First of all, I would like to stress that I am not a cogsci person and I have almost no background in those areas of science.

The question is whether there exists a definition of a phenomenon I recently encoutered: A person is shy, but only in confrontational situations - has no social phobia regarding making friends and so on. Furthermore, this "shyness" is only demonstrated towards strangers, i.e. the person in question has no problem confronting somebody they know. Lastly, the problem occurs only in person, not over the Internet or telephone.

All in all, the question is - is this phenomenon described somewhere? And most importantly - does it have a name? Maybe it has already been defined and studied by someone.

Meaning of confrontational

By 'confrontational' I mean 'having different opinions' or 'having to sort out a disagreement'. To provide an example illustrating the problem:

  • After being ripped off at a restaurant (food bad, late, cold, etc), the person prefers to let the whole thing go and pay rather than argue with the waiter (thus avoiding an in-person confrontation). But,

  • If the person were ordering a pizza over a phone and it did not arrive for an hour, they would have no problem calling the restaurant and discussing the problem.

I'm not a native speaker :) Hope the above description clarifies the problem a little bit.

  • $\begingroup$ @dare2be what sources have you already consulted in formulating and trying to answer your own question? $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2012 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ArtemKaznatcheev - wikipedia, mostly (the social phobia phenomenon). And my reasoning :) As I said, I have little to no expertise in this field so I don't really know where to start. Pointing me in any direction is welcome. $\endgroup$
    – user330
    Feb 8, 2012 at 16:28

2 Answers 2


That sort of non-confrontational attitude has been researched as an aspect of interpersonal conflict-resolution style/mode/behaviour. The bulk of the research seems to have been conducted in the field of organisational psychology (which is not my field) since it's particularly relevant to how business is conducted.

From what I've been able to glean from Google Scholar, Blake and Mouton were the first to publish on this topic, defining five interpersonal conflict-handling styles: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. Avoiding is simply defined as withdrawing from the conflict situation. Since then other researchers have developed a number of alternatives. The Thomas-Kilmann version dropped one style, compromising, and placed the rest along two dimensions, assertiveness and cooperativeness. This is the result:

conflict-resolution style matrix

Based on your description, your friend could be described as having an avoidant conflict-resolution style when dealing with strangers.

This is an interesting topic for me because I'm somewhat like your friend. I'm quite introverted and I suspect your friend is too to some degree, since there is a link between introversion and having an avoidant interpersonal conflict-resolution style.

In business contexts it's not surprising to find that people who show a high need for dominance are averse to using an avoidant conflict-resolution style.

I'm not sure what the research says about why your friend might choose a different style of conflict-resolution with friends. I'll see what else I can find.


  • Blake, R.R & Mouton, J.S. (1964). The Managerial Grid: The Key to Leadership Excellence. Houston: Gulf Publishing Co.
  • Thomas, K.W. & Kilmann, R.H. (1974). The Thomas–Kilmann mode instrument. Tuxedo Park, NY: Xicom
  • Schneer, J.A. & Chanin, M.N. (1987). Manifest Needs as Personality Predispositions to Conflict-Handling Behavior. Human Relations, 40, 575-590
  • Wood, V. F., & Bell, P. A. (2008). Predicting interpersonal conflict resolution styles from personality characteristics. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(2), 126-131.
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, quite a post! However, this still does not answer the in-person and strangers part (the most iteresting one), i.e. that the phenomenon occurs only when talking to a stranger in person, not with a friend (in person) or a stranger (via other means of communication). I guess that still leaves the question unanswered. However, many thanks for providing some references --- will read up on the topic as soon as I can find some spare time and share my findings, of course :) $\endgroup$
    – user330
    Feb 10, 2012 at 9:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Indeed, given how many publications there are on the phenomena of interpersonal conflict-resolution styles, there's bound to be something out there to address the integral parts of your question. I just haven't had the time to delve that deeply, and I won't be upset if someone scoops me on a complete answer. ;) $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2012 at 0:17
  • $\begingroup$ Although user330 is not around anymore he's talking about a mixture of conflict avoidance and (mild) social phobia. The latter is usually intensified when strangers are involved. Also most people posting here unfortunately expect there to be a precise name for their symptoms, but psychiatry is not there yet. Someone's symptoms may overlap multiple disorders but not even fully qualify for any of them. And avoiding conflict with a stranger is not necessarily maladaptive, as one has less information about whom [s]he's dealing with. $\endgroup$ Dec 28, 2017 at 13:15

(caveat: I am not a trained psychologist, so talk to one before taking any advice from people online!)

This isn't really a definition that I know of for this (beyond social phobia, or confrontational anxiety), though that's not a bad thing. Something that exists does not need a label to exist, and labels often shortcut and/or constrain our mental processing of a thing.

So, from a psychology perspective (not a CogSci one; just being explicit), there's probably a good chance the person has had multiple negative experiences with regards to confrontation and in-person communication.
The brain has a remarkable ability to create discrete boundaries around fuzzy relational systems, so I suspect that whomever this person is, there is a perceived threat (most likely subliminally processed) which stimulates the anxiety. In-Person communication is very different from vocal-only communication, and would include a lot more visual and social processing, which in turn can bring up mental links to past experiences that match what's being processed in the moment. If there are negative associations with those visuosocial links, you'll experience anxiety due to the possiblity of a repetition.

Is the person from a restrictive, socially conservative culture? Is there a history of controlling and/or fickle parents? Or a long time spent in/around aggressive, insecure people who personalize everything? These (and a lot more!) are all things that can create the sort of anxiety you're describing.

But really, a trained psychologist is whom this person should be talking with. A trend like this can result in intense social isolationism unless addressed early.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I don't think this answers the question. The question asks for the name of this phenomena and if it has been studied. An answer should provide a name and reference to literature not attempts at diagnoses, 'alleviating', or guessing the source of the phenomena in a particular individual. This is not a self-help site. $\endgroup$ Feb 8, 2012 at 22:35

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