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I’m Not Rude, I’m Anxious

Social anxiety often masquerades as disinterest.

We’ve all, adults and kids alike, have had the experience of trying to start up a friendly conversation with someone only to have that other person respond so minimally or dismissively that we end up moving on as fast as we can. Very often, these brief encounters leave us feeling rather annoyed as we think things like “what a snob!” or “how obnoxious!” To be sure, there are plenty of snobby and obnoxious folks out there, but it is important also to consider the possibility that what is coming across as rudeness or disinterest might actually be anxiety. The issue is not a lack of desire to connect to other people but a struggle with how to interact with others in a natural and spontaneous manner.

In my practice, it is quite common for me to hear from my more anxious patients that their interactions with others came across as mean or arrogant when in reality they were simply having a hard time knowing what to say in moment. When I hear about the friendships that some of my young patients have, the story I hear is sometimes akin to, “she didn’t think I liked her at first but we just kept talking and started becoming friends.”

The simple message in this short post is this. If you are making an effort to talk to someone and that person is not engaging in an easy and reciprocal way, consider the possibility that the driving force behind this less than flowing interaction is anxiety. This other person may indeed want to talk and get to know you better but is fighting with their nervousness and difficulty with how to respond. Yes you might risk being perceived as a pest once in a while, but hanging in there a little longer or making a second effort to reach out to that person could just result in some friendships that otherwise might not happen.

@copyright by David Rettew, MD

David Rettew is author of Child Temperament: New Thinking About the Boundary Between Traits and Illness and a child psychiatrist in the psychiatry and pediatrics departments at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

Follow him at @PediPsych and like PediPsych on Facebook.