The crystalline wall

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The crystalline wall

A shy Yves Saint Laurent is pushed onstage to be acclaimed for his Spring-Summer collection, Paris, January 1986. Photo by Abbas/Magnum

Shyness is a part of being human. The world would be a more insipid, less creative place without it

Joe Moran is a professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University. His latest book is Armchair Nation: An Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, forthcoming this autumn.

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If I had to describe being shy, I’d say it was like coming late to a party when everyone else is about three glasses in. All human interaction, if it is to develop from small talk into meaningful conversation, draws on shared knowledge and tacit understandings. But if you’re shy, it feels like you just nipped out of the room when they handed out this information. W Compton Leith, a reclusive curator at the British Museum whose book Apologia Diffidentis (1908) is a pioneering anthropology of shy people, wrote that ‘they go through life like persons afflicted with a partial deafness; between them and the happier world there is as it were a crystalline wall which the pleasant low voices of confidence can never traverse’.

Shyness has no logic: it impinges randomly on certain areas of my life and not others. What for most people is the biggest social fear of all, public speaking, I find fairly easy. Lecturing is a performance that allows me simply to impersonate a ‘normal’, working human being. Q&As, however, are another matter: there the performance ends and I will be found out. That left-field question from the audience, followed by brain-freeze and a calamitous attempt at an answer that ties itself up in tortured syntax and dissolves into terrifying silence. Though this rarely happens to me in real life, it has occurred often enough to fuel my catastrophising imagination.

The historian Theodore Zeldin once wondered how different the history of the world might seem if you told it, not through the story of war, politics or economics, but through the development of emotions. ‘One way of tackling it might be to write the history of shyness,’ he mused. ‘Nations may be unable to avoid fighting each other because of the myths and paranoias that separate them: shyness is one of the counterparts to these barriers on an individual level.’ The history of shyness might well make a fascinating research project, but it would be hellishly difficult to write. Shyness is by its nature a subjective, nebulous state that leaves little concrete evidence behind, if only because people are often too uncomfortable with their shyness to speak or write about it.

For Charles Darwin, this ‘odd state of mind’ was one of the great puzzles in his theory of evolution, for it appeared to offer no benefit to our species. However, in research begun in the 1970s, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan suggested that about 10-15 per cent of infants are ‘born shy’. Being easily fearful and less socially responsive, they reacted to mildly stressful situations with a quicker heartbeat and higher blood cortisol levels.

At around the same time, the American animal behaviourist Stephen Suomi, working at an animal centre in Poolesville, Maryland, observed a similar percentage of shyness in monkeys, with the same increased heart rate and rise in blood cortisol. Blood testing, and reassigning shy infant monkeys to outgoing mothers, suggested that this shy trait was hereditary. Suomi’s work might also have inadvertently pointed to the evolutionary usefulness of shyness. When a hole in the chain-link fencing around the centre’s primate range gave the monkeys a chance to get out, the shy ones stayed put while the bolder ones escaped, only to be hit by a truck when they tried to cross the road.

Until a few hundred years ago, life was lived far more in public: whole families would eat, sleep and socialise together in the same room

Higher primates are social creatures, hard-wired to want to meet and mate; but there might also be some value in their being cautious and risk-avoiding, traits that might over-evolve into excessive timidity. Neither Kagan nor Suomi suggest that shyness is fixed at birth. They see it as a case study in the rich interplay between nature and nurture. Similarly, for Antonio Damasio, professor of neuroscience at the University of Southern California, shyness is a ‘secondary emotion’. Unlike primary emotions such as anger, fear and disgust — where there is a large biological and universally felt component — shyness is ‘tuned by experience’, leaving it open to a huge amount of cultural conditioning, historical variation and definitional ambiguity.

If shyness is something that adjusts to different cultural and historical contexts, then it must surely have taken on oppressive new forms with the emergence of modern notions of privacy and private life. Until a few hundred years ago, life was lived far more in public. For example, it was quite normal for people to urinate or defecate in public places. Even in private houses, whole families would eat, sleep and socialise together in the same room. Then, gradually, bodily functions and aggressive language and behaviour were rendered increasingly invisible in polite society, thanks to what the late sociologist Norbert Elias called the ‘civilising process’ that took place in the Western world from the 16th century onwards. As greater physical and psychological boundaries grew up around individuals, particularly among relative strangers in public, there were more opportunities for awkwardness and embarrassment about when these boundaries should be crossed.

More recently, shyness, like other awkward personality traits, has been seen as an affliction to be treated medically rather than as a temperamental quirk. In 1971, the psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, with student volunteers acting as prisoners and guards in a pretend prison in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building. The study had to be stopped a week early because the guards were treating the prisoners so brutally, and many of the inmates had adapted by internalising their subordinate positions and sheepishly obeying their tormentors. Zimbardo began thinking of shy people as incarcerating themselves in a silent prison, in which they also acted as their own guards, setting severe constraints on their speech and behaviour that were self-imposed although they felt involuntary.

In 1972, Zimbardo began conducting the Stanford Shyness Survey, starting with his own students and eventually including more than 10,000 interviewees. The odd thing about Zimbardo’s work was that it revealed that feeling shy was very common — more than 80 per cent of those interviewed said they had been shy at some point in their lives, and more than 40 per cent said they were currently shy — but that it also pioneered the modern tendency to see shyness as a remediable pathology. Methods of calibrating shyness were developed, such as the Cheek and Buss Shyness Scale (after its Wellesley College researchers Jonathan Cheek and Arnold Buss) in 1981, and the Social Reticence Scale, formulated by the psychologists Warren Jones and Dan Russell in 1982. Extreme shyness was redefined as ‘social anxiety disorder’, and drugs such as Seroxat (also known as Paxil), which works like Prozac by increasing the brain’s levels of serotonin, were developed to treat it. As Christopher Lane argues forcefully in his book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness (2007), this was part of a more general biomedical turn in psychiatry, with its ‘growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate’.

A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill

In 1999, noting that the number of people identifying as shy in his survey had risen to 60 per cent, Zimbardo told the British Psychological Society that we were on the cusp of ‘a new ice age’ of non-communication. Computers, email and the replacement of cashiers and shop assistants by cashpoint machines and automated checkouts were all contributing to what he called an ‘epidemic’ of shyness as the possibilities for human contact diminished. Shyness, he suggested, was no longer an individual problem; it was now a ‘social disease’.

Today Zimbardo’s prediction of a new ice age created by technology seems wide of the mark. On the contrary, the rise of social networking has made it normal for people to lay bare their private lives without inhibition online, from posting photos of themselves in states of inebriation to updating the world on their changing relationship status, in ways that would have seemed inconceivable a generation ago. The internet, far from cutting us off from each other, has simply provided more fodder for our own era’s fascination with emotional authenticity and therapeutic self-expression — a shift in public attitudes towards personal privacy that Eva Illouz, professor of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has called ‘the transformation of the public sphere into an arena for the exposition of private life’.

In her recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), Susan Cain worries about a world ruled by what she calls the ‘extrovert ideal’. This, she suggests, found its most malign expression in the excessive risk-taking of those who brought about the banking crisis of 2008. Much of Quiet consists of telling introverts how wonderful they are: how we think more deeply and concentrate better than extroverts, are less bothered about money and status, are more sensitive, moral, altruistic, clear-sighted and persistent. If you’re an extrovert, the book probably isn’t for you.

Yet introversion is not the same as shyness, as Cain is careful to point out, although the two do often overlap. Introverts are people whose brains are overstimulated when in contact with too many other human beings for too long — in which case I am most definitely a shy introvert. If I’m in a noisy group of people for more than about an hour, my brain simply starts to scramble like a computer with a system error, and I end up feeling mentally and physically drained. Introverts such as me need to make frequent strategic withdrawals from social life in order to process and make sense of our experiences.

Shyness is something different: a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness. The danger in simply accepting it, as Cain urges us to do with introversion, is that shyness can easily turn into a self-fulfilling persona — the pose becomes part of you, like a mask that melds with your face. There is always something we cling to in an unhappy situation that stops us escaping from it. In my case, it is the belief that lots of voluble people do not really listen to each other, that they simply exchange words as though they were pinging them over a tennis net — conducting their social life entirely on its surface. A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill.

The human brain is the most complex object we know, and the journey from one brain to another is surely the most difficult

My more sensible self realises this is nonsense, and that shyness (or, for that matter, non-shyness) has no inherent meaning. There is nothing specific to shyness that makes you more likely to be a nice person, or a good listener, or a deep thinker. Shyness might have certain accidental compensations — being less susceptible to groupthink and more able to examine the habits and rituals of social life with a certain wry detachment, perhaps. Mostly it is just a pain and a burden.

Yet shyness remains a part of being human, and the world would be a more insipid, less creative place without it. As Cain argues, we live in a culture that values dialogue as an ultimate ideal, an end in itself, unburdening ourselves to each other in ever louder voices without necessarily communicating any better. Shyness reminds us that all human interaction is fraught with ambiguity, and that insecurity and self-doubt are natural, because we are all ultimately inaccessible to one another. The human brain is the most complex object we know, and the journey from one brain to another is surely the most difficult. Every attempt at communication is a leap into the dark, with no guarantee that we will be understood or even heard by anyone else. Given this obdurate fact, a little shyness around each other is understandable.

I have often found myself in a circle of people at a social gathering that has suddenly closed up like a scrum and left me standing outside it, as its constituent parts became animated in conversation, forgot I was there, and absent-mindedly nudged me out of the loop. I have fought all my life this sensation that shyness is a personal affliction that has left me viewing our herd-loving, compulsively communicative species from the edges. Now I am coming to see it more as a collective problem, an inevitable by-product of the thing that separates us from other animals: our unique human cargo of self-consciousness. For all our need for intimacy, we ultimately face the world alone and cannot enter another person’s life or mind without effort and difficulty. Shyness isn’t something that alienates me from everyone else; it’s the common thread that links us all.

Read more essays on cognition & intelligence and personality


  • dailyleapfrog

    That is a great article! thank you

  • Abbi

    A well-balanced article. I can identify with so much in this, particularly the fluctuation of feelings between a sort of misguided superiority and irrational inferiority. It's so easy to see it as an affliction to be got rid of, but the reality is definitely more nuanced than that. Thank you!

  • ArchiesBoy

    This article set me thinking about my own shyness, and I believe that shyness is not only part of one's inherited temperament to whatever extent, it can be either exacerbated or suppressed by the way one is raised by his parents, and the way *they* express shyness vs. aggressiveness.

    For instance: my mother was a fearful woman. Fear of life was her steady state, and for good reason. Her family started out affluent, but lost everything in the Great Depression and never recovered. My dad was very shy and timid because of a serious hearing problem, and generally stayed in the background. He would mis-hear what was said to him and responded often with non sequiturs, which made people think he was unintelligent, and made him feel foolish. So he generally kept quiet.

    They never "took life by the horns" so to speak, and pretty much took the line of least resistance. I think a lot of that rubbed off on me when I was a child. It took me a long time to become as assertive as I finally became. Shyness is *not* fun.

    • Gabriel

      What helped you? What did you do to become assertive?

  • j.visher

    Shyness is a quiet and intense observational state of being. When shy, a person can move through new environments without offending and learn new ways of being. The discomfort comes when the shy person is asked to give out when they are taking in. In this situation the shy person is shamed to be greedy -- all take and no give, and is alienated from the people they are "spying" on. This being a socially dangerous situation, the shy person is uncomfortable. Extreme shyness amounts to an inability to participate in any dialogue at all, to trust the value of what is known by oneself and distrust the value of what can be learned from others. Shyness does have a "Darwinian" advantage to learn from others, but like many (all) traits, is not a "perfect" adaption. Saying a personality trait that produces discomfort has no natural advantage is like saying eyes don't make sense because we can go blind.

  • shy bachelor farmer

    In the land of shy Norwegian bachelor farmers...........shyness is deep in the extrovert looks at the others persons feet as they "talk" , an introvert looks at his own feet!

  • Derek Roche

    I was going to make a comment but then I came over all self-conscious. What if I say something stupid, or obvious, or trite, or just plain wrong? What if I get called out as a poseur, or pest, or pretentious twat? I mean, what do I know anyway? What am I even doing here? Who do I think I am? These people are all so smart, so self-confident. They all seem so well-qualified. It's like they're all members of some club that I wasn't even invited to join, not that they'd've accepted me anyway. I mean, look, see how they close ranks and squeeze me out? I swear that guy's smirking at me even though he won't catch my eye. See how he's whispering to the next guy, making some smart remark about how some people just don't belong, you know, and now they're laughing. They're laughing at me! They're laughing at me! I knew I should've taken my Nembutal. Better get a drink. Better get a few drinks. Hey babe, what's a sweetheart like you doing in a place like this? Ow!

    • tonysolo

      So your interview with The Onion didn't go so well, then?

    • ingrid van den berg

      I believe many of us have been in that situation, Derek. Which, I suppose, makes us members of another club, one from which the un-self-conscious are excluded. Clubs: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em!

    • PanurgeATL

      That sounds more like paranoia than shyness.

      • vice2vursa .

        think of social anxiety disorder as an extreme level of shyness. It can often cause paranoid thoughts in sufferers. Not psychotic schitzophrenic paranoia, but the kind of paranoia that can actually come true. people with social anxiety are very sensitive to judgment and judgment is rampant in human nature. were always on high alert when it comes to social performance.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Real shyness appeared in girl when she experiences her first love.Question arises why she expressed shyness to her lover?What is her intention? When looking her lover she show such beautiful shyness that is so marvelous lover cached it in his heart and remain forever there.I myself experiences this kind of shyness from my fiancee and remembering it at the age 78.

  • Rachel Van Tonder

    Is shyness and social anxiety disorder an evolutionary trait that cannot really be cured? Interesting article. The monkey experiment - where the risk-taking extroverted monkeys got hit by a truck when they escaped through a hole in their enclosure vs. the shy, inhibited introverted monkeys who stayed behind in the enclosure and remained alive... was really striking to me. I think the introverted shy monkeys were lucky. They acted under the guise of staying in the "known" because what's "known" cannot possibly be as harmful as the unknown. But in reality, nothing in life is certain. Even the "known" can throw a curveball at our underlying assumptions and prove that our underlying assertions were misguided all along.

    Shyness is a misunderstanding of life itself. Shyness proceeds from the idea that life can be predictable and that outcomes can be controlled by oneself alone. The reality is it can't. Things happen when people act end masse, group together and work together to make things happen. No matter how hard it is to work together when everyone is ultimately an individual at the end of the day, and no one can truly understand or get into the mind of another.

    Unfortunately some people only realise the potency of this too late. After they have frittered away the prime of their lives living under an illusional shield that they have constructed for themselves.

    It is hard living as a shy person. Even harder to be brave and to step out of one's fears and meet life's unpredictable challenges with the heart of a lion.

    • ana

      a lot of shy people "misunderstanding life" have actually influenced and improved it. according to your logic we should be writing books en masse

  • cuzzin

    I am inclined to agree with Zimbardo's comment on society's increasing shyness - sure we all communicate more via social media but the differences between this and direct interaction are staggering. Socialising over the internet gives each party a huge level of control over what is said to each other (I've sat here for 20mins re-drafting this comment ... ) and these missives are mostly to people who you already know and feel comfortable around. Even if you were to say something inappropriate, you are still shielded from the spontaneous reaction. Add to this the fact that these interactions are text based - words alone make up a tiny fraction of the meaning conveyed in direct human interaction - resulting in less variables for potential failure. Social media is socialising for the comfort generation; you argue that the world would be less creative - I don't think creativity has ever spawned through human comfort.

    Perhaps you should turn your attention to your own demons, instead of writing an essay defending them. Maybe then you'll see how irrational they are and how liberating it is to be free of them.

  • Irlybot

    There is a fragmented and detached chapter called social nurture behind every raison d'être. The blurry headline of that business plan reads "purity order: a provisional measure".

  • Skanik

    When I was a freshman in college I noticed that the extroverts loved to gather after dinner and chat and chat and chat in the common space of the dorm. As part of a
    psychology experiment - I tape recorded them and listed the topics they discussed and rated them on levels of depth and connected conversations.

    As best I could tell the Extroverts were remarkably shallow in their discussions and it

    seemed that each of them was just waiting for the other person to stop talking so they could say whatever was on their mind.

    • Saek

      This action is both informative and a little creepy if you think about it.

  • EZ

    I cured my shyness. I kept looking for the exploration here on how a cure was impossible, but maybe it was just a catchy title. Maybe my case is unique, maybe it was linked to depression (although a common link would explain why shyness is reported to be increasing along with depression).

    It wasn't easy, but a couple of years of drama therapy in a group that focused on shyness, without ever judging it as negative, and using improv games to practice human interaction and the effect on emotional landscapes. (and it took a lot longer in expressive arts therapy to figure out how I can be confidence and reduce the self doubt and criticism that fueled my depression).

    As a result, I discovered I was not as introverted as I built myself to be. There's a whole spectrum of introvert and extrovert, and this is a bell curve, so most people fall somewhere in the middle. If shyness is on the rise, it can be pretty certain that introversion is not.

    But the point is that shyness can be cured. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing, but if you are *suffering* from it (emphasis on suffering), that is not a good thing. If you're happy with being shy, then there's nothing to cure. (It sounds like Joe isn't completely comfortable with it, which is where I used to be).

    You can work on reducing the suffering by either coming to terms with being an introvert and digging deep to unearth those emotions you're struggling with around social situations and learning to love being shy, or learning and practicing the skills in a safe space to play with introversion and extroversion and to figure out what's comfortable and enjoyable for you, so you can learn when you want to be shy and when you don't. The benefit for drama or arts therapy is, that especially for people with an introverted tendency, it engages with hard emotions through a playfulness and breaks past our ability to intellectualize our emotions instead of face them, the way old school talk therapy usually doesn't.

    I still enjoy being shy and find it comfortable at home or at most parties, but there are many situations at work and out in public where being more outgoing is very helpful, and I can navigate both with greater ease than I could 4 years ago. I still sometimes suffer from doing too much of one or the other, but it's such a relief compared to how I used to feel all the time.

  • Sian Prior

    This is a fantastic article and much of it echoes material i have recently written about in a draft memoir - and earlier, in an essay published in the Australian literary journal Meanjin:

  • smilingvulture

    best article I've ever read on shyness,as a child I wasn't shy,but everything changed once I became a teenager,I became conscious of everything,as they say now socially inadequate,personality disorder.what others see as the norm,family occasions,I see as crippling,I'm 50+ now and my family think I'm gay(no prob if I was)but its impossible for me to handle the full picture meet a girl,marry,in laws

    • babby660

      I was painfully shy as a child, but 4 years in college & a subsequent career as a newspaper reporter brought me out of my shell. I still have shy moments, but nobody seems to notice them. My friends don't believe I'm shy!

  • jamesg1103

    I was once told by an industrial psychologist that we shy people tend to have very strong egos.

  • William556

    This seems to be more of an American problem that in other nations and culture. American culture is extremely extroverted, perhaps the most so on the planet by a wide margin. Our culture selects for the big, loud, super outgoing, hyper-kinetic types via pop culture, politics, even social groups in school. As noted about "Quiet," super-extroverts managed to dominate the corporate world from the mid 1990's on. Remember the big razzle dazzle shows they put on to get hired rather than a simple resume? Remember what disasters almost all of them turned out to be?

    Wandered a bit. My point is that shyness and introversion account for at least 50% of the population but US culture aims is geared toward the extreme end of extroversion, perhaps the 10% polar opposite of the shy. Ironic isn't it that society runs so much cover for them but wants to medicate the shy and introverted to be more like them?

  • Douglas Eby

    Dr. Elaine Aron comments that Cain’s book “is actually more about HSPs (highly sensitive people) than social introverts” and “Her discussion of ‘introversion’ throughout is almost identical to what has become the standard definition of high sensitivity.” - From my article Creative Thinking and Being Introverted or Highly Sensitive, which includes a video of Cain.

  • Sian Prior

    Thank you for this beautiful vivid honest essay. You might be interested in a book i've just written called 'Shy - a memoir' which is coming out in Australia in June next year (Text Publishing) - an examination of a life through the prism of shyness (or social anxiety). I've spoken to a number of psychologists, looked at it from both the nature/nurture angles, and at the strategies i've used in my professional life to 'manage' my acute shyness.
    Sian P.

  • Diane

    This article describes me perfectly.

  • Farty Fartsalot

    Yet shy people are generally ignored & looked down upon by people are too lazy to get to know them...
    Unless that shy person happens to be an attractive woman w/ perky breasts and/or film butt.

  • Roy

    The introduction is correct"shy ness cannot be cured" I am a 69 Loveshy.male & 50 years of therapy have never done anything for me. I have never had sex or a girlfriend & to make matters worse I cant masturbate cause of strong antidepressants.

  • Roy

    What about love shyness then where a person need sex & a girlfriend but can't get them due to crippling shyness.

  • Roy

    I went to the doctors today about my love shyness. When I told him I was 69 he said there was nothing he could do & said I would probably die a virgin......just a warning to other younger sufferers TRY & do something about it before it's to late.