What is shyness?

One definition of shyness is "having difficulty in creating a good rapport with the people one meets."

For some people, the problem of shyness may simply be having trouble thinking of things to say in social situations. For others, it may involve crippling physical manifestations of uneasiness. For most, shyness involves a combination of both symptoms to a greater or lesser degree. In any event, the effects of shyness can be devastating.

Behaviors that come spontaneously for the average person (smiling, thinking of suitable conversational topics, assuming a relaxed posture, making good eye-contact, etc.) may simply not be an inherent part of the shy person's makeup.

Another problem of shyness is that shy people may not know how to behave in certain situations. Wrote Dr. Phillip G. Zimbardo, one of the country's foremost authorities on the subject of shyness, "Some don't have the social skills necessary for keeping the machinery of human relationships functioning smoothly. They don't know how to start a conversation or ask for a raise or speak up in class."

Thus, there's more to shyness than merely not knowing what to say. The severely shy may find it difficult to do something as simple as smile and say "hello" to someone. If they don't tend to smile easily, they may be afraid to "force" a smile out of the subconscious fear that it will be seen as "phony" by others.

Also, if a shy person does not have an easy smile or a ready laugh, he may be viewed as overly serious, even humorless. According to The Single's Almanac by Jeffrey Ullman, (1986, World Almanac Publications,) the first thing women look at in men is the smile and the laugh. (A comparable predisposition is reported in men's judgments of women.)

Now let's look at some of the behavioral components of shyness:

  • Anxiety or lack of self-confidence around other people;
  • Difficulty thinking of things to say in conversation;
  • Lack of knowledge of expected modes of behavior for various social situations;
  • Absence of outgoing mannerisms such as good eye contact, an easy smile, a relaxed posture, and so forth.

Further, the element of willpower (or the lack of it) enters into the picture. The shy person must sometimes force himself to do such things as go to a party or to strike up a conversation with a classmate. These, for the shy person, can require a tremendous amount of effort.

Also, sometimes shyness can be much like a phobia-an irrational fear that cripples our behavior. We know it's foolish to be afraid of people. We know that people are more inclined to like us if we're relaxed and cheerful than if we're awkward or clumsy. Still, we seem to be predisposed somehow to behave in a certain way. Though the fear that accompanies a "true" phobia is usually more extreme than the fear that accompanies shyness, there do seem to be common elements. (There is even such a thing as a true phobia of other people; it's called anthrophobia.)


What is WRONG with shyness?

To quote one poster to

> Shyness is not bad, it is who you are.
 > I have noticed that there are programs to treat shyness
> as If it were a problem or a disease. Shyness is not a
> disease. The people that have the problem are the sick
> people who think there is something wrong with you if
> you are quiet or timid. Actually shy people are
> probably the most kind hearted people there are. Do
> not let anyone down you because you are shy. That's the
> way that God made you. Be thankful for it.

There is much truth to this statement. The shy are unlikely to gossip or brag, be pushy or demanding, hostile or overbearing or overly aggressive. They tend to make loyal friends; they work harder at keeping a relationship going once they succeed at forming one. They often appear more deep and thoughtful, more discreet and unassuming. In addition, shy people are often perceived as being better listeners (although they sometimes aren't really good listeners at all), as more understanding and as more trustworthy. They tend to make better team players; they aren't always struggling for control in a group situation. They obviously don't dominate conversations, aren't constantly talking about themselves. Indeed, the shy may have many, many fine qualities and very few off-putting ones.

Why is it, then, that shy people do not tend to be as widely liked as more outgoing ones? Why is it that people, generally, are not as attracted to the shy as to the gregarious person? Why is it that, by very definition, to be "shy" is to be "unpopular," or at least less popular than the average?

Dr. Zimbardo surveyed nearly 5000 people over a period of four years. This is what he concluded on the audiotape Winning Over Shyness:

"Shy people are typically not liked by as many people as they like, or want to like them, but, in fact, are often liked by very few."

Many shy people, even some who are severely shy, see their shyness as a positive attribute. This is a reasonable conclusion. However, the shyer one is, the harder it is to view shyness as positive. To go through life being unable to draw other people into warm personal contacts-how frustrating that is! For the greatest need of human beings aside from food, clothing and shelter is that of human companionship. Shyness, if it is too severe, strikes at the very core of what it means to be human-the ability to make that vital human connection with others.

Not all aspects of being shy are bad. The bottom line is, there is nothing wrong with shyness, EXCEPT to the degree that it keeps one from meeting the people one wants to meet or doing the things one wants to do.


How do "non-shy" people regard the shy person?

Actually the term "non-shy" is a misnomer. There is no one who never feels shy. But we'll use this term to describe people who are USUALLY outgoing.

In fact, it seems that while the warmth of outgoing people may cause them to be liked by most of the people they come into contact with, people all too often seem to respond to those who are too shy with aloofness or even disdain.

Some shy people come to feel as if there is something "wrong" with them, as if somehow they are not as important or as worthwhile as the more outgoing people around them. Said one shy person, "it's frustrating to try to be a good person, yet still to be disliked because of your shyness." And unfortunately, the one "negative" trait of shyness can easily offset a dozen other fine qualities in people's minds-especially if that negative trait keeps people from seeing the other, more positive traits.

Gerald M. Phillips, professor of Speech Communications at Pennsylvania State University, writes in his book, Help for Shy People, that many people simply see shyness as a form of incompetence, and shy people as boring and uninviting. "If people do not talk," he writes, "we read it as a sign that we should leave them alone. We talk to those who can reward us and never even notice the others."

The problem is NOT that shyness is so awful. The problem is that the average person THINKS that shyness is so awful! Unfortunately, shy people are often labeled as "stuck up," "humorless,""awkward," or "boring." Often, even shy people would rather hang out with people who are more outgoing.

A post on an AOL message board:

> I hate how extroverted people get so damn uncomfortable
> around introverts at parties and then act like it's YOUR
> fault they don't know how to act around someone who is
> quieter than they are. ("You're so quiet!") One must feel
> sorry for them,'s the human thing to do.

A good answer to this question is, "Well, what would you like to talk about?"

This answer will probably be met with stunned silence, because the other person implies with this question that you are unfriendly, and this answer points out that HE must have been "unfriendly" too! It also proves that you CAN'T be unfriendly, because you're inviting him to a conversation!

If there is another thing about the shy person that can cause people to avoid him or her, it is simply this: being around shy people often makes people feel shy themselves!

Research conducted by psychologist Avril Thorne, and reported in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, verified this phenomenon. When Thorne put introverts and extroverts together, she found that personality differences between the two types diminished. Without the necessary feedback from their companions, many extroverts find themselves at a loss for words as well. Even those who pride themselves on being "outgoing" may feel "shy" when around the very shy person. They may begin to stammer, to stutter, to fumble for words-in short, to display the very same reactions that the shy themselves exhibit. How precarious extroversion can be!

In recent years, there has been a greater and greater awareness of this phenomenon. As psychologist Elaine Hatfield, Ph.D., quoted in Self magazine put it: "The whole study of contagion and emotions is exploding. It's totally unconscious, and it's amazing how fast it happens."

Quite simply, "extroverts" can feel the awkwardness, the uneasiness, of not knowing, themselves, what to say around a shy person. And they dislike this feeling-just as much as anyone else does. In short, even those who pride themselves on being outgoing may "become" shy when around shy people. And so the best way to avoid these feelings, quite often, is to simply avoid those who make them feel this way!

Shy people have a tougher time making friends, going on dates, even getting a good job! Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if people weren't so judgmental of shy people, but they are. That's why seriously shy people have to change. Because society as a whole will not!


Should I tell people I'm shy?

People may suggest, with the best of intentions, that you tell everyone you meet that you are shy. The idea is to bring about better understanding between yourself and others by letting them know that you are not unfriendly, and that they are supposed to be sympathetic towards you.

But is this good advice? Actually, it depends on the individual. If people normally see you as cold and aloof, saying something like, "Parties like this really make me feel shy," can indeed bring about better understanding. Unfortunately, with people who tend to view introverts as simply less interesting than extroverts, an admission of being shy will be unlikely to bring about a spirit of empathy.

Sometimes, I think that telling people you are shy is the worst thing you can do. It sets up the expectation in other people's minds that you are "difficult to talk to." It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I think more important than telling everybody you are shy is to become so adept at striking up conversations that people will no longer have any reason to accuse you of being unfriendly!


Is shyness inborn or something that's learned?

There is evidence that a biological tendency towards shyness may be inherited from our parents; in other words, there may be a genetic component to shyness.

One of the foremost researchers into the biological basis of shyness, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan, came across information showing that shyness in adults could often be traced as far back as the age of three.

Skeptics thought that children might have had ample time to pick up the trait of shyness from their environment by that age. So, to determine whether the trait might have emerged before it could have been learned, Kagan and his colleague, Steven J. Reznick, embarked on a study of two-year olds. Even at that age, they found two widely different personality types; roughly 25 percent of the children were bold, while 20 percent were timid and wary.

Still, not all critics thought the studies were conclusive, since even by the age of two the children might have had time to "learn" shy behaviors. So Kagan embarked on yet another study, this time examining infants as young as four months old, and again the two temperaments emerged. Kagan theorized that there might be fundamental differences in the nervous systems of the timid and confident infants. In other words, brain physiology seemed to predispose certain people to shyness.

As the children grew, their timidity displayed itself in predictable ways. In play groups at 7 1/2, for example, the shy children played by themselves, while the more outgoing children played together in groups.

Further evidence for a congenital link to shyness was found in studies by other researchers that show that identical twins (who have identical genes) are more likely to share shyness than fraternal twins (who are no more alike than other siblings).

This is not to say that shyness has a biological basis in all people. In fact, according to Kagan's studies, only about one third of all extremely inhibited children seem to have a genetic predisposition to shyness.

But even for those of us whose shyness has a biological basis, this doesn't mean that it is not within our ability to change. It is important to emphasize that even those without an inborn tendency toward extroversion can learn to become more extroverted, just as someone without an inborn skill at art can learn to draw or paint well if he or she possesses the drive and puts forth the effort required to do so. Biology is not the same as fate. The shy person is not destined to suffer a lifetime of shyness.

The point here, rather, is that the shy person must not blame herself, something she did or failed to do, for her shyness. Wallowing in a pool of self-condemnation will not help the problem. Nor will blaming the whole thing on one's upbringing or parents. The shy person didn't choose to be shy, nor is her shyness necessarily a result of something she did or did not do during childhood or while growing up. Shyness is simply a natural reaction to unfamiliar situations.


Is shyness a form of low self-esteem?

Contrary to popular belief, not all shy people suffer from inferiority complexes or low self-esteem. Shyness is a very specific way of responding to a particular type of situation. Of course, shy people may eventually develop feelings of inferiority in the area of human relations, but here the low self esteem is the result of shyness, not the cause of it.

This is not to say that no shy people suffer from an inferiority complex. But feelings of inferiority or low self-esteem are far from the exclusive domain of shy people.


Is shyness a form of selfishness?

One poster to wrote:

> I wouldn't label shyness bad. But there is a selfish aspect
> of shyness. I had never thought of being shy as being
> selfish, until I read an article about it. I had to agree
> after reflecting that it can be because we're so concerned
> about ourselves and how other see us. We don't share
> ourselves and this is selfish. We can't just take from
> other people, we need (I need) to learn to share part of me
> too.

"We're so concerned about ourselves and how other see us?" Doesn't this describe everyone? How often have you heard, "Don't worry about your shyness; everyone is too concerned with themselves to notice that you're shy."

I have heard this "selfishness" argument before, too, and I think it is a slur against shy people. Perhaps the intentions are good: a way to "shame" people out of their shyness. But it is based on a false assumption, and therefore, it won't work. Besides, have you ever heard of someone being "shamed" out of a psychological problem?

More and more evidence is showing that shyness is an inborn trait in some people. Furthermore, to a large degree, shyness stems from difficulty in "thinking of things to say" to people. This is why the nervousness kicks in. Some people are natural born raconteurs, others are not. So why blame someone because they lack a certain skill and call it "selfishness?" In my own experience, I have found that non-shy people are very judgmental of shy people.


How can I tell if I'm shy?

Here's a quiz to gauge your level of shyness:

To use this quiz, rate your answer to each question according to the scale below:

Write "0" next to the question if the answer is "never."
Write "1" next to the question if the answer is "seldom."
Write "2" next to the question if the answer is "sometimes."
Write "3" next to the question if the answer is "often."
Write "4" next to the question if the answer is "always."

This is not a scientific inventory, but it may help you pinpoint the specific problems shyness causes you.

  1. Do you feel anxious around new people?

  2. Is it a struggle for you sometimes to think of things to say to a new acquaintance?

  3. Is it difficult for you to keep a conversation going once it's been started?

  4. Do you ever trip over your tongue or stammer when trying to talk to someone you don't know well?

  5. How often do you feel you have little in common with the people you meet?

  6. Do you ever have trouble talking even to people who share your interests?

  7. Do you sometimes become tongue-tied even when you were sure you had something to say?

  8. Do you ever think of a conversational topic after the opportunity to use it has passed?

  9. Do you ever feel like you're not a "member of the gang" when you're with a group of associates?

  10. Do you feel that people consider you as serious, cold, aloof?

  11. Do you tend to avoid parties because you often end up sitting by yourself?

  12. Do you feel guilty when you try to behave in a more outgoing manner-as if you're somehow being phony, or not expressing "the real you?"

  13. Do you have trouble speaking in front of groups?

  14. Do you find that other people more often remember your name than you remember theirs?

  15. Do you fail to have as expressive, confident-sounding voice as you would like?

  16. Do you fail to smile or laugh as often as you would like?

  17. Do you ever stand stiffly or fail to look relaxed when around other people?

  18. Do you have trouble making as much eye-contact as you feel you should?

  19. Do you have difficulty making friends?

  20. Do you go out on fewer dates than you would like?

  21. Does talking to a member of the opposite sex cause you anxiety?

  22. Does talking to a handsome or pretty member of the opposite sex cause you anxiety?

  23. Do you have trouble asserting yourself when somebody tries to take advantage of you?

  24. Do you have trouble knowing how to respond when somebody makes a wisecrack or smart-alecky remark at your expense?

  25. Does asking a favor of others cause you difficulty?

  26. Do you have difficulty refusing requests of you for favors?

  27. Do you have difficulty giving or receiving compliments?

  28. Do you sometimes have trouble knowing how to end a conversation gracefully?

  29. Do you feel most people just have a compulsion to fill silence with empty chatter?

  30. Do you believe that the more you talk, the more chance you'll have of saying something foolish, so it's better to be silent so people will just assume you're intelligent?

SCORING: It is possible to score as high as 120 on this quiz and as low as 0, the higher the score, the greater being the degree of shyness. Very few, if any, people will score perfectly at either of the two extremes. Still, the higher your score is, the more concentration you will have to devote to overcoming your shyness. This quiz is for determining not only your shyness level, but for getting a handle on exactly what areas of shyness are a problem for you, so that you can begin to go about working on those aspects of your shyness.


What is the difference between shyness and introversion?

According to one dictionary, an introvert is "a person more interested in his own mental life than in the world around him." Another defines introversion as "directing one's interests upon oneself rather than external objects or events" while an extrovert is "a person whose interest is more in his environment and in other people than in himself."

To me, these definitions seem a little unfair. They make the trait of introversion sound like one of narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. But many of the world's greatest thinkers are said to have been self-conscious or introverted: Charles Darwin, Thomas Carlyle, Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Cezanne, Pestalozzi, Martin Luther and Albert Einstein among them. In reality, an extrovert can be extremely self-centered, while an introvert can be quite altruistic. It all depends on the individual.

"Introversion" is also often used as a synonym for shyness. But there are important differences between the two personality types. Introverts enjoy solitude, and may be perfectly happy by themselves, with no desire to form new relationships. Shy people, on the other hand, often desperately want to be closer to other people, but are afraid, or don't know how.

Unlike introversion, I don't think shyness is ever a preferred way of life, if you accept the definition of shyness as meaning "awkwardness in the company of others," because nobody likes to feel awkward. And few people could, or would want to, completely avoid being in the company of other people. In short, introversion is when one prefers solitude. Shyness is when one is FORCED into it.

Of course, an introvert may have elements of shyness, and a shy person may have elements of introversion. But in their purest forms, being "shy" and being an "introvert" are quite different from one another. It is possible for a person to be an introvert but to not really be shy; that is, to be one who enjoys solitude but has no trouble interacting with other people when the situation calls for it. It is also possible to be shy without really being an introvert; that is, to enjoy other people's company more than one's own, but to not really know how to go about gaining it.

And, according to Dr. Zimbardo, there are even such things as shy extroverts. These are people who are able to carry on conversation with others, to become accepted and even popular, but always feel a certain amount of nervousness around people anyway. Though they know theoretically how to be outgoing, overcoming their natural tendency toward "butterflies" is still a struggle for them. Public figures who have called themselves shy include Johnny Carson, John Travolta, Carol Burnett, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and even Elizabeth Taylor. This is, however, the least severe form of shyness. How you feel inside when dealing with others is far less important than how you appear externally. If you can act outgoing, then other people will accept you as outgoing, and your internal state will matter little in gaining the rewards that extroversion brings.

What is the difference between shyness & social phobia?

Generally speaking, the component of anxiety is much greater in people with social phobia than it is with shyness. Social phobics tend to avoid social situations to a greater extreme than shy people do. A social phobic may not be able to get themselves to go to a party, while a shy person may be able to go but may end up sitting alone for most of the evening.

People with social phobia, however, can be quite comfortable and seem outgoing in certain social situations, while avoiding or feeling intense anxiety in others.

In other words, the fear factor of social phobia seems to be more intense than it is with shyness, but shyness seems to be made up of more components, such as having dificulty smiling, making eye contact or knowing what to say to new acquaintances.


What is the hardest part of shyness to overcome?

This is a difficult question to answer, because everyone's shyness is different. The most difficult thing may be assuming the mannerisms that outgoing people possess, such as a relaxed open posture, good eye contact, an expressive, confident sounding voice, an easy smile, and so on. This may be because mannerisms are largely controlled by the nervous system, rather than the conscious mind.

Writes one A.S.S poster:

> According to one newspaper motivational columnist, humans
> communicate "72,000 impressions per minute." These impressions
> consist of our words, our body movements, the retinas of our eyes
> changing, the pheromones we emit, and much more. This gets at the
> crux of why I think shyness is so incredibly difficult to
> overcome.
> Although I don't necessarily agree with that "72,000" number, the
> fact is that we do send out an awful lot of signals about our
> internal state to others. The problem is, these signals are all
> unconscious! That must explain why my shyness is so difficult to
> overcome. How do you change something you don't even know
> you're doing?

However, there is one technique that may help somewhat with this. See the section on visualization later in this FAQ.


What problems do shy people have on the job?

Unfortunately, mastering the skills necessary for gaining employment in a good job can be especially challenging for shy people. Interviewing, calling up potential employers, and schmoozing with company representatives at career seminars and job fairs all require a good degree of poise, self-confidence, verbal skill and ease around others. Even more demanding is what is known as aggressive job hunting, which can be far more effective than "traditional" job-hunting techniques, but entails even greater contact with potential employers.

Unfortunately, statistics also show that shy people tend to have more trouble than extroverts advancing on the job, even when they do succeed in getting one. Says Dr. Jonathan Cheek, author of Conquering Shyness; The Battle anyone Can Win, "Underemployment-being stuck in a job that requires less skill or training than you possess-uneasy work relationships, and slower advancement mark the careers of shy people."

Dr. Cheek points to research done at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma that shows that the shyer a person is, the less prestigious his last job title tends to be. Concludes Dr. Cheek, "Almost every lucrative career requires solid communication skills, an assertive personality, and an astute sense of office politics."

In addition, some shy people report being subjected to excessive criticism or "hazing" on the job by their co-workers, and even sometimes by their supervisors. A survey in 1998 by the International Labor Office, in trying to explain the rash of episodes of workplace violence, found that "workplace bullying" was one factor. This can include shouting at subordinates or co-workers, insistence that all work be done the bully's way, or punishment through constant criticism, no matter how competent the worker. Shy people, due to their lack of popularity and assertiveness, may be especially susceptible to this kind of treatment.

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