How To Help A Friend Who's Shy And Socially Awkward
This site is primarily focused on helping shy and awkward people make improvements for themselves. Over the years some people have written me to say they came across this site while looking for advice on how to help out someone they know. Their own social skills are decent, but they have a friend or roommate who seems to be struggling, and they want to lend a hand. If that describes you, I'll give my thoughts on how to be as helpful a friend as you can.
The article has three main sections: 1) A few caveats for anyone who's thinking of trying to help another person, 2) Some thoughts on how you can still support someone who directly hasn't asked for any help, and 3) Ideas on what to do if your friend has directly asked you for some pointers.
If the person you want to help is your romantic partner, check out this article instead:
Here are a few things to keep in mind before you try to help another person with their social issues:
Don't feel you're obligated to try to help anyone
Everyone is responsible for their own social development. If you know someone who's awkward, there's no law that says you have to go out of your way to help them. I think if you genuinely like and care about someone, and you already enjoy their company, but can just see how they could benefit from improving their social skills or confidence a bit, then by all means try to help them along.
However, say you're in college and you've just moved into an apartment with three other people, and one of your roommates seems really isolated and withdrawn. They seem nice enough, but you're busy with your studies and your own social life. You're not under any obligation to try to draw them out of their shell. If helping them doesn't interest you, or you think it would be inconvenient, that's fine. Or you may have an awkward acquaintance, but to be honest you don't have a lot in common with them, and you never clicked that well. You're off the hook here too. Just because you could help someone doesn't mean you have to.
Similarly, if you do help someone, you don't have to go full out. If all you can manage is offering the odd bit of assistance, that's okay. Plus if you've already started helping someone, you're allowed to back out at any time. Just because you tried to do something for a person once or twice doesn't mean you're now honor bound to try to assist to them for life.
Make sure you have the right motivations for wanting to help
As I touched on in the previous paragraph, I think the 'right' motivation for wanting to help a friend is if you truly like them, see their good qualities in spite of their awkward traits, and just want to do what you can to encourage their social growth. There are some less useful motivations people can have. First, don't take someone under your wing because you see them as a cute little fixer upper project. That's condescending. Even if they're shy and awkward, they're still a person, not an old dresser you found on the curb. Second, if you're still working on your social skills don't try to coach an even-more-awkward person as a way to gain a false sense of having mastered your own issues. There's a big difference between being able to give someone else information, and being able to do those things yourself. Focus on your own development.
Don't expect the person to want or appreciate your efforts to help
This is a big one. You may want to help someone, and for the right reasons, but they could still not be interested in what you have to offer. You need to accept this going in, and not feel unappreciated and slighted if they don't gladly accept your assistance. There are many reasons someone may not want your help:
- They may not look at things the way you do. You might view them as lonely, awkward, and needing to come out of their shell. They may see themselves as someone who just has a naturally more-reserved and less-social personality, and who likes their space and alone time. They may be fine with this and not think they have to change.
- One day they may come to see themselves as shy and awkward, and want to work on those issues, but at the moment their social problems aren't really on their radar. Right now they're happy to keep living their usual lifestyle.
- They may realize they're awkward on some level, but believe that's just their lot in life and there's nothing they can do to fix it. Again, they're content to keep doing things as they always have.
- They're fully aware that they're awkward, but they're ashamed of it. Their present coping strategy is to try to hide their supposed inadequacies from everyone. That would include rebuffing any of your efforts to aid them.
- They could know they're awkward and want to do something about it, but can't commit to trying to change at the moment. Maybe they feel it will be too scary and uncomfortable. Maybe they have other priorities they need to put their energy into.
- If you're not already close to someone, they may be open to help, just not from you and your circle of friends. They may not think you're their style. They may not share the same interests and values as your social group. Just because someone is ill at ease around people, or has few friends, it doesn't necessarily mean they want to hang out with just any person who's more socially capable than they are.
Don't have any expectations for how much you'll be able to help someone
This is also a very important point. Even if someone is open to your assistance, don't entertain fantasies of totally transforming them in a few months. It takes a fair amount of time for people to improve their social skills, and it's primarily work they have to do on their own. There are exceptions, but the most you can realistically hope for is that you're going to help in small ways here and there. If you sign up for this you've got to be understanding and patient and focused on the long term. You can't invite your friend out one time then declare, "Well I tried to help, but they didn't even try to chat to any of my friends. I give up."
Helping someone who hasn't asked for it
Most of the time if you're trying to help a socially awkward person, it will be without them asking you. Some people may be reading this and thinking, "If someone doesn't ask for your help, who are you to try to meddle in their lives and think you know what's best for them?" That's a valid opinion. I have two responses to it: One, many socially awkward people aren't able to ask for help, but they do appreciate it if their friends create the kinds of opportunities for them I describe below. Two, the approach I'll cover is low key and lets the shy person decide for themselves how much they want to take advantage of it.
It's important to have a soft touch and give the person a choice
If someone hasn't asked you for help, you can still do a lot for them, but you want to be subtle about it. The idea isn't to sit them down and say, "You're shy. I'm going to fix you!" It's more about creating chances for them to practice and improve their social skills, and they have the option of taking advantage of the opportunities or not. If they don't want to, that's fine. Your friend may pick up on your intentions, but for the most part it won't come across like you're blatantly trying to help them. It will just look like you're a friendly, encouraging person who wants them around.
Include them in your group and social activities
As someone with decent interpersonal skills yourself, and likely a good group of friends, the most helpful thing you can do is include your more awkward friend in your social life. Hang out with them one-on-one. Invite them out with your mates when you all get together. Bring them along to many of the fun get togethers you go to. This is why I mentioned at the start of the article that you should only try to help someone if you already like them, but just think they're a bit rough around the social edges. This won't really work if you don't want them around anyway.
Some formally lonely, awkward people will say a big turning point in their lives was when they finally fell in with a group of solid friends. Including them accomplishes a few things: The main benefit is that it provides them a space to naturally practice and develop their people skills. If they're hanging around a bunch of people who are socially savvy, they can't help but learn a lot. It also boosts their self-confidence to feel like they're part of a crowd that likes and accepts them.
The way to include someone is by offering them invitations. Like I was saying, if they consistently turn you down, then that's your signal to back off. Doesn't matter why they're doing it, you've got to respect their decision. However, give it a few tries before calling it quits. Sometimes they won't take you up on your invite at first because they're anxious about it, or think "There's no way she actually wants to spend time with me." Also, try mixing up what you're offering. Your shy roommate may not want to party with you and your five intimidatingly loud, outgoing friends, but they may be up for seeing a movie with you and another classmate.
Encourage them and build up their confidence
Shy and socially awkward people are very hard on themselves. They're often blind to their own good points, and can sometimes see themselves as being universally flawed and unlikable just because their social skills are a bit behind everyone else's. Another powerful way you can help them is to give them genuine, sincere compliments and slowly increase their self-esteem. Of course you don't want to be fake and syrupy and fall over yourself every time they manage to tie their shoelaces. But if they do something that stands out, let them know. For example, you could say something like, "Man, you were really funny at the party last night" or "Wow, you've got some interesting opinions on things" or "My friends said they were happy to get to know you better last weekend." It seems like it may be no big deal, but for someone who's always insecure and down on themselves, hearing something like this can really help to shift their self-perception. They may not easily accept every compliment, but it all adds up.
Come across like you accept them just as they are, and don't critique them
Socially awkward people are very sensitive to any signs of rejection. They're their own worst critics. Sometimes it's like they're always seconds away from concluding, "There's no way these people actually like me. I'm just too lame. They'd be better off without me around." Your role is to be supportive and accepting, not be a coach who points out all their areas for improvement. If they make some kind of small social mistake, trust me, they're probably already beating themselves up over it. It will probably make things a lot worse if you point it out as well. They may even take the most innocuous-seeming pointer badly. For example, if they go to a party with you, and keep to themselves and don't talk to anyone the whole night, it's not your job to point out how they could have been more chatty. They already know that. Just pretend it didn't happen and talk about other things, or point out aspects of the evening that were fun and positive. Maybe they'll get the hang of speaking to people at parties down the road.
Gently encourage them to expand their comfort zone
Again, you don't want to fall into the role of a pushy coach here. However, if you're naturally in a situation that's outside of your friend's comfort zone, you can gently nudge them into giving something new a try. A common example would be a group of people encouraging their friend to dance with them - "Come on! It'll be fun! No one cares what you look like. None of us are that great at it either..." If they truly don't seem interested after some light prodding, then you should drop the subject. In keeping with the previous point, don't seem like you hold it against them either.
Model good social skills for them
If you're including them in your life you're going to do this automatically. Show them what good social behaviors and attitudes look like. A few of many possible examples: Let them see what it looks like to be lighthearted and easy going and joke around with your other friends, and not take their playful teasing too personally. Let them see how you make conversation with people you've just met, and the things you say to make them feel at ease and get a discussion going. Model how it's okay and important to be comfortable with yourself, and to open up and share your flaws and vulnerabilities at times. Don't feel you have to show them every last thing about socializing, but if you're going to do something anyway, they may absorb your example.
Subtly help them with their conversations
Once, more, you don't want to be too blatant about this, lest they feel babied or put on the spot and pressured to perform. If you're with a group of people, or in a mingling situation, you can help them talk with everyone. If the two of you are standing around at a party, you could start chatting to someone, and then quickly bring them into the exchange. If they seem to be stalling out, you could casually mention something that will get the conversation restarted, "...So what were you saying about your trip to Europe?" If you're in a group conversation and they're getting drowned out by the more talkative people, you can help them get their time to speak.
One thing to keep in mind about this point is that while you can offer the odd bit of help, don't feel you're 100% responsible for how all their conversations turn out. Also, if you go to a social event with them, it's not your job to sacrifice your own night in order to help them talk to as many people as possible. For the most part if they have trouble conversing with people, that's something they'll have to work through on their own.
Ignore more mild negative behaviors
If your friend has some mild negative social habits, you don't necessarily have to prepare a report detailing all the mistakes they're making. It should be fine to just ignore them. For example, if they occasionally turn to negativity or complaining as a way to have more to talk about, don't reinforce those choices. Just minimally acknowledge what they're saying in a polite way, then change the subject. Engage them more when they talk about more positive topics. Again, don't be overly obvious about what you're doing.
Occasionally you can be more direct about pointing out small errors they're making
If you do it in a light, joking way it's fine to correct the odd faux pas they make. This shouldn't set off their insecurities too much. An example would be if the two of you are getting ready to go out and you see they've tucked their shirt into their pants in a rather unstylish way, you could quickly say, "Ha ha, dude, untuck your shirt... yeah, much better. Very spiffy."
It's always tough if you have to point out a more serious mistake they're making
This goes for regular friends, not just shy ones you're trying to help out. Sometimes a friend will make a larger social blunder, and you'll need to say something, regardless of whether their sensitivities will be triggered. If you can, try addressing it in an offhand joking way at first, e.g., "Ha ha, man, it's probably not a great idea to make so many offensive jokes like that." If that doesn't work, you can take them aside and tell them about it more matter of factly. Stress that you don't hate them for it or anything, but that you thought they needed to know. They may not take it well, but hopefully your strong relationship will carry you all through the day.
When a friend directly asks for your help
It's relatively rare for someone who's shy or awkward to straightforwardly go to their friends for advice. Usually they feel secretive, self-conscious, and ashamed. Even if someone does ask for help, it's more likely they'll want assistance with something specific, like dressing better, not for you to be their overall social mentor.
Once more, don't have any particular expectations
Your friend could directly ask for your help, but that still doesn't mean you should start patting yourself on the back for the inevitable miracle social makeover you're going to give them. They may not take your advice. They may be too nervous to put it into practice. They may change their mind and revert back into their old tendencies. They may apply it, but a lot more gradually than you'd like. That's their call to make.
Go slow and respect their comfort zone
If a more-socially awkward friend asks you for help, the biggest pitfall you have to guard against is unintentionally pushing them too hard, too quickly, and making them feel uncomfortable and pressured. This can be easy to do because you're eager to help, you've got an exciting image in mind of the final result, and you don't feel uncomfortable with the area yourself so you may have a hard time imagining how someone else would be.
An example would be if a less-stylish male friend asks you to go shopping with him to help him pick out some more-fashionable clothes. Even though your heart's in the right place, if you take him to a fancy store and throw two dozen trendy items at him to try on, things may not go that well. It may be nothing to you, but overhauling his entire wardrobe is likely a big, scary step for him. It would be better to ease into things, say, by just buying a nice new shirt or two on the first outing, and making additional changes over time.
Another example would be if you and a friend went to a party, and you both agreed that you would help push her into conversations. However, when the time comes she may want to back out, and get snappy if you force the issue. When you make an anxious person feel backed into a corner, they may unthinkingly lash out if they think it will help them escape. If a friend asks for help, you need to slow things way down and go at their pace. Be patient with them, and don't take it personally if they say they want your help, but then seem to back out at the last second. It's easy to sit on the sidelines and offer someone a million suggestions. It's a lot harder to be the person who has to do the difficult work of facing their fears.
Even if they want direct advice, you can still do the most to help them by following the points in the previous section
Yeah, being able to give direct advice gives you a whole other set of ways you can help your friend, but as I keep saying, improving their social skills is work they're mainly going to have to do themselves. One of the best ways you can help is by providing them with social opportunities in the ways I describe earlier in the article.
Point them to resources
On the off chance that a friend asks you for more thorough social advice, it will probably help to point them to a resource such as this site, or books on communication skills, or even suggesting they see someone. I say this because if you've always had good social skills yourself, you may not be the best at breaking things down and explaining them in a way that would be helpful for someone who struggles in this area. It's kind of like how people who have danced their wholes lives aren't the best at teaching beginners. They tend to offer vague suggestions like, "Just have fun and feel the music". Their issues may also be more than you know how to handle. By all means, offer what advice you can, but know you can always point them somewhere else. If you used to be shy and awkward yourself, that's a bit different, and of course you should feel free to share your experience with them.