that my partner is more receptive to these sort of "requests" when I don't bring them up in the heat of battle. Instead, I bring them up later, when things are quiet, and when I can initiate the talk. If your partner interrupts and/or monopolizes the ensuing meta-discussion, you should call her on it, but you should do that in as friendly and constructive a manner as possible. These are hard-to-change behaviors that are strongly ingrained in most adults, so someone has to really, really love you and your company in order to change.

As for the bragging - some people need a continual stream of compliments and reminders that they are worthwhile to get through the day, while others can go for weeks without so much as a smile or nod in their direction. Everyone is different. Personally, I think you stand a much better chance of getting her to share the conversational floor with you, and I honestly would just let the bragging slide; I certainly wouldn't address it until after I had a sense of how receptive she was to changing the way she converses.
posted by mosk at 4:31 PM on January 26, 2010

Best answer: Well, there's "I want her to be more subtle/modest/attentive" - which smacks of you wanting her to be something she is not. You probably won't get very far if that's your approach.

Then there's "I want more reciprocity. I want the feel like we take up the same amount of space in this relationship. I want to feel like what's going on in my life is important to you and I want to feel like what I have to say is as important as what you have to say."

The difference is subtle, but critical. By telling her what you want instead of going after who she is, you give her a chance to change what she does in a way that preserves her basic integrity.

Asking someone to do things differently is usually far more palatable to that person than being asked to change their basic character.
posted by space_cookie at 5:09 PM on January 26, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Hm, with my current relationship, I remember having to tell the guy things like this earlier on in the relationship: "hey, I like hanging out with you, but I have trouble being around people who talk all the time (it's true), can we just lay here and be quiet for a little while? No, I don't want you to leave the room, but lets just be quiet before I get a headache. Please don't get offended?" and "I'm sorry to be rude and interrupt, but can we please not talk about your car anymore? I care, and I do want to know all about how your flux capacitor (or whatever) works and what you're doing to it this week, but can we come back to it tomorrow? I feel myself getting annoyed for some reason when listening to this for a long time, so can we talk about something else?"

It is rude, and it did hurt his feelings, but I figured it's better than me sitting there quietly and then exploding and saying "OMG SHUT UP ABOUT YOUR FREAKIN CAR" or "OMG CAN YOU JUST SHUT UP FOR FIVE MINUTES." And I explained to him that I really really like him and don't want to get annoyed, and I'm OK with listening some other time and I still do want to hear everything he says, and it's better that he learns how I am, than me not telling him and not working this out. And I was/am crazy about him and made sure to show it in other ways, so he believed me that it's just the way I am and I can't talk for too long or stay on the same topic for too long, and he realized that it wasn't me shooting him down in any way.

So yes, communication and explaining very nicely how you feel about what she's saying and how she's saying it, at the same time reassuring her that yes, you think she is an amazing person and yes, she should be proud of her accomplishments, and how you would like her to ask more about you, and you two are just a little different when it comes to communication but it's OK because you like each other and you want to get past it.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 5:22 PM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's hard for someone to be a concept, i.e., subtle/modest/attentive. Identify specific desired behaviors. Request those behaviors. Praise her for those behaviors. Hey, my jewel, I need a bit of quiet time to recharge, so I'm going to go put headphones on and chill with some music. Later. I really needed some space; thanks for understanding.

This is when the Myers-Briggs type indicators are useful. You sound like an introvert; she sounds like an extrovert. Both of you can learn to understand/accept/value the other's behaviors and needs.
posted by theora55 at 5:30 PM on January 26, 2010

It's hard to say this without sounding condescending OR pretentious, but: you'll grow a lot when you stop hoping she'll change and start getting to know and accept who she is. Right now you have all these ideas of yourself and of how people should be, but they're just *your ideas*. They're not real. Every person is different in a profound and ultimately unbridgeable way. Getting to know another person is rediscovering what it means to be human.

Now it could be that once you get to know her, you'll realize that you're not a good match, but the issues you're raising in this question don't strike me as deal breakers.
posted by callmejay at 5:52 PM on January 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing Madamina's implication that she might quieten down if you paid MORE attention to her. It might not work but it is worth a try.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 6:53 PM on January 26, 2010

Why are you trying to change the personality and communication style of a girl you've only "recently" begun dating? How would you feel if someone you'd just started dating immediately tried to change you?
posted by Jacqueline at 7:33 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

It seems like there is a lot of resentment here. Did you tell her you are afraid that she doesn't take any interest in knowing what you think and feel? Just tell her. And if you want her to know how you think and feel, can you try to speak up yourself unprompted?

As far as talking about accomplishments.. Can you try harder to be sincerely glad for someone who accomplishes something and are proud of it? Especially someone you care about? I mean, if her big accomplishment is something like cost-cutting at work by kicking a bunch of disabled children off the health insurance rolls, ok, that's a little weird. But if she's done something good and is proud and happy and your response is to resent her and rain on her parade for being happy, please, change your attitude.

I'm getting a vibe here in which the poor woman is subtly being made to feel like she's not good enough for you. But if you resent and dislike her when she's just being herself, I might think it's the other way around.
posted by citron at 9:48 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with citron, I had a date who acted like that with me. He thought he was being patient and unassuming and quiet when he was really being a non-communicating drag and VERY judgmental. It totally messed with my head because he did it very subtly and passive-aggressively. What you're doing to her isn't fair. Let her know so she can get a chance to really know who you are and get a shot to work on her communication style.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 10:10 PM on January 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We don't pick people, we pick their flaws. No one's perfect. Really. But there are people who are (almost) perfect for you. Yeah, they suck. But they suck in a way that doesn't bother you that much. You might even find their suckiness cute (flawless victory!).

Ever meet someone completely obnoxious, and you think "I would never date someone who [x]! Well, someone does date that person! They can put up with them! Crazy, right? But that's how it works. We pick their flaws and we put up with them.

Let's talk about me now (I'm channeling your lady friend). My partner compulsively moves and "neatens" my stuff (aka hides it). It is bizarre as hell. Where is my stuff?!?! Recently he moved my pants to a mysterious and illogical location (underneath my desk). Why are my pants under my desk. I have to work in the morning and I need my pants. That's the point of pants. Some people, when subjected to this wierdo feline-esque behavior over and over would SNAP. They would yell. It would ruin their morning. I just "aggh where's my pants" and then I find them and whatever. It's a funny story for our mutual friend, who also finds this behavior funny. The moral of this story (which you might have found annoying--good thing we're not married!) is that we don't pick the people. We pick the flaws.

If that pedantry didn't help, here's some specific advice. Don't "communicate" (boring and vague) tell her you want to talk too. That's it. "Hey, hold on, I want to talk about something for a while." Simple. If you literally aren't able to do that, then damn, she must be some kind of crazy talker.

If she's talking about her stuff too much, change the subject. Start talking about something physical in the room. Or do activities where she can't talk so much (hint, sex) and AVOID the phone.

Maybe you'll both become more attuned to each other, she'll notice that you don't get to talk and make more room for you, or you'll get bolder about putting your two cents in. Or your tolerance for it will increase as time goes on and you get to know some of her charms. Or you'll get sick of her or she'll get sick of you and you'll break up.

Really, you just started dating recently, the strategy at this point is have a lot of sex, tell her when she's being annoying, see if it gets better.

Regarding the modesty thing, my man and I had a similar disconnect (he is sooooo Minnesotan Scandinavian). I like it when people are modest to the point of ridiculousness, because I am nosy and it gives me more things to stick my nose into. It was awesome to find out that he gave free guitar lessons at a group home when he was in high school. Of course, some people hate it and think it's pretentious or dishonest (see this thread). Good thing they're not married to my partner. Get my drift?
posted by kathrineg at 11:35 PM on January 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks y'all. I guess I want to clarify that this post was borne out of an impulsive moment of frustration, and maybe I didn't mention enough how crazy I actually am about her, and after the advice to listen MORE to her, I've stopped being so anxious and impatient for her to listen more to me. I've just been tuning in more to what she's saying and speaking up when I want to. It works.

It should also be revealed that I think this is a tactic I use when I get scared/anxious/nervous about a new focus on something that could be a problem and blow it a little out of proportion. She's actually quite receptive to noticing when I need a little quiet time. And she's so pretty/sweet/charming/hot/smart/mature.

Just sayin'.
posted by whalebreath at 6:55 AM on January 27, 2010

She's almost certainly just as nervous as you are, if not more so. Just remember that and be compassionate; hopefully you'll both be able to relax and enjoy yourselves.
posted by Madamina at 10:02 AM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, it's possible she's telling you about her accomplishments because she likes you and wants to share important things that are going on in her life that make her happy. I get a good performance review at work, or break a personal record at the gym, or enter something in a craft fair and win a prize? I'm going to tell my important people about it- not to brag, but to share with them things that are important to me.

Reading your followup, I think you'll probably be fine- communication is key. :) Good luck.
posted by oblique red at 12:39 PM on January 27, 2010

just letting people figure them out naturally

what? i learn about people's accomplishments when they tell me about them. what is this natural way you speak of?
posted by misanthropicsarah at 6:10 PM on January 27, 2010

Other people tell you about them.
posted by kathrineg at 6:47 PM on January 27, 2010

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