The XX Factor

Shyness in the Spotlight … Again

There are four words I can’t seem to bring myself to use-“Follow me on Facebook”-but James Parker’s
nice little piece in praise of shyness in the Boston Globe is making me feel a bit better about that today. Still, I can’t agree with him that “[s]hyness is feeling a bit awkward these days. Shyness, we might say, is suffering a crisis of confidence.” Quite the contrary. Shyness, as he notes, has now gained renown as a possible indicator of Social Anxiety Disorder, and sometimes gets treated with prescription drugs! Meanwhile, its new medical status has in no way diminished its longstanding power to inspire writerly tributes (like Parker’s) that in turn inspire comments (like mine). Long before people yammered on cell phones and attracted mass followings on Twitter, shyness was a wallflower that attracted especially articulate attention. One of my favorites is this riff by British politician and writer Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968):

Let us educate the younger generation to be shy in and out of season: to edge behind the furniture: to say spasmodic and ill-digested things: to twist their feet round the protective feet of sofas and armchairs: to feel that their hands belong to someone else–that they are objects, which they long to put down on some table away from themselves.

For shyness is the protective fluid within which our personalities are able to develop into natural shapes. Without this fluid the character becomes merely standardized or imitative: it is within the tender velvet sheath of shyness that the full flower of idiosyncrasy is nurtured: it is from this sheath alone that it can eventually unfold itself, coloured and undamaged. Let the shy understand, therefore, that their disability is not only an inconvenience, but also a privilege. Let them regard their shyness as a gift rather than as an affliction. Let them consider how intolerable are those of their contemporaries who are not also shy.

But I’d take issue with Nicolson, too, for assuming that people are shy about being shy. Poll your contemporaries (go ahead, interrupt their tweeting), and here’s my bet: a surprising percentage of them will duck their heads, lower their eyes, and tell you, “I’m kind of shy.” Those are four words everybody likes to say.