Just Shy of Normal: Fighting Voicelessness in a Noisy World

Last weekend, during the preamble before a “battle round” performance on The Voice, a contestant confessed to will.i.am and the watching public that he struggled with shyness. This confession, undoubtedly well-coordinated by the producers for maximum stakes-raising before the singer “battled” an extroverted and bubbly burlesque singer, was met with muted sympathy. “James just needs to get over that shyness.” Will.i.am said to the camera, before the key shot of James walking towards the stage.

Shyness is an affliction of “justs”.

You’re just shy. Why don’t you just talk? You just need to get over it. Just don’t worry so much. Just have a drink! Just don’t think so much. For God’s sake, just speak.

These kinds of statements probably aren’t meant to be as dismissive as they are. Shyness is definitionally a silent and mostly invisible problem outside of the head of the sufferer. It’s impossible to explain how it feels to be struck dumb in front of people with whom you want to leave a good impression. Many people mistakenly believe that shy people don’t speak because they have nothing to say, but that’s not it. It’s the creeping, unshakable doubt that anything you have to say could possibly be more interesting, more amusing, more worthwhile than anything on offer from someone else.

In my head, it’s always loud. Comments, quips, anecdotes, jokes cram into my head, offering themselves to my reticent mouth, which remains stubbornly shut. Where did this self-enforced silencing come from? And how do you overcome it?

It’s important for me to understand the origins of my particular brand of shyness. Though these will inevitably differ from person to person, for me the shyness is what happens at the intersection of introversion and anxiety. Separating these three things and understanding rational responses to people, situations and stimuli is fundamental to me in learning how to overcome the problem. How much can you really call it a problem, and how much is just your personality? Or are they so interconnected it’s impossible to separate them?

Introversion and shyness are two separate things which are often equated; the assumption is that if you are one, you are also the other. But introversion is a constant that forms the foundation of your personality, not inherently good or bad, but fundamental. Shyness is like a coat you can’t remember putting on, if someone gave it to you, or if you chose it yourself. You know you should take it off, but if you do, what if you’re cold? It’s kind of comfortable and familiar, in a suffocating kind of way. Far from being a part of your personality, it’s the shyness (or coat, if you will), that stops you from presenting that personality to the world.

I like being an introvert. I like finding solace and joy in books and quiet cafes and small groups of friends and music meant just for me through beautifully noise-cancelling headphones. I like recharging my little introvert batteries curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea and my laptop for company.

I don’t like being shy. Shyness, for me, is essentially a hideously heightened sense of self-consciousness, something I can’t turn off or adjust at will. Like a lot of learned behaviours, it comes in waves of differing intensity and can be triggered by certain stimuli, particularly groups of people.

Anxiety acts as the fuel for this kind of diffidence. In a society that tends to celebrate and reward more extroverted behaviour, introverted behaviour is inevitably framed as unappealing or even unwanted. Aren’t we supposed to like people? Aren’t we supposed to be social creatures? Isn’t there something wrong with choosing solitude over a crowd? Hey, don’t you like fun?

It’s inevitable, then, that people with an inclination to this kind of behaviour would begin to develop a complex about how their words and actions are perceived and accepted by others. This kind of thought process permeates; self-consciousness is inevitable. Shyness creeps in, at first so indistinguishable from the original introverted behaviour its intrusion is barely noticeable.

Popular culture tends to offer up two types of shy person. The first – let’s call them Awkwards –  a pathologically shy, socially inept nerd-type whose shyness is brought on by proximity to the opposite sex. This group tends to be overwhelmingly male, but women occasionally exhibit such behaviours. The second group – the Bashfuls –  is the shrinking violet; sweetly and socially acceptably diffident. The kind that blushes, but never stutters. Usually women, needless to say, and children.

In reality, shy people aren’t so homogenous. For all the shy people I’ve met who, like me, shrink into themselves and find it hard to speak in certain social situations, I’ve also met self-professed shy people whose response to their shyness is to talk at length. While many people do experience their worst episodes of shyness when around the opposite sex, many others find peers, superiors or even family members of either sex to be far more intimidating.

It’s worth mentioning here that everyone is awkward sometimes. Everyone can be a little bashful. While the last thing I want to do is pathologise “normal” (sorry) emotional responses, part of the problem people have in understanding why you can’t just “get over” shyness is the fact that they assume it must be similarly fleeting. Anyone who has struggled with a disorder like depression will recognise this misguided and oblivious attempt at empathy (“I know what you mean, I get sad, too!”).

So how should non-shy people deal with the diffidents among us?

Imagine you’re at a concert, standing somewhere in the middle of a crowd. You stand at a good height, with a good line of sight above the other heads to the stage. Imagine you had a short friend with you, straining on tiptoes for a glimpse of a guitar, a microphone, a singer. You wouldn’t say, “Why did you even come here? You obviously can’t see.” You wouldn’t say, “I used to be much shorter than I am, but I’m so glad I can see so well now.” And you definitely wouldn’t say, “Hey. You’re short. Did you know that you’re short? I can’t believe how short you are. Everyone else can see so much better than you.”

No. You’d probably say, “Is there anything I can do to help you see better?” Or, if you were tall enough and strong enough, maybe you’d try and give your short friend a bit of a boost.

James, the hopeful from last weekend’s Voice, went on to win his battle and go through to the next round of the competition. Good news, right? For him, yes. For fellow shy people, the show offers little hope. Several other singers have left the competition after being told they were too shy (or the more palatable “you need to come out of your shell”). The message is this: This is a problem you have. Get over it, or you won’t get what you want. You don’t deserve what you want.

It’s an easy assumption that a quiet exterior reflects a quiet interior, and that quiet equals dull. That nothing said means nothing to say. That nothing heard means nothing worth hearing.

But I do have (*ahem*) a voice, albeit one that is occasionally quieter and more tentative than I would like. Maybe one day I’ll learn how to better navigate the route from my mind to my mouth, but until then a small boost from a good friend goes a long, long way.

And when all else fails I remind myself of a mantra gifted to me by my utterly brilliant and similarly reticent dad: Quieter people make the most noise.

Are you listening?