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?


5 thoughts on “Just Shy of Normal: Fighting Voicelessness in a Noisy World

  1. Thank you for this; it’s beautifully evocative and I think really does give an authentic glimpse into shyness. It’s true that most people equate shyness with introversion and introversion with being a bit boring. The world more or less belongs to the extroverts!

    But I think there is a gendered dimension that comes through where women who are introverted but *not* shy – because I completely disagree with you that shyness is an inevitable consequence of introversion – pay a really high penalty for speaking where actually the world would much rather we be silent. One day I might attempt a piece on what it feels like to have an equally loud inner voice screaming at me to shut up already, in concert with the implicit or (often!) explicit message from the outside world to do the same, and just how soul-crushingly humiliating it is to just **not be able to**.

    That’s my one quibble with a lot of the debate about introversion and/or shyness; that it doesn’t recognise that a lack of shyness can come with very gendered penalties and lead to big regrets and missed opportunities, where what is commonly referred to as “being too gobby” takes over and ruins relationships or makes a bad impression. I’ve had this conversation with several of my friends who are cripplingly shy, & by and large we find that men pay a higher penalty for shyness than women, and women pay a higher penalty for the lack of it…

  2. I am the polar opposite of shy, and I am happy to be thrown into a room of strangers, I will nearly always be able to initiate a conversation without any trouble, and I’ll usually enjoy the whole process too.

    However, I do have friends who are painfully shy. And I use that expression deliberately, as their shyness is a source of distress to them, they find it painful to be unable to interact with others as they would like.

    To me introversion is about how much you enjoy the company of others, how much social interaction is your ideal amount. Some people are gregarious and extrovert and like spending lots of time with others. Some are just the opposite.

    Shyness, to my mind, is nothing to do with how much social interaction you might like (in your ideal world) but how difficult you find it to actually have that social interaction. Those who are very introvert and don’t much crave the company of others may not be as distressed if they are also shy, whereas those who would love to be able to interact more with others and would love to enjoy a more extrovert lifestyle, will find shyness more crippling.

    And of course, I know that shyness can also be extremely difficult in a work environment as well – many types of jobs require the ability to assertively present one’s findings or recommendations, or to argue one’s position against others, or simply to interact regularly with colleagues.

    One comment I would have though, is that being an entertainer is inherently a career that requires the ability to share oneself with others – surely it’s part of the very nature of entertaining. So, perhaps it’s not that unreasonable to expect people who want to be entertainers not to be suffering from excessive shyness? Am I out of line by expressing that thought? Perhaps. But it’s what honestly pops into my mind.

    That’s not to say one can’t be more helpful or sympathetic, of course.

    When I meet my shyest friend, we choose places that are quiet and allow us to interact relatively privately – restaurants where there is decent space between the tables and without loud background music so we don’t have to shout. I don’t suggest we do group activities together, because I know she dislikes them intensely. Occasionally, when we’ve met someone I know we both admire hugely, and that she would very much like to chat to, I do my best to facilitate her joining the conversation, without being patronising. I find it easy to initiate conversation, so I can do that, and then it’s not difficult to bring others into the conversation. I don’t do this for every social interaction, I should stress – nothing worse than pushing someone into things they don’t want to do – but on those occasions where I know that she would actually love to talk to the person in question but struggles to initiate.

    Aah, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to really understand the strength of the inhibition because I don’t have it but I try to keep in mind how hard I find it going down a flight of stairs (vertigo), and how I need to clutch the hand rail or I just can’t bring myself to step downwards, and try and think of her difficulty in speaking out as a similar difficulty.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Kavey. It sounds like you give your shy friend just the kind of boosts I was referring to 🙂

      When it comes to your point about entertainers, I think the key thing to remember here is that people don’t *choose* to be shy. It’s not an inherent characteristic for anyone, and it can strike people who desperately want to be entertainers (singers, comedians) as much as it can people who are happy to work in an office. Saying to those talented people who want to be entertainers that they can’t be entertainers because of it is deeply unfair.

      I believe shyness to be a learned behaviour which can, through the right methods, be unlearned.(Take one extreme manifestation of shyness as an example: selective mutism. This too can be overcome). Talented singers, as on The Voice, shouldn’t be cast aside *purely* because they are shy (the show IS called The Voice), not when it’s possible to really help people with the right encouragement. Does that make sense? You’re not out of line at all for expressing that thought; it’s an incredibly common point of view. But it’s exactly that kind of thought process which I was hoping to challenge here, because I think it causes a lot of damage. Imagine a shy 10 year old who’s learning to play the piano and loves to sing. What would she come away from The Voice thinking? Would she be thinking there was a place for her talents in the world? Would it give her hope, or would it reinforce her shyness?

  3. I completely understand that anyone has the right to dream of being anything… and I agree that our dreams are our dreams, we don’t always choose what we long for sensibly or rationally…

    My point is that there is also an element of being realistic – yes we can hope and ask for help from others, but at some point, there must also be an internal acknowledgement that if we are missing a key skill or ability or have something within ourselves that is blocking the path we dream of taking (through no fault of our own but no fault of anyone else’s either) that the onus is on us more than it is on everyone else to find a way past the issue.

    The Voice is a reflection of commercial realities, and commercial realities don’t always nurture everyone as much as we might like.

    Expecting friends to make an extra effort – yes, I think it’s a given. Expecting those in one’s working environment to acknowledge that a colleague may struggle in one area but is very strong in another, and deserving of respect and support, I think that’s reasonable too. But I still don’t agree with you on this particular The Voice example.

    But have enjoyed considering the issue further and thank you for entering into the discussion with me.

  4. Some people are extremely shy and some people are very confident, but there are a lot of people in between who suffer from shyness in certain situations, with certain people, when in certain moods. I am a writer and enjoy being on my own, but I also crave company. Isn’t it about aspiring fro that balance? Recognising when you want to be alone and when you want to be around people, and managing your life to satisfy this. I also think that many seemingly extrovert people can actually be quite introverted, and find the demands of being sociable and funny, and the life and soul of the party, really quite draining. What I’m getting at is that most people, in my opinion, have a little bit of all of these qualities, and as we get older perhaps we begin to learn to accept this about ourselves, and therefore avoid situations that are going to drain our resources or make us feel uncomfortable.

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