March 6, 2012 4:46 PM   Subscribe

How can I overcome my introversion, social anxiety and supposed language barrier and bond with my SO's friends and family?

My boyfriend and I have been together for one year. He is a native French speaker, and I am a native English speaker. We always speak to each other in English.

I have a certain amount of social anxiety in which I get very anxious and quiet in with people that I don't know very well. I also am very introverted and I enjoy spending time alone, or short amounts of time with my close friends and family. In social settings, I often feel fairly good for a certain amount of time, but then if it goes on for a long time, I start to feel exhausted and unintentionally start tuning people out out of fatigue and an overwhelming feeling of wanting to get out, or be alone. There are situations where this can be controlled by me leaving when I've had enough, but there are certain situations to which I have a certain social obligation towards (spending time with my partner's friends or family, holidays, special occasions, etc) in which I try my hardest to stick it out to the end, and to talk myself out of the desire to flee. Despite my greatest efforts, sometimes I just shut down and stop talking completely and start feeling really tired and well... trapped. It's a fairly negative feeling and I always try to rationalize that it's not a big deal, and my SO wants me to be there, and that I don't have to do it often at all so I need to just suck it up and tough it out.

My past relationships have all been with other anglophones. This is the first time I've been in a relationship with someone who speaks a language other than English at home.

I can speak French, and for all intents and purposes, we'll say that I'm almost fluent. I live in a French city, and spend the majority of my working day communicating in French. When I'm comfortable, I have no problems having conversations in French or approaching people in French. However, when I attend dinners and special events with my boyfriend's family, or I end up having to socialize with his friends and people who are close to him, I completely blank out. I often spend almost entire events in complete silence, only speaking (nervously) when someone speaks to me first. This is not atypical for me in general, but the added stressor of having to communicate in French amplifies the anxiety ten fold. As such, I haven't been able to bond with any of his friends and family. The fact that they know that I can speak French, but don't (can't?), makes me a million times more anxious, because I feel like they must think that I'm refusing to speak their language for whatever reason, which makes me feel bad because it's not a matter of choice, but a matter of anxiety, and I don't want them to think I'm a snob or something. Sometimes my boyfriend steps in and explains stuff or tells stories on my behalf, but they must wonder why I can't speak for myself!

I've read a few other language barrier related posts around the internet and most people suggest to practice as much as possible in order to become comfortable. But I do practice, I speak French all the time at work and in public when I'm alone with no real issue, yet when I'm faced with his loved ones, my mind goes completely blank! It's not a matter of having a bunch of things to say, but not knowing how to say it. I actually feel like my mind is completely blank and I have absolutely nothing to add to any conversation. It's definitely not a matter of disliking them, because they are all wonderful people who have never done anything to make me feel uncomfortable.

This is obviously very stressful because I really would like to have a good relationship with them, but I'm having serious communication problems. He also has a large boisterous family who tend to laugh a lot and talk over each other, which is great (I am SO happy he comes from such a great family!), but sometimes I have trouble following the conversation because they're all talking at the same time. Then sometimes they ask me a question, after I've not really understood what's been going on (and probably have mentally checked out of the conversation because I'm tired of social overexposure and anxiety), and get caught off guard and again, am unable to answer!

I'm afraid that my body language and lack of communication make it seem like I really don't want to be there. Well, I guess sometimes, I don't want to be there anymore, but it has absolutely nothing to do with my feelings towards them and everything to do with me wanting to recharge and stop feeling anxiety.

My boyfriend has always been very supportive of me, and although he is extremely extroverted, he has never tried to change me and has never even seemed to be bothered by the way I am around his friends and family. I think that part of my anxiety may have stemmed from how he used to laugh at my accent when I spoke in French early on in our relationship and even before we were dating. It was never malicious, and I told him not far into our relationship that it made me uncomfortable and he apologized very sincerely and stopped teasing me completely, even to go as far as to tell me that he loves my accent and that it's charming and he wishes he could hear me speak French more often. Basically, he loves me and accepts me 100% for who I am and never meant harm when he was teasing me back then.

Obviously though, for some reason, even though the teasing has long stopped, I can't shake the anxiety that came from it. Add that to the anxiety that I feel in most other (English) social situations and... yeah... disaster.

How can I stop blanking out when I have to communicate in French so that I can form bonds with the people he's close to? I want to be a part of his life and stop being the weirdo that his friends and family can't seem to bond with!
posted by ohmy to Human Relations (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
You talk about dinners and special events with your boyfriend's friends and family. Are most of the times you spend with them large gatherings? If so, could you arrange a dinner with, say, the two of you and one or two other people? That might give you a lower-stress opportunity to get to know them so that you could practice, and then you'd know someone at future events. Also, it might be helpful if either he or you downplayed your French proficiency. I realize that it might feel dishonest, but asking them to speak more slowly and give you more time to answer questions might allow you to participate more fully in the conversation simply by keeping the tone more relaxed.
posted by decathecting at 4:50 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, I wanted to add a couple of things:
1. His family doesn't speak English
2. I'm 100% comfortable with my boyfriend.
3. I haven't been diagnosed with social anxiety. I saw a therapist briefly and told her that I felt that I had social anxiety that was preventing me from functioning normally (hindering my academic and/or career progress), but she always kept saying that I didn't seem to be socially anxious, maybe because I was very comfortable with her and generally don't feel anxiety in one-on-one conversations. I stopped going to see her because... well... it was giving me anxiety.
posted by ohmy at 4:51 PM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should try to speak to your boyfriend exclusively in French, for a while. It sounds like you know how to speak French in a professional context, but not in a familiar, affectionate context.
posted by acidic at 4:55 PM on March 6, 2012 [8 favorites]

As someone who also struggles with social anxiety, that therapist just sounds bad. But you have lots of good options for helping with this!

Think of people you already love, like your boyfriend, and project that warmth to person that he's close to that you're talking to - that should help with the body language that might be read as stand-offish. Pretend you're actively Pleased to see them, and they will warm up to you (and soon it will be unfeigned on all sides).

Then, ask questions. Everyone loves to talk about the things they love, so old reliables are: kids, dogs, hobbies, family. If you're Relatively new to the city, ask them where there favorite grocery or book or whatever shop is. If you're not new, but want to learn more about the culture, ask them what some of their favorite Frenc movies in the least few years were. If it's his family, ask what boyfriend was like in high school, or some other time that may draw fond and funny memories.

Basically, do everything you can to get them to talk more. Because you know talking is difficult for you, especially in French and with them. And the more they talk, and more comfortable and engaged and Enthusiastic they are, the more comfortable you'll be.

Lastly, I know it's not the Best choice ever, but a quick drink to start the evening often helps my anxiety a Lot. Once the ball is rolling and I've had a drink I'm way less anxious, more friendly myself.
posted by ldthomps at 5:43 PM on March 6, 2012

I have the same issue. I'm an introvert, tend to be socially anxious, and I spend a lot of time with a good Spanish-speaking friend. We're not romantic but we're close and I care what his friends and family think of me.

We use a mix of Spanish and English when we're alone. When we're joined by his friends or family, I tense up and my ability to speak Spanish plummets. The longer the socializing drags on, the more tired I become until I just tune out. This happens to me in English as well but not nearly to the extent it happens in Spanish, and it's especially bad with my friend's loved ones.

One thing that has helped me has been to build my own Spanish-speaking social life separate from him. Chatting with my own friends, with no concern about pleasing anyone, has made me more confident about socializing in general, which has helped me relax more in the higher-pressure situations.

If you're not having the sorts of freewheeling group conversations at work that happen with your boyfriend's family, maybe you could go out with a group after work to a bar or otherwise emulate the setting but without the concern about how your conversational ability reflects on your boyfriend.

Another thing that has helped has been having smaller one-on-one conversations with individual family members. If I can forget about the pressure and focus on just one friendly person, I can have a halfway intelligent conversation, and then I can win people over one at a time.

So maybe you could peel one person away from the hubbub and quietly focus on them, especially if you can do this away from the general scene so you're less likely to feel judged. As you build individual relationships in the group, you'll increasingly feel like there are friendly people there who know you're not snobbish or cold, and that should lower your anxiety.

I also agree that it might help to speak more French with your boyfriend, so you associate him with happy French speaking. Then maybe the association will spread to the people connected to your boyfriend.

Finally, another thing that has helped me has been to explain that I have trouble hearing in a large group. People assume I'm hard of hearing when actually it's just a processing problem, but the effect is the same: If I ask them to repeat themselves and do it with my hand cupped behind my ear, they're more likely to think, "Ceiba didn't hear me" and not "Ceiba doesn't understand Spanish."
posted by ceiba at 7:01 PM on March 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've been told that one has to be very special to a French person before s/he invites one to his/her home...if this is the case, SO's family/friends DO like you.
posted by brujita at 8:27 PM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think acidic above nailed it. The way language works in the brain is highly dependent on the relationship you have with the people you talk to -- it just wires onto the social connections. This is why children in multilingual families automatically switch languages when they address different relatives without even thinking about it

I'd say your inability to talk French to your SO's relatives is not a result of your anxiety. You're probably anxious because you see that you can't do it and you don't understand why. By the mechanism I mentioned above you probably just can't -- your brain is not yet "wired" to speak French in the private sphere.

If anything blame that on your choice to only speak English to your SO. By making this choice, you denied yourself the training of "French in the private sphere". Of course, it's certainly not too late to start. However do not be surprised if, like with all language learning, it will take a while before you rewire -- maybe months.
posted by knz at 12:05 AM on March 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

(NB: I studied linguistics and language acquisition, that's where my comment is coming from)
posted by knz at 12:06 AM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

13 years ago, I was precisely in your situation (although the languages in question are different), so boy can I totally relate! We just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary, so somehow I seem to have muddled through... I also know that my spouse's family is very fond of me, despite the initial difficulties communicating with me (and despite probably still finding me a little clumsy and comical, which I'm OK with). Could it be that your boyfriend's family is more understanding, forgiving and eager to like you than your anxious mind gives them credit for? If you're a harsh critic of yourself and perhaps a bit of a perfectionist, it's textbook that you assume others to be more judgmental than they are. They probably aren't, honest.

The advise to switch into French with your boyfriend more often is a good one, and it really helped a lot in my case, although it did take a while (and the switch itself can also be a bit tricky). Social talk - especially in a boisterous family context - is different from talking shop, so you can think of it as just a linguistic skill you simply need to hone. But I'd also look into ways to manage your social anxiety, since it does play a key role, as you've already noticed. (That was the case with me, too.) Your previous therapist sounds a bit clueless in that regard, perhaps find a better one?

Anyway, it helped me to just accept my limitations. When I was caught off guard by a question after I'd zoned out for a while, I just politely apologized and said I hadn't understood. People would then just repeat the question and if I still looked puzzled, provide context, or the conversation would move on. It still gets awkward sometimes but it helps me to remind myself that it's not a job interview where I'm being probed and judged, rather than a (noisy, exhausting!) way for families of this type to pass time.

If you feel bad about appearing stand-offish because you can't participate in the conversation and your exhaustion seeps through, try to initiate more whenever there is a lull, or perhaps when there are fewer people around. Just some simple, friendly remark on how pretty the flowerbed is or whatever - if they're anything like my spouse's family, more people will then join in and it quickly becomes a heated debate on different types of fertilizer, and I don't/can't participate as much but hey, I got it going! And they saw I want to connect! Also, keep an eye on your body language, have an open an interested facial expression, smile. Even nowadays I sometimes cheat and chuckle at punchlines I don't really get because it makes me feel less like a stone-faced weirdo.

Also, one very practical experience that may help you, if there's a chance, is to spend more time with people who are still trying to learn your language. (For me, there was ample opportunity when my spouse started to learn my own, strange mother tongue.) You'll quickly realize how understanding you (and other native speakers) will be of their limitations. Also, don't feel weird about your accent! One thing that has always given me great comfort is a study I read long ago: if you have a noticeable foreign accent, people will attribute your gaffes or other less than brilliant things you say to your linguistic limitations rather than lack of intellect or interest. Also, it really does sound terribly cute.
posted by sively at 12:20 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Bonjour ohmy!

I've been where you are – spent 8 years in a serious relationship with a French man, whose family only spoke French. It is very hard at first. Listen to the commenters saying that context makes a difference, they are correct!

Practicing with your boyfriend will help strengthen your "family discussion" French. The best way is to structure it, so you know there's an end, and also so you're both dedicated to being monolingual during the time period you decide on: say, one or two hours around dinner time, that way you get practice with food vocabulary too. Discussing food and wine with French people is a common and fun way to bond.

Second, give yourself permission to laugh! Your family-not-quite-in-law probably feels uncomfortable about how they can't speak with you in your native language, and they probably appreciate your efforts quite a lot. I really don't think they're judging you negatively at all. If you can laugh and say "je suis vraiment désolée, je n'ai pas encore l'habitude, je fais de mon mieux mais je me sens un peu perdue – qu'est-ce que tu (or "vous" as needed) m'as dit ?" you'll put everyone more at ease, yourself included.

The French often have a reputation for being snooty that's very rarely justified, I've found. If you've been invited to their homes for long meals, know that you've been granted a rare privilege. Family is considered a very private space in France, so the fact they've graciously hosted you more than once already shows they appreciate your presence. My ex-family-not-quite-in-law (parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents) had a firm boundary about certain people who were "friends but never invited to meals", for instance, and this could include boyfriends or girlfriends who behaved out-of-line without apology, and such.

Rest assured that it will come in time. It's gradual, but one day you'll be sitting with a group of French people, carrying on a conversation, and it will hit you: "I can do this now! I couldn't before!" :)

Also: one thing I've noticed over the years, that really stands out to me, is that I simply cannot listen accurately to more than one French person at a time. On the other hand, if there's a single anglophone – no matter what accent they're using – I will be able to follow everything they say, even from across the restaurant/room, while listening to the single French person I'm following. In other words: don't worry about trying to follow everyone in French. If you notice a person turning towards you and addressing you, laser-focus your French listening skills on them. If there's still confusion, use the polite, "comment ?" ("Quoi" is considered more rude. "Comment" is very polite and will also earn you fluency kudos, since even French people don't always use it.) Even if it is still difficult, this is another thing that comes with practice, although as I mentioned, even after all my years here, speaking French all day every day, I still have a rough time with group conversations.
posted by fraula at 1:51 AM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Like others in this thread, I've been in your position too. I'm an introvert who is perfectly habile in French, except in noisy social situations. And my French husband's family is noisy, to say the least. Dinners out are challenging!

Sively and Fraula have it. It's easy to think that French people are judging you for the slightest error, but they probably aren't doing it nearly as much as you think. Rather, as long as they are intelligent and sympathetic, they probably have also struggled with learning another language in school and understand your difficulties. I love to turn my gaffes into jokes! (I once misheard "il faut que le pain rassise" as "pain ... raciste" and wondered how bread could be racist.)

It's okay to give up and go to bed early sometimes. Even Polly Platt, French cultural analyst extraordinaire, sits like a lump at cocktail parties and wishes for the chair to swallow her whole. But sometimes you need to challenge yourself to make progress. Try to find a balance between the two.

It will take time, but you eventually will improve your language skills in the home environment. Your boyfriend sounds like a keeper, since he encourages you without pressure. I'd bet a hundred bucks that you're at one of those invisible plateaus, where you're making immense progress but don't realize it yet.

Best of luck.
posted by Liesl at 7:11 AM on March 7, 2012

I've been in a similar place, but with a different language, and I do have social anxiety but I don't have it in a way that many people can place their finger on and go "oh, that's it." With my ex (Spanish speaking) it was somewhat easier because I only had to interact with one or two people at a time - I tended to somewhat shut down in groups, but people just assumed that I'm shyish. We spoke Spanish at home with each other, and I always asked people to speak a little more slowly for me.

I'm currently learning an entirely different language, not similar to Spanish, in my current relationship but since everyone we are around speaks enough English for basic communication so far I'm fine. But I'm watching this thread for tips.
posted by sm1tten at 9:14 AM on March 7, 2012

Best answer: You in Quebec? :) I'm French actually, and fairly fluent in English (thank you Montreal), but I realized recently that when it comes to relationship-y things, or personal subjects, I don't feel as comfortable, or "myself", because the level of language, the tone, the type of vocabulary used, is all different. As a result I feel kind of cold in those kinds of contexts in English, and I used to think I didn't see any difference between French and English. So, as others have suggested, maybe practice with your boyfriend? It'll help you practice the more casual level of French, and also will get you used to feeling more "personal" and open in French.
If you guys *are* in Quebec, and if he is like every French-Canadian I know, he'll be flattered that you want to speak French. :) Also, I don't know where you guys are with your relationship, but hearing kind words in your own language is always stronger I think :)
posted by kitsuloukos at 9:43 PM on March 7, 2012

(also, every accent I've heard in my life is cute)
posted by kitsuloukos at 9:45 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

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