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Auntie SparkNotes: My Formal Boyfriend Needs to Loosen Up

Dear Auntie,
I’m a junior in college and have been dating the most amazing guy for about a year. He’s educated, has a steady job, is kind, generous, honest, trustworthy, good looking, funny…

But he makes weird first (and second, and third) impressions. He grew up extremely socially awkward; he’s told me small talk always was difficult for him to navigate, and he had to very carefully study it in order to pass as socially competent once he was in college.

It’s not so big that it’s a deal breaker (he’s not blurting inappropriate things or being inconsiderate), but it’s enough to be a drawback every time we go to a social gathering, to the point where my friends and family are taken aback/ not super comfortable. He’s just overly professional and robotic, it’s like speaking with Siri.

I’ve tried to gently suggest that he take a community theater class or try to be a little more playful/informal, but his schedule is too busy for a class and he defaults to “professional” attitude for comfort (he’s afraid he won’t be respected if he lets people in more quickly).

I think it’s an area that, if he put in just a little more effort, could pay enormous dividends in his professional and personal life, especially since he loves socializing and making friends as much as I do. It frustrates me to see people consistently get a weird first impression when I know he has so much to offer once you get past the first three conversations.

How can I convince him that first impressions matter, and that toning down the rigid professionalism can actually make people like/respect him more? How can I help encourage growth in this area without making him feel rejected and incompetent? I’m tired of having people simply taking my word that he’s amazing!

I’ll be honest, darling: I’m pretty sure you’re going to want to rethink that position… or at least take a moment in this season of gratitude to acknowledge that it could be much, much worse. For anyone whose beloved isn’t the life of the holiday party, whatever the reason, “My friends and family take my word for it when I say my boyfriend is amazing” is infinitely preferable to the various alternatives. (Like, for instance, “My friends and family refuse to take my word for it when I say that my boyfriend is amazing, and also that he genuinely did not mean to set the cat on fire, despite how it may have looked at the time.”)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because in fact, you do have a problem! Just, uh, not the one you seem to think you have. Because when you ask how you can convince your boyfriend that first impressions matter, Auntie SparkNotes must gently point out that you’re talking about a guy who already did a self-directed independent study in the art of small talk so that he could fit in at college — which is hardly the behavior of a person who needs instruction vis-a-vis the importance of social skills. You don’t have to convince him, honey. He knows.

It’s just that he also evidently knows his limits, too, when it comes to walking the line between “being a functional social animal” and “acting like someone you’re not.” And I hate to break it to you, but the idea that your taciturn boyfriend is just a community theater class away from bantering his way through your next social engagement is wildly unrealistic. (I’m also guessing that you’ve never experienced the agony of watching someone to whom “playful” doesn’t come naturally trying to make it happen, which is probably among the top three leading causes of Death by Secondhand Embarrassment).

And look: it’s okay to want a boyfriend who can hold his own on the casual mingling front. But it’s not okay to demand that from this boyfriend, who is clearly aware of his social shortcomings, and has already worked very hard just to get to the point of comfortably chatting about the weather with strangers at parties. This is who he is: an awkward turtle who, through dedicated effort, has taught himself to come out of his shell. But he’s still a turtle! He’s never going to not be a turtle. He is, if you will, a turtle all the way down.

So if you don’t want a turtle, then you’re going to have to date someone else.

Which would be fine, by the way. You say this issue isn’t a dealbreaker, but if it is, that’s okay—and if your idea of coping with it is to keep trying to “grow” your boyfriend into someone he’s not, then you probably need to just step back and admit that this matters to you. But if I may, I want to urge you to let it go, and see what happens when you stop yearning for change and start working with what you’ve got. I mean, let’s suppose for a second that the worst happens, and your boyfriend continues to need to meet folks a few times before he can really loosen up around them.

Well, okay. So what? If you’re concerned about the surprise aspect, you can easily prepare people in advance (“Don’t be shocked if Boyfriend is a little stiff the first few times you meet him; he takes awhile to loosen up with new people”)—or give him some specific pointers that’ll help grease the social groove a little (“If you ask my dad about bass fishing, he’ll happily talk your ear off for the rest of the night”). But more importantly, your guy put in a lot of work to get even this comfortable; the people close to you should be able to put in the comparatively minor effort to meet him where he is and not be snide about it. Surely your more socially-at-ease friends and family can find it in their hearts to accommodate someone like your boyfriend through his warming-up period, especially when they’ve got it on good authority that he’s so much fun once you get to know him.

And on that note: Yes, first impressions matter—but more in the sense that you don’t want to make a bad one for which you have to apologize down the line. And while your boyfriend’s behavior may be overly mannered and not much fun at parties, being a little stiff with new acquaintances is not the kind of weird that causes harm (or even personal hardship. I mean, clearly it hasn’t gotten in the way of his education, his employability, or his love life!)

Meanwhile, it’s also worth noting that practice and maturity tend to build better social confidence, which means the guy may eventually loosen up on his own. But that’s less likely to happen if you make him more self-conscious about his public behavior—so don’t. Let him live, okay? Respect the effort it took for him to get to the formal side of normal, and be glad that you know him well enough to tell people how great he is under the mannered facade. Anyone who sticks around a little will find out soon enough that you’re right.

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