Soothe a Nerve
July 20, 2011 3:44 PM   Subscribe

How to Comfort a Nervous Friend?

I notice occasionally when a friend talks to me, they have nervous habits (e.g.: hair twirling, nails biting, playing or pens, tearing paper, etc), or signs of boredom, if you'd rather; they have impatient behaviours (e.g.: tapping the fingers, sitting on the edge of the seat, etc); they sets up a barrier (e.g.: crossed arms or legs).

While I try to maintain as relaxed as possible, their behaviours trigger my anxiety and/or insecurity (cause blank state of mind or sweating) as I worry a bit how I come across and whether anything we said or I did caused such fidgeting. Sometimes I try not to look at them, sometimes I try to change the topic, other times I fail.

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

If not, do you have other successful tips?

Thanks a million.
posted by easilyconfused to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Fidgeting is something I frequently do to keep my mind focused. If you took away the thing I was playing with or held my hands, my anxiety levels would go through the roof.
posted by Zophi at 3:48 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do these all the time. Like, literally, constantly. It's not a nervous habit, it's just a habit. Sitting "normally" is really uncomfortable for me, so I'll always cross and uncross and recross my legs. I am always fiddling with something -- if I don't have anything to play with I'll play with my hair or pick at my fingers or tap my fingers together or tap my feet or... etc. You can ask me to stop if it's bugging you, but I'll start again in a minute by accident. Again it has nothing -- at all -- to do with being nervous, and if I were "calmer" I wouldn't stop. And oh my goodness do not take my things away from me or invade my personal space by massaging my hands... that's completely not OK.
posted by brainmouse at 3:49 PM on July 20, 2011 [13 favorites]

Some people fidget, and you will help no one by trying to physically adapt their behaviors. In most cases they've likely been doing it all their lives and don't even notice.

It's not about you.

But you anxiety is about you, and that's what you should be working to change.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:49 PM on July 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

I don't think all of those behaviors you seen in your friends are necessarily indicative of discomfort or nerves. Sometimes people just like to fiddle with stuff.

Also, just to be clear: are you suggesting that you squeeze/massage the hands of your friends? That seems a little strange and could make people more uncomfortable, rather than less. Unless you're a massage therapist, I suppose. But even then, definitely ask first.
posted by illenion at 3:50 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, you're projecting here - this isn't always a sign of anxiety. Some people are just fidgety. I doubt my husband has ever sat completely still for more than a couple of minutes in his life.
posted by something something at 3:53 PM on July 20, 2011

I think if you did any of those things you'd have more of a problem on your hands - whomever you're speaking with is not a child.

You need to have enough resilience within your own behaviour to handle the behaviour of others.
posted by mleigh at 3:56 PM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

AAAAAAH. No. Really, really no.

I don't fidget because I'm nervous. I fidget because I have some relatively mild sensory issues and fidgeting makes it easier to concentrate. It isn't a personal statement on the topic or the person or my internal state. If you unilaterally took away my ability to fidget (by grabbing my fidget item or my hands) it would really freak me out.

Have you tried talking to them? If you told me my fidgeting made you nervous, I would try to stop, probably with some degree of success.
posted by pie ninja at 3:57 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some people (say, me) fidget or look away because we're truly listening, and that's what our bodies do while we're listening. To sit, make eye contact with you and smile in an inviting way takes effort, and that is effort that doesn't go into paying attention to what you say. So, something to think about. I've had SOs that couldn't stand me picking up a book or magazine and looking at it when we were talking about serious things, until they realized it was a sign that I was actually hearing them, and my body was just doing reflexive things while I was deep in thought/consideration of their words.

And yes, if you attempt to physically manipulate them to stop them from behaving the way you don't like, at the very least we're going to see an AskMe about you posted soon. Odds are, though, that they'll consider it extremely rude.
posted by davejay at 4:01 PM on July 20, 2011

Oh, and to take it from another angle: what if you're just boring? I don't mean that in a hostile way; I just mean that some people talk for a long time about things, and go on and on without engaging the other person in the conversation. Getting clear body language that they're not paying attention might not be a fidgety person thing (as with me), but might also be a sign you're talking too much and engaging too little.

So, just to check: the next time you start to see fidgeting or blocking body language, finish your sentence, pause to see if they're going to respond, and if they don't respond, ask them a question related to what you just said1.

1This does not mean that you should challenge them to see if they were listening! Just that perhaps you're going on too long, and you should give them an opportunity to do some talking, too, and a relevant question is a great way to give them a lead-in.
posted by davejay at 4:07 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah. I twirl my hair almost ALL the time. I am most likely neither nervous nor bored. It's just a thing I do. I think you need to learn to deal with other peoples fidgets. Or get some of your own!

If you tried to intervene between hand and hair, I would cut you.
posted by grapesaresour at 4:10 PM on July 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Those behaviors don't necessarily mean nervousness for me. And what you're suggesting would freak me the fuck out and make me really not want to have conversations with you.

That said, if you explained NICELY to me that my behavior was making you nervous, WITHOUT squeezing my hands creepily, I would try hard to curb it around you.
posted by Stacey at 4:12 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I do this too. If it bugs you, you could tell me, but I would forget to try not to do it without lots of reminders. So you'd probably need to remind me gently over and over. If you discuss this with them, and if they agree to try to curb the fidgeting, ask them what would be a good signal of "you're fidgeting again."

That's how to deal with your issue. But to the extent that you're curious about what's going on for your friend, davejay has a good point. I fidget more when I'm focusing. While reading a boring report for instance, I twirl my pen. I take notes in meetings simply to have something to do with my hands. I tab back and forth between applications while thinking about what to say next in the document I'm writing. (I probably drive people like you crazy.)

Also, if I'm not fidgeting, my internal restlessness gets worse. So taking the external behavior as a sign of internal state is backwards. Externalizing my fidgetiness works wonders. (See also: listening to club merengue when I need to study.) If you held my hands forcing me to sit calmly, I could probably deal with it for ... oh... two minutes? Long enough to be polite and professional depending on our context. But forced to be still and calm, my mind would get more and more jittery, and I'd probably excuse myself somehow.
posted by salvia at 4:27 PM on July 20, 2011

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

I would be quite insulted. If someone's actions are concerning you, the correct thing to do would be to talk to them about it. Taking away things or hand squeezing is the sort of thing a primary school teacher would do: ie superior and patronising.
posted by pompomtom at 4:28 PM on July 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

"Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves?"

Are you my mother? No? Then don't you dare.

In response to the first part of the question, you are reading WAY too much into other people's body language.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:50 PM on July 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sounds more like my ADD than my anxiety. I'm also with the poster above who says they need to fidget to pay better attention.
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:06 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Pretend not to notice, focus on being calm, casual, and friendly. As someone who is also very nervous, being called attention to my nervousness will only be embarrassing or lead to an insecure moment. But talking to someone who doesn't care exactly what you are doing (with your hands for example) can be very calming.

Focus on what they say since their body language (crossed arms, fidgeting) is more about their general nervousness than what they are trying to say or what they think about what you've said. Don't mirror their nervousness with yours since it's not really directed at you.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 5:23 PM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone about not physically interfering.

That being said, if there's a fidgety thing that they're doing that's particularly distracting, and you're CLOSE friends, you might be able to substitute a different fidgety thing. That's what one of my friends did with me -- I would drive her nuts by "clicking" my watch open and closed, not even realizing that it made a noise, and she would offer me her ring to fidget with instead. This only worked because we were good friends, and she said something like "I'm really sorry, but your watch-clicking is making me nuts; can you fidget with this instead?" After the first time, she just started handing me her ring and I'd figure it out.
posted by cider at 5:33 PM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Please don't even mention the habits/tics/twirlings to the person. I have always been mortified when my stuff is pointed out to me. A million times yes to everyday_naturalist's advice: pretend not to notice. That's exactly what Noel Coward or Miss Manners would do; and what you should do, too.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:04 PM on July 20, 2011

I have a lot of energy and like to play with something or doodle or whatever while talking. It has nothing to do with boredom or anxiety. If the person I was talking to suddenly took my hands in theirs in an attempt to stop me from fidgeting, I would be extremely uncomfortable and probably angry. I would subsequently feel far less relaxed around that person.

It seems to me that you're projecting your anxiety on those around you. You need to adjust to these common and normal behaviors. It is not appropriate for you to attempt to force others to sit perfectly still when they are with you.
posted by prefpara at 7:04 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am a twitchy person and fiddling with something with my hands helps me focus on the conversation. If you took away my pen or tried to hold my hands, I would be annoyed and/or creeped out, depending how well I know you. Don't do it.

Maybe suggest going for a walk/doing something active instead of sitting together, if it bothers you that much; if your fidgety friend is moving they might be less twitchy.
posted by min at 7:05 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

I am very high-strung and anxious. If anyone did this to me, I'd freak out or get even more twitchy. Don't do it. MAYBE if you're in a close romantic relationship with them, but otherwise don't.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:47 PM on July 20, 2011

I am hyperactive and easily distracted (many signs of ADHD but haven't sought out a diagnosis); these behaviours you describe are the only way to keep myself focused on what the person is saying and actively participating in the conversation. It drives lots of people I know to distraction - especially teachers and some partners - but the fact is that if I sit there still, my anxiety will mount and I will get all clammy and weird-feeling and ultimately be much more uncomfortable. This also manifests itself as constant doodling, fidgeting with my phone, doing crosswords/sudokus mid-conversation and mid-class etc. A lot of potentially rude behaviours that indicate "disinterested" are instead behaviours to allow my mind to focus.

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

I had a past partner try to do this to me because I kept distracting him and it made me so incredibly angry and anxious and irrationally fucking pissed off (I really really wanted to punch him in the face, take my hands back, and get away). Don't do this. Even if they are your very best friend.
posted by buteo at 8:14 PM on July 20, 2011

As a member of what appears to be the Fidget Club, I have to concur with those who have pointed out that fidgeting occurs for reasons other than anxiety. I am another one who actually listens best when fiddling with my hair / flicking my fingers about / etc. Also not so big on eye contact here. And one of the easiest ways to make me want to avoid interacting with you, ever, is to (a) assume that my fidgeting / generally nonstandard body language means I am "nervous", and (b) decide that I must therefore need your services to "fix" me.

Also, this bit:

Do you think if I took away the barrier, i.e.: whatever they were playing with, and/or gently squeezed/massaged their hands (when they were biting their nails) would calm their nerves? Or that's too much invasion/aggression?

...just screams, nay, bellows BOUNDARY ISSUES. Like bellows with a megaphone, accompanied by neon sparkles and dancing phosphorescent ponies.

You have no right whatsoever to touch people without their explicit permission, unless you are already in an established/close relationship with them wherein the two of you have already determined that random touching is okay. Even if you're sure someone considers you a friend, that still doesn't give you any grounds to squeeze or massage any part of them.

Also, the fact that you consider fidgeting/fidget objects as "barriers" suggests to me that you are making MASSIVE assumptions about how other people's brains work. Don't be that guy. Seriously.

OTOH, if someone is fidgeting in a *noisy* way, in that case I would say you are perfectly within your rights to say something about it, or indicate in an otherwise non-invasive/non-touchy-feely-way that what the person is doing is making it hard for you to concentrate on what they are saying, etc.

E.g., I once had to tell an instructor in a class I took for work to PLEASE stop jingling keys/coins in his pocket because it was driving me batty and preventing me from focusing on anything but the JINGLE JINGLE JINGLE. But at no point in my request for quiet did I start psychoanalyzing the instructor, offering him unsolicited "pep talks", etc. Us fidgeters are generally capable of "fidget transfer", and I WOULD actually very much appreciate (again, WITHOUT THE RANDOM TOUCHING!) knowing if a particular fidget was bothering someone. In that case I would certainly be willing to attempt a fidget-switch, e.g., playing with a rubber band as opposed to with my hair if the person I was talking to was grossed out by hair touching or something.

But, I reiterate, notice that this is pretty much all about managing YOUR reactions. Please, please, for the love of adorable puppies and rainbows, don't play pretend therapist when the person you are talking to has not specifically requested your help/advice or explicitly stated that they are nervous and want your help managing it. And do some reading on the care and feeding of proper boundaries.
posted by aecorwin at 8:17 PM on July 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Teach them to knit.

May not be practical, but if I'm not knitting, I'm tearing coasters up into tiny pieces, taking pens apart, arranging things on the table in patterns, fiddling with my hair, tying knots in things...... With knitting at least I get a pair of socks out of all that effort.
posted by kjs4 at 8:47 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Echoing everybody above. It's not necessarily nervousness. And if I were fiddling with a pen cap and you took it away from me, I would be infuriated. If you grabbed my hand and massaged it, I would be very tempted to punch you in the face.

That said, let's imagine that you've managed to identify actual nervousness. In my line of work, I have a lot of ten-minute interactions with nervous people whom I want to calm down quickly. In my experience, maintaining a calm demeanor doesn't work worth a damn. Being very calm tends to send the tacit message, "If you had your shit together, you would be calm like me. You have to change." The message that other people have to change is basically an aggressive message, and aggressive messages do not help people chill out.

The basic thing you have to understand is this: their nervousness is okay. Your nervousness is okay too.

And that okayness is what you have to communicate. When I'm in a conversation with someone and I'm trying to deflate their nervousness, I've learned to do exactly the opposite of what you say you do. Instead of clamping down on my nervous energy, I let it out a little bit so that we are nervous together. Then I get progressively more relaxed, and more often than not, they relax right along with me. It's like I'm inviting them to relax instead of commanding them.
posted by sculpin at 9:01 PM on July 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

My co-worker stops my leg from shaking with his foot or any object he'e sholding in his hands cause it makes him nervous. Everytime he does that, it makes me want to shake my leg harder and faster. Just leave it alone.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 8:56 AM on July 21, 2011

I'd a twitchy, fidgety person. I play with my hair, I twirl pencils, I jog my crossed knee. Stuff like that. But I'm not nervous at all.

BUT...if you suddenly grabbed my hand and started MASSAGING it I would suddenly become quite nervous. And creeped out. And probably wouldn't want much to do with you if we weren't already close friends (and if we were I'd still be all creeped out and be all WTF?!). And then, later, I'd describe you to other friends as the "weirdo who starting massaging my hands out of the blue like a total creepster."

So please don't.

PS. Don't steal my pencil either. You're not my mommy.
posted by Windigo at 9:13 AM on July 21, 2011

Other people's fidgeting drives me nuts and causes a lot of anxiety. I know they can't help it, so I focus on ways to ignore it. I don't look at them, or if I can still see it out of the corner of my eye, I turn away. If it's a noisy fidgeting, or the type of leg bouncing that will cause the sofa to vibrate, I try to shift their focus to something else. I will actually end the conversation if I can't stand it. It's not my choice either; I feel like punching you in the face.

Sorry, fidgeters, but my comfort is as important as yours. I do agree that you should not take someone's hand.
posted by desjardins at 9:53 AM on July 21, 2011

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