Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn: My daughter-in-law has always been quiet and polite and acts like she needs a lot of alone time. I assumed she was introverted or shy and didn’t hold it against her.

I recently met a classmate of hers who described her as talkative and outgoing. Ever since then, I’ve felt resentful of how standoffish she is with me and my husband. I told her I’d met a friend who described her as very talkative, and she said politely and emotionlessly, “Yes, they’re a fun group.”

My husband said she’s two-faced and not worth the trouble, but I want her to open up to me. I know I shouldn’t feel so angry, but I feel like she pretended to be shy to avoid me.

Is there any way I can tell her that I want her to feel free to talk to me like she would a friend?

— Angry

Angry: Wow. You’ve ascribed such terrible motives to her — when there are other explanations available — that you’ve inadvertently made a strong argument for why she’s guarded around you.

She doesn’t trust you! She does trust her friends. That’s not “two-faced,” that’s sentient. She’s reading the room and choosing to hold herself back to avoid being judged.

Now, if true, the irony here is obvious, because by being reticent she has invited the very judgment she meant to avoid. But that wouldn’t make it her fault she’s being judged; that would be on you if you’re creating the judgmental environment.

Plenty of people can be both “introverted or shy” and “talkative and outgoing.” A person can easily be talkative and outgoing when she’s feeling relaxed and confident and quiet at other times. That’s not two different personalities; that’s just one personality with a well-used “pause” button.

If that’s true of your daughter-in-law, then the way to “tell” her she’s free to talk to you like she would a friend is to be warmly and consistently accepting.

Not just of her, either. You can be lovely to people and still scare them silent if you’re nice to their faces while saying horrible things about anyone else who doesn’t happen to be in the room — be it Auntie Whoever or an entire political/religious/ethnic group. Even if you have a “those darn [large group of people]” construct that you regularly form in your mind, then it is probably coming out in your speech, and that makes you a good place to keep one’s guard up except to those who agree.

Again — given the reflexive daughter-in-law bashing over one conversation, I would say it’s unlikely that you two give off a welcoming vibe.

Upshot? Be genuine, kind, open-minded — and patient. Habits run deep, but benefits start to accrue immediately once you open yourself to the possibility that you’re the one needing to change.

Re: Angry: I could be the shy daughter-in-law. It just takes me a while to warm up. What could definitely keep that from happening is if I’m in the company of people who seem harsh and judgmental. A father-in-law who’s quick to call someone “two-faced and not worth the trouble” definitely falls into that category. Sheesh! You’re talking about your son’s wife. A little generosity of spirit maybe??

— D.C.

D.C.: Sheesh it is, thanks.

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