Two Prosocial Rejection Norms

When I tell people that I’m shy, the universal response I get is “wow, you don’t seem shy at all!”

Problem statement

Pop culture psychology has a single concept for “debilitatingly reluctant to approach people”, and it’s called “shyness” or “social anxiety” and is explained by “fear of rejection”. I am debilitatingly reluctant to approach people, but I am very low on fear of rejection, what gives?

I propose that my ‘shyness’ can be explained by very high levels of what I’ll call meta-fear of rejection, and fear of fake willingness.

Symptoms of being kind.

Friends I’ve talked to about this all identify as having these to different degrees, and what works out to be optimal social norms for each person depends on this ‘rejection profile’.

But before we go into it, let’s be clear about what the goal is: We want to maximise opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions. Popular advice is often all about benefiting the receiver of said advice, so people are encouraged to “just walk up to them!” to overcome fear of rejection with little consideration for how this might impact others. And this is particularly useless as advice for people with high levels of 3 and 4.

Another obstacle to forming optimal social norms is the fuzziness of the language we use to express invitations, requests, and offers.

O how I lament that my invitations are interpreted as requests sometimes.

Sometimes people pretend to make invitations when they’re really making requests, and this lets them benefit from the other person’s willingness while claiming to not be indebted to them.

It was just an invitation, I don’t owe you anything!

Conversely, sometimes people pretend to have heard a request when the other person actually intended to invite them, and that way they can claim to be up a favour.

But I only did that as a favour to you!

These are all forms of social manipulation enabled by a fuzzy language. And the deception wouldn’t work without a high frequency of honest mistakes in this area.

So when I walk up to someone and invite them “hey, wanna be friends?” I have to worry about 1) fear of rejecting, and 2) them mistakenly or intentionally misunderstanding my invitation as a request. I just want to be able to communicate my invitation as exactly what it is, and for them to turn me down without hesitation and pain on their part.

Two marginally better social norms

Rejection aid

When you approach someone, include some words to the effect that you’ll gracefwly accept a rejection.

Hey, I wish to hang out with you. But I only wish to hang out with you if we are mutually happy about it. It would be sad if we wasted our time on something we didn’t want, so I wouldn’t want my invitation to be accepted if you’re busy, unable, or just don’t want to. :)

If you help them feel safe rejecting you, that benefits them because they’ll be less anxious in the case they have to reject you, but it also benefits you by making sure that their ‘yes’ is truly a ‘yes’. It reduces the likelihood that the person you’re asking will (intentionally or unintentionally) misinterpret your invitation as a request.

Upfront rejection readiness

Be upfront about your willingness to give honest rejections if that’s what you truly feel like.

You know, you can always ask me if I wish to hang out with you. If I’m too busy or don’t feel like it at the moment, I’ll just let you know. So you aren’t harming me by asking, you are only providing me with an opportunity to do something we both happen to want, if we want it.

This prevents other people from misinterpreting your invitations as offers. And for people with high levels of social fear 3 and 4, hearing you commit to rejecting invitations if you mean it, will make us feel safer approaching you.

Beware of putting people on the spot; set up lines of retreat

pjeby points out that if you’re careless about how you elicit someone’s true preferences around doing something with you, you risk “putting them on the spot” in the sense that they feel like it’s demanded of them that they be vulnerably honest with you.

Hey, wanna hang out with me? I don’t want to hang out with you if you don’t want it, so please tell it to me straight. Just say no if you mean it!

Reveal Culture is the art of sharing your own true preferences while not accidentally setting up a strong expectation that they reciprocate.

You want to share all the information that the other person could plausibly need in order to decide whether they wish to do something with you. But the more vulnerably you reveal, the more intense the expectation of reciprocity might feel for them. There’s a tragic failure mode here of being someone who unintentionally assaults people with strong expectations to be vulnerable with you. Be honest, but don’t demand honesty.

Therein lies the art of, when needed, designing a line of retreat for them by, for example, priming a topic that can easily be switched to, credibly signalling that you accept (implied or explicit) rejections gracefwly, providing them with a social script they can choose to follow (“I wish to do X with you, but I hear you’re going to be busy with a deadline so I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that”), and so on. This is hard to do right, and is very sensitive to context, which is why it’s an art.

Try to bear the burden of potential awkwardness around truth on your own shoulders. Other people may opt in for a mutually beautifwl moment, but they must feel a safe line of retreat in case they don’t want to.