How can I encourage my friend to come out of his shell?
August 15, 2012 9:28 AM   Subscribe

O wisest MeFites, do you have any ideas about how to foster intimacy in a friendship with someone who is emotionally guarded and shut down?

I have a friend that I adore, but by golly, he is a difficult person to get to know and be known by. I know that this person has a hard time opening up to people and is quite shy. The thing is, he has on rare occasions, shared some things with me that would be considered pretty personal. But then he clams up all over again and is emotionally distant. He's a great guy and I'd like to get to know him better, but I don't really know what to do to encourage him to open up more. I try to create a "safe" environment for him to be more transparent by listening well, sharing stuff about myself, offering encouragement, etc. I'm wondering if you folks have had a similar experience with a friend and if you have discovered anything that helps to "bring them out". Also, any ideas of activities that people can do together that can facilitate fun and trust in a relaxed atmosphere?
posted by strelitzia to Human Relations (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
...if you have discovered anything that helps to "bring them out".

Yes and, quite counterintuitively, it's "leaving them the hell alone about it." Clearly, however it is your relationship is working right now, it is working to the extent that a generally tight-lipped person is opening up to you. Outside of actively being there for them -- basically all the stuff you said you're doing -- there's no good way to get them to open up faster, and any sort of prodding will actually make them clam up more. You don't help a chick hatch by breaking the egg yourself.
posted by griphus at 9:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [14 favorites]

Some people are just private and remote; some people need a LOT of time to build trust; some people's "trust" doesn't look like other people's. (I have a friend who trusts me a lot - as I've seen over many years - but that trust isn't expressed by sharing lots and lots of stuff. It's expressed by sharing big or intense stuff very occasionally as needed, or by asking for help as needed. That's who my friend is.

The best way to build trust with someone is to be present for them in an honest way. Model what you're willing to share in the relationship so that if someone is thinking "I don't know if I can share" then they know it's okay. But don't press them to share. Sometimes people, especially people who have been very isolated or damaged in some way, spend a lot of time just getting acclimated to the waters of a friendship. Sometimes just knowing that they could tell you stuff if they wanted to is all they need.

Think about why one shares - ultimately, it's to meet the need for closeness. There are lesser reasons like curiousity and storytelling, but the big reason is closeness. But you don't have to share a lot of facts and history to build closeness - you can share experiences and feelings and jokes and worldview instead.

If you're really word-oriented or story-oriented, it can be hard to make the switch to "being friends with a laconic person who expresses affection via shared experiences". Sometimes maybe someone who isn't a word person just won't meet your needs for a friend - if you really need to share stories, someone who doesn't like to hear or tell them may not be someone you can be sustainedly close with - and that's okay, a friendship should meet both people's needs. But sometimes you can just say "hey, my deep needs are being met by this friendship and I am learning a new form of mutuality".

Each friendship is its own thing. The chance to have an unusual friendship in a new modality is really precious.
posted by Frowner at 9:46 AM on August 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

Is this the same friend who you've expressed unrequited romantic feelings for? If so, his guardedness around you might not be due to shyness, it might be about not wanting to give you the wrong impression, or it might be about something else. Even if it's not the same guy, it could be that he's not as interested in becoming super-close with you and just wants to remain casual-friendly. In any case, trying to "bring him out" of his shell can quite easily come across as pushy. It's his shell. Accept him as he is and accept what he has to offer as it is. If it isn't what you're looking for, move on.
posted by headnsouth at 9:48 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I think men bond by shared activities. They sure don't bond by sitting around sharing their deep secrets. If you do stuff with him, he'll get more comfortable being around you and intimacy can grow, but he's not going to just open up and share if you prod him about this. The most relaxed atmosphere isn't soft lights, Lou Rawls and a bottle of wine for two--it's probably an activity where he can enjoy your company and his own actions without any pressure. Hiking, beach day, skeet shooting--really, anything you both enjoy that takes you out of yourselves.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2012

Why does he have to come out of his shell? If he is happy with his life why is it your business to change him?
posted by COD at 9:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

. The thing is, he has on rare occasions, shared some things with me that would be considered pretty personal. But then he clams up all over again and is emotionally distant. He's a great guy and I'd like to get to know him better, but I don't really know what to do to encourage him to open up more.

This is one classic difference between introverts and extroverts. Your friend enjoys your company, I'm sure. A friendship does not have to revolve around the exchange of "secrets", creating debts and credits in your "sharing" accounts with which you mutually obligate yourselves to each other. In fact, it drives me up the wall when someone "dumps" a lot of personal stuff on me with the expectation that I "pay it back" with something equal.... not that I'm totally unwilling to "share" with a close, intimate friend, but it happens when it happens.

You're on a path to dissolve the friendship at this rate. Eventually, you will feel unsatisfied that you don't have an "intimate sharing" friendship, and he will feel awkward and put-upon that he has to keep accelerating the rate at which he lets you in on personal details of his inner life.
posted by deanc at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a very shy friend who is pretty guarded about some kinds of personal stuff (I've talked about her before.) We have a very close friendship but I definitely do more of the sharing - which is very unusual for me, everyone tells me everything. The keys have really been patience (the big one) and keeping a relatively flat affect when she does share something personal. This doesn't mean I ignore it or don't react to it at all, but I don't make a huge deal out of it or draw attention to the fact that she's sharing. I can *see* her bracing herself waiting for the big reaction and when she doesn't get it, she totally relaxes and often continues to open up.

It's hard, it's different from all my other relationships, and frankly, it's good for me. I take too much for granted sometimes.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:11 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't help a chick hatch by breaking the egg yourself.

That actually isn't true.

However, I agree that you should probably just back off. I'm a fairly private person. On occasion I've been influenced by people's little strategies to get me to "open up," and it just makes me feel flustered afterward and like I want to avoid them because I'm not comfortable with this new, unwanted level of intimacy.
posted by HotToddy at 10:22 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some people are stoic in the old John Wayne mode where you never admit anything emotional and the only indication that something is amiss is maybe you drink a bit more whiskey than usual. I'm like this, though I'm a bourbon guy. Leave him alone, let him come out as he wants to, because if he figures out you're trying to drag him out of his shell, he might vanish. The shell is usually developed as some kind of protection against the world and not something easily forsaken.

One of my best friends that I've known the longest didn't know ANYTHING about my pre-us meeting life, it only came out during a drinking and sharing session. And that took 10 years.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:33 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another introvert chiming in to say that extroverts' friendly getting-to-know-you "sharing" makes me uncomfortable and less likely to continue the friendship. In fact, I wonder if his occasional confiding is actually a way to let you know why he doesn't want to talk about certain things (e.g., no cute stories from childhood because parents were violent alcoholics, or something).

Extroverts sometimes appear to feel it's their duty to help introverts open up, as if we are all extroverts on the inside just waiting for friendly encouragement to come out of our shells. Although well-meant, this encouragement is annoying and a bit condescending. Introversion isn't a problem that needs fixing, it's just a different approach to life.

If you want to keep being friends with this guy, I recommend you stick to sharing activities with him and keep the "emotional sharing" to a minimum. Go hiking together, visit museums, catch a movie, that kind of thing. These things are safe and relaxed precisely because there is no pressure to open up and share one's innermost feelings. The activity will give you things to talk about and memories to share without prodding him to reveal anything. It's clear you mean well, but take this guy on his own terms.

Honestly, if I thought a friend was deliberately maneuvering me into situations where I'd be likely to "open up", that friendship would be dead in its tracks. I'd find it disrespectful and manipulative and the walls would slam down SO HARD.
posted by Quietgal at 10:45 AM on August 15, 2012 [17 favorites]

I used to be quite a bit more reticent about talking about my feelings than I am now, and it was especially true - and this part is still true - if I sensed that the other person was really invested in me sharing my feelings. There was no better guarantee to shut me down than to push me.

Why do you want him to share? Do you want him to be more open in general, or just with you? Do you feel like he's unhappy the way he is, or is it that *you* would be unhappy living that way?

There's nothing wrong with feeling best about sharing something personal when you know the other person will share something back - that's a thing that works best for you. It's less than ideal to share with the expectation that now you're "owed" something similar in return.
posted by rtha at 10:46 AM on August 15, 2012

Leave him alone, let him come out as he wants to, because if he figures out you're trying to drag him out of his shell, he might vanish.

For me, a complete introvert, this is mostly true. I wouldn't really want to be friends with someone who I felt was "keeping score", because I know myself well enough to realize that I'd never live up to their expectations and I don't want to worry about it or even really try. I just don't become friends with those people.

The shell is usually developed as some kind of protection against the world and not something easily forsaken.

I completely diverge on this point. There is no shell for me to come out of, I'm not flawed for being the way I am, and I didn't suffer some emotional injury in the past. When I get talkative, that's not the "real" me any more or less than the taciturn version. My oldest friend, whom I've known since preschool, would still describe me to other people as "difficult to get to know" or "hard to get talking", and still expresses surprise on the occasions that I do start blabbing.
posted by LionIndex at 10:48 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Look, I'm probably just like your friend. I don't share stuff. I share decisions I've made, on rare occasions I might validate a decision before making it final. But I just figure stuff out in my own little mind, without input from others. Always been that way. If I want input in an aspect of a decision I'll ask for it and I'll shut the conversation down if people try to go off topic as it were. Doesn't mean I don't trust a number of people. For example a family member, who I consider to be one of my best friends, receives all my mail in the UK, she opens it and bins, files or scans and sends to me as required. As a result she has a much more detailed knowledge of my finances than anybody else I know. She probably also knows more about a lot of other things yet she still sometimes feels I may have issues about certain aspects of my life because I tend not to discuss them. For example I generally don't discuss my sex life with people not directly involved in it or medical professionals. When the Vagina Monologues came to our town and I suggested we go and see the show. Whilst this was generally considered a good idea I then was cautioned about the kind of topics and language I might expect 'because you don't talk about that kind of stuff'. Anyway, what I'm saying is that you're making assumptions, that some of us just work stuff out alone and don't want or require a lot of inputs from others.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:54 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Just a comment - I don't think "private person" and "introvert" are always the same thing. I know people who are very introverted but very open with close friends, and I myself am actually a bit extroverted but rather private about a lot of stuff.

Being private about things can run pretty deep, too - there are whole large categories of stuff about which I Do Not Talk, not even with close friends. And being pressed to talk about those things flips me right the hell out. I only realized this after a very open person asked me a couple of questions that fell into the Do Not Talk About category and sort of pushed/charmed me into answering....and I have felt the strongest reluctance to talk to that person ever since.

This isn't because I'm broken or direly unhappy or have Terrible Secrets - it's just that, you know, Some Things Are Personal.

and I suggested we go and see the show. Whilst this was generally considered a good idea I then was cautioned about the kind of topics and language I might expect 'because you don't talk about that kind of stuff'.
posted by Frowner at 10:59 AM on August 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


and I suggested we go and see the show. Whilst this was generally considered a good idea I then was cautioned about the kind of topics and language I might expect 'because you don't talk about that kind of stuff'.

I was going to say that this sort of thing happens to me about sex, relationships and money quite a lot. I'm a private person, not naive, prudish or broke.
posted by Frowner at 11:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Folks, it's not like I want to pry into my friend's personal life or know his deepest secrets. I would like to get to know him better. And actually be able to sustain a conversation with him. About anything from "if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?" to "what was your favorite subject in school?", or other innocuous topics. I'm not trying to push him to do anything. I would like to be able to interact with him more. That's all. Really.
posted by strelitzia at 11:03 AM on August 15, 2012

Why is it so important to you that he divulge more information to you?

It sounds like you want to be closer to him.

That does not translate to an actual need on his part to break out of his shell. He may be perfectly happy and content with minimal sharing.

I think it's sort of important for you to recognize that this question is about you wanting something from him, and not about you looking out for his needs or helping him.

I think the true role of a friend here would be to accept that he's doing what makes him comfortable and let go of any expectation that he might change in time. He is implicitly expressing a need for privacy, so respect that. If you need more sharing and opening up in your life, you may need to find it from other friends.
posted by bunderful at 11:04 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would like to get to know him better. And actually be able to sustain a conversation with him. About anything from "if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?" to "what was your favorite subject in school?", or other innocuous topics. I'm not trying to push him to do anything.

Respectfully, you most certainly are trying to push him to do something: you are trying to push him into conversing the way you prefer. I am saying this not as a criticism, but as an observation. If you want to be his friend, you need to accept that you don't get to set all the terms for the way that friendship unfolds. If that's uncomfortable for you, then that's for you to deal with.
posted by scody at 11:16 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

Ah, just saw your update. I still feel like your initial post suggests a desire for a more intimate relationship with this person.

But if it's really just about trying to connect with a clamshell, then find a physical activity you can do together. Woodwork, painting an apartment, volunteering, sorting socks, whatever. Sometimes quiet side-by-side activity can be just as rewarding as thoughtful discussion.

I'd also just initiate lots of very, very boring conversations. "I saw my dad yesterday. The dog has fleas. Wonder what that dude in the overalls is doing over there." If this guy goes from 0-60, from hardly talking to sharing pretty personal stuff, he may not know how to do the middle-of-the-road friendly chit-chat.

As a quiet person who can have lots of walls - if someone is reactive or intense I may never feel completely comfortable around them. Not saying you are like that, but you may not have compatible styles. So keep in mind that this friendship might not get off the ground in the way you want, and that might be ok.
posted by bunderful at 11:17 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would like to get to know him better. And actually be able to sustain a conversation with him.

Your way of getting to know him better may not be his way of showing himself. And he may not be terribly conversational (that is a thing you already know about him, apparently). His way of feeling known may include things like: you know how he takes his coffee; that you know he really like XYZ author and so you text him that XYZ author is coming to town for a signing, let's go!; that his favorite Monopoly piece is the little iron; etc.

On preview: Yeah, the two of you might not be the best match for friendship. That's okay too.
posted by rtha at 11:18 AM on August 15, 2012

I've been on both sides of this. And I agree with everybody here who says to let him have his privacy. Or his walls, or his shell, or however you want to characterize it. Let him have his free choice about how closed he wants to be. Maybe it's even kind of a dumb choice on his part -- sometimes choices are -- but you can't make his choices for him.

Sometimes it can be very frustrating to deal with someone like this. Sometimes the situation's pretty messed up. I think of a guy I knew some time ago who had the same pattern: he'd say something that made me think we were something like close friends, and then he'd clam up and be distant, and I'd think, "Okay, are we friends or not? What is the deal here?" What I realize from fifteen-plus years later is that his emotional inconsistency was a form -- a very quiet, covert, plausibly deniable form -- of drama. And it worked on me very much like the drama that scody talked about the other day. It set me a puzzle, and the prize I thought was at the center was a wonderful, easy, relaxed friendship. (This, as it happens, was bullshit. There was no carrot on that end of that string.)

What concerns me here is that I think you're basically asking, "Okay, AskMe, what kind of heavy emotional lifting do I have to do in order to make this friendship work?" Or to mix my metaphors, you've been doing an emotional/relational tap-dance for this guy -- look at that list of all the stuff you've tried! -- and now you want to know how you can get your own needs met by tap-dancing better. I see hints that you reckon that if you just work hard enough, think clearly enough, behave nicely enough, and really give this thing your all, you can make this friendship work. That way lies madness. Don't even try.
posted by sculpin at 11:56 AM on August 15, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am an introvert and am usually assumed to be a very private person. I do like sharing, but I am quite sensitive and quite fussy about who I speak to. If I like someone I will share a surprising amount with them, but I have to like them and see them as the right kind of friend to be sharing with. Some people are just not for sharing with, and that's just how it is. It can be as unpredictable as personal chemistry, and at other times the approach they take to getting me to open up also matters.

Is it possible that he sees you as more of a fun times friend than a serious deep secrets friend? Perhaps he values your friendship precisely because you are not forcing him to deal with drama but allow him to forget about that for a while. Does he share the kind of info you're looking for with anyone else? How long have you known him - perhaps he develops more slowly than you're used to?

In terms of approach : I'd say shared activities, and realising that the pressure to open up might be making it worse.
posted by EatMyHat at 12:10 PM on August 15, 2012

Has your friend express interest in coming out of his shell?
posted by dgeiser13 at 1:45 PM on August 15, 2012

I had a relationship where I did the vast majority of the talking. I felt really weird about that for a long time. I would try to give him equal time to talk. He would tell me he was a good listener and liked listening to me. I would say I wanted to know him better. He would say he had no secrets and if I wanted to know something, just ask. I never figured out how to effectively ask. Asking got really brief, unnsatisfactory replies.

I eventually realized he did pay close attention to everything I said and did comment on much of the content. I did eventually accept that communication was happening in both directions in spite of the difference in "air time". I eventually accepted that he was getting something out of it or he would not have chosen to spend so much time with me. I did get to know a lot about him, over time, as a natural dide effect of speaking with him. I never did find the magic formula to make him chatty in the same way I am chatty. Instead, I learned to accept him as he was.

I did have some preparation ahead of time. My youngest son is very introverted. I learned to give him Space at a really young age. It is a big part of why he and I get along. If I had doted on him to the degree that I doted on his sickly, attention-mongering older brother, I would have gotten an axe to the face. When he was 16, I let him officially drop out of school in order to continue homeschooling him. Prior to that, testing was like pulling teeth and he resented my attempts to assess what he knew. I clearly did not have adequate security clearance. After he became a drop out and I stopped assessing him, he opened up quite a bit. He would actually talk to me.

Giving someone space means something different from what I once thought. At first blush, to me, that much space looks like rejection or abandonment or "I am not speaking to you!" There is an art to being open and accepting and not pushing for a particular outcome. It sounds to me that is the piece you need to learn, not specifically so you can draw this person out but just to appreciate them and relate to them as they are without trying to make them a chatty cathy in the process. My youngest is more forthcoming these days but he still talks to his brother far more than to me. He interjects insightful, short, high quality comments at times which show he has been listening the whole time. Quantity of verbiage is not everything, not by a long shot.
posted by Michele in California at 1:49 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would like to get to know him better. And actually be able to sustain a conversation with him. About anything from "if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?" to "what was your favorite subject in school?", or other innocuous topics.

Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time responding to questions that are phrased like this. I don't keep mental lists of favorite things or most-wished-for things, so when I'm asked to order my world in this way, I draw a blank. I suppose I could just pull some random answer out of my head without worrying about how accurately it reflects my inner state, but this does not come naturally to me. I clam up because I feel like I'm being asked to fabricate a part of myself.

But I don't consider myself to be an especially private person. I'll talk about aspects of life that are often considered "deep" or "personal" with anyone who I think will be able to relate. I just need the topics to come up in an open-ended way, where I'm not being asked for specific pieces of information that I may or may not be able to produce. For example, you could tell me about a memory you have of your fifth-grade English class, and that would probably remind me of something I could bring into the conversation: maybe something about my fifth-grade English class, but maybe something about the American educational system, or about my mom as she was when I was growing up, or about chewing a whole packet of grape bubblegum at once.

I hope this is somewhat helpful. Maybe your friend doesn't share my exact quirks, but my advice is to try not to put him on the spot. See if he does better with more open-ended conversation.
posted by Mila at 2:44 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

My closest friends are very private people. First, you have to put in some initial investment time to get from "acquaintance" to "friend". That might take a couple years. Once you are accepted as a friend, you establish yourself as a worthwhile person with a unique view of the world and the ability to adopt a detached sense of fairness. Then you make yourself available to contact (whatever their preferred method is) and carefully keep your agreements. Private people rarely open up to inconsistent flakes.

Give it ~5 years and if the timing is right, the person will seek your company when they have something to discuss.

- Never betray anyone's trust. Don't tell your friend someone else's secrets, or they'll assume you won't keep theirs. Gossip in moderation. Most of them secretly love to hear innocent tidbits about others they know (because they have to pretend to be above it so nobody dares give them the dirt - which leaves them painfully out of the loop sometimes), but not about really heavy private stuff that was revealed to you in confidence. I had a friend who was deployed in Iraq and I would give him the friendly gossipy dirt from the social circle we shared, because it kept him in the loop and he liked hearing the little details that he would never directly ask for.

- Lean on them when the situation calls for it. Ask their opinion or advice about something troubling you. I think private people take this as a grand compliment, especially from people they value.

- Keep an eye out for information or jokes to pass to them - both for conversation topics and just for fun. It shows you are interested and remember their preferences. It's as nice as a hug.

- The private people I know tend to value people who will be honest and straightforward with them, as a kindness. They don't usually seek out others for pure approval and back-pats unless it's a dire emergency. They like someone who will call them out (kindly) when needed.

- Protect their privacy. If they've given you information in private, never mention it in public. Don't even mention that you have intel, especially if revealing it means you are showing off your closeness with that person. Let them control their own information.

- Let them get around to bringing up touchy topics on their own. I can tell in the first few minutes if my one friend is just dicking around with small talk and has something heavy to get off his chest. I still let him dick around until he's ready to get to the real conversation.

- Don't be the initiator of contact all the time. If you're doing more than 50%, pull back and let them breathe for a bit. Trust that they'll get back to you when they think they have something worth sharing. Don't get clingy and contact them wondering if they're upset or something.

The paradox with private people is because they reveal so little, what information does come out is very telling and very sensitive. Trust is a big deal. Honesty is a big deal. Your friend sounds like he's dipping a toe in the water to see if you're trustworthy. Play it cool, ratchet back the knee-jerk emotional reaction, be trustworthy, and let the friendship build itself.
posted by griselda at 11:37 AM on August 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

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