May 29, 2023
Shyness: A (Quiet) Cultural History – The Atlantic

Shyness: A (Quiet) Cultural History – The Atlantic

The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”

Something bad is happening; don’t let other people see it; you will embarrass yourself, and them: It’s an impulse that is thoroughly counterproductive and also incredibly easy to understand. Self-consciousness is a powerful thing. And there are, after all, even in the most frantic and fearful of moments, so many things that will seem preferable to making a scene.

Shyness, that single emotion that encompasses so many different things—embarrassment, timidity, a fear of rejection, a reluctance to be inconvenient—is, despite its extreme commonality, also extremely mysterious. Is it a mere feeling? A personality-defining condition? A form of anxiety? While shyness is for some a constant companion, its flushes and flashes managed in the rough manner of a chronic disease, it can also alight, without the courtesy of a warning, on even the most social, and socially graceful, of people. It can manifest as the mute smile that appears, unbidden, when you’re alone with a stranger in an elevator. Or as, right before the curtain goes up, the leaden stomach and the clammy hands and the desperate desire to escape to someplace—any place—that is not the stage. Or it can come when the bite of chicken didn’t go down quite right, and your throat is closing, and the world is spinning, and everyone is watching, and all you want to do is get away from it all.

Shyness, basically, is an inconsiderate monster. Or, as the cultural historian Joe Moran argues in his wonderful new book, Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness, it is an inconsiderate monster that has been a reliable, if largely invisible, companion to human history. Today, in the United States, shyness is often associated with a broad jumble of related and overlapping conditions, from occasional timidness to general awkwardness, from stage fright to the DSM-recognized social anxiety disorder. This imprecision is, it turns out, fitting: Shyness isn’t a single situation or character, Moran suggests, but, instead, a regular but also irregular interloper in human affairs, affecting people across ages and countries and cultures. Shyness can be, sometimes, a curse. It can be, as Dr. Heimlich acknowledged, occasionally a deadly one.

Shyness isn’t a single situation or character, but rather an irregular interloper in human affairs.

But shyness can also be, Moran argues, a great gift, its impulse toward introversion allowing for the inventive thinking and creative genius that might elude the more talkatively inclined. Shrinking Violets is a sweeping work of history and anthropology and sociology, summoning Simmel and Seneca and Sontag in its exploration of diffidence; it is also, more simply, a series of short biographies of shyness and those who have lived, to varying degrees, under its influence. Alan Turing, Moran notes, was bashful as often as he was brash. Agatha Christie, so bold on the page, was painfully shy in person. So was, when he was not performing leadership, Charles de Gaulle. And so was, when he was not performing music, Morrissey. Lucius Licinius Crassus, consul of Rome and mentor of Cicero, confessed to “fainting with fear” before delivering a speech. Primo Levi told Philip Roth about “this shyness of mine.” Oliver Sacks’s first book went unpublished because he lent its only manuscript to a colleague who committed suicide shortly thereafter—and Sacks was too shy to ask the man’s widow for the book’s return.

Shyness—at its core, perhaps, an uneasy acknowledgement of the vast distance that separates one human mind from another—has long been a companion to people and their endeavors. We might not all define ourselves to be among les grandes timides, as the French psychiatrist Ludovic Dugas preferred to call them; for some of us, timidity will be an only occasional visitor. But shyness, Moran suggests, however it chooses to manifest itself—and the thing about shyness is that the person who experiences it will have practically no say in the matter—can be a benefit as well as a curse. The shy are frequently thoughtful and occasionally brilliant. They are often sensitive to the needs, and the gaze, of others. The problem is that they live in a world that, despite the commonality of shyness, has extremely little patience for it.

Moran, who is British, counts himself among the timides; because of that he is aware of how difficult it is to be a shy in a swaggering world. He also knows what a quietly radical proposition it is to celebrate shyness. The far more fashionable thing—particularly in Britain, where Shrinking Violets was initially published, and even more so in the United States—has been to treat shyness as a problem to be treated and then, if at all possible, never mentioned again. Shyness, so emotionally adjacent to shame, is often also regarded as a cause for it. Within a culture that so deeply values self-confidence—and that takes for granted that social skills are external evidence of one’s internal self-regard—shyness is seen with suspicion. Quietness, in a world that is loud, can make for an easy enemy.

In 1997, at a meeting of academics in Cardiff, Wales, that doubled as the first international conference on shyness, Philip Zimbardo, the eminent psychologist, made an argument that was at once provocative and unsurprising: Shyness, he contended, was becoming an epidemic. Under the influence of digital technology and its attendant affordances—internet, email, ATMs—the “social glue” that had bound earlier generations into networks of enforced community and cooperation was dissolving. The insights Zimbardo had gleaned from his Stanford Prison Experiment had taken a new turn: Channeling the work of Sherry Turkle and Robert Putnam, he had begun to worry that technology, all the ways humans had invented to avoid each other, would ultimately exacerbate shyness. By the year 2000, Zimbardo figured, it would be possible to go for a day without talking to another living person. We were entering, he warned, “the new ice age.”

It remains to be seen whether the gossamer outgrowths of the World Wide Web will liberate or ensnare us. But “the new ice age,” as a concept, Moran suggests, tapped neatly into long-standing ideas about the nature of shyness: that it is not just an emotional response to others, but, more specifically, an emotional response to the conditions of modern life. In this reading of human history, shyness is an emotion that was also, to some extent, an invention.

The scholar Ormonde Maddock Dalton, an archaeologist and a curator at the British Museum in the early 20th century, believed shyness, along these lines, to be a byproduct of civilization. Beasts and barbarians, Dalton pointed out, do not have the luxury of timidity if they are to survive in their respective wilds; people who are concerned merely with the most basic of needs—food, shelter, reproduction—will have little practical use for the self-consciousness required of shyness. (Charles Darwin, who nurtured throughout his career an interest in the emotions of animals, remained perplexed about the evolution of shyness—“this odd state of mind,” he called it—in humans. How had evolution, Darwin wondered, bequeathed humanity with a condition that had so little obvious use in nature? Darwin was led to such wonderings, in part, because he, too, found himself occasionally plagued with shyness.)

For Dalton, shyness was the result not just of civilization itself, but of one of its byproducts: life lived as a kind of never-ending performance. It was an idea inspired not by Erving Goffman (or, for that matter, by his fellow sociologist Norbert Elias, who would offer a similar shyness-is-modern argument around the same time); instead, for his inspiration, Dalton looked to the large group of people he considered partially responsible for the rise of all the artifice: women. Their tendency to turn life into a series of staged scenes, Dalton believed, would—it was only logical—create conditions within which those shows could fail. Thus, shyness, which is among so much else the self-conscious awareness of the many, many ways that human interaction can go wrong.

Dr. Zimbardo warned that shyness, given all the ways humans have invented to avoid each other, was becoming an epidemic.

Dalton’s ideas live on, today, in the broad recognition, within anthropology and far beyond, that shyness will have cultural components as well as physiological. They also live on, however, in the notion that shyness is best understood not just as the complicated interplay between the human brain and the social world, but also, more simply, as a deviation. Sociability is normal; shyness, it must follow, is abnormal. After all, we humans are—it is a cliché because it is so deeply true—social animals. We define ourselves as a species through our shared garrulousness as much as our shared DNA, through the fact that we put our opposable thumbs to work not just building shelter and creating art, but also writing letters and grasping phones and punctuating the making of evening plans with some enthusiastic dancing-lady emojis. We are human, in some small but profound part, because we are human together.

It is on those social-evolutionary grounds, though, that shyness is sometimes suspected, and sometimes pathologized. Shy people, the sociologist Susie Scott argued, are not merely choosing solitude over companionship, or small groups over larger ones; they are conducting, each time they beg off or turn away, an “unintentional breaching experiment.” They are, in their very shyness, deviating from the broader social order.

And so, they—and the diffidence they exhibit—are suspected. Thomas Browne, the English philosopher, referencing shyness’s common association with embarrassment, referred to it as pudor rusticus, or “rustic shame.” Plutarch preferred to think of shyness as a “loss of countenance.” Henrik Ibsen, who drank heavily in part to cure his own timidity, condemned the coldness of his fellow Norwegians by remarking that they suffered from “shyness of the soul.” Jane Austen, in a typically sardonic letter to her sister, placed shyness within the broader scope of the “Moral as well as natural Diseases.” And Sigmund Freud, for his part, so trustful of talk as a therapy and a social good, mistrusted timidity: He considered it to be evidence of displaced narcissism.

And so. To be shy, because of all that, is not merely to walk into the party and head directly for the refuge of the wall, or to rehearse a greeting a dozen times before finally picking up the phone, or to look out onto the audience and feel that familiar clutch of dread, even after its members have been dutifully imagined to be free of their clothing. To be shy is also to be misunderstood. The shy are commonly mistaken as cold, or aloof, or arrogant, or muted by Browneian shame. They are sometimes mistaken as worse. The American psychologist Josiah Morse, in the early 20th century, was convinced of the mental connection between shyness and stupidity. The writer Tom Wolfe, blessed as he was with the good fortune of extroversion, took delight in mocking William Shawn, the brilliant and beloved editor of the New Yorker, for his extreme social diffidence.

This, Moran suggests, is where Dr. Zimbardo may have been wrong—or at least extremely premature—in his pronouncement that the new century will have brought with it “the new ice age.” Shyness may be common; it is commonly treated, however, as a contagion. Yes, we have automated checkout now. Yes, we have Seamless. Yes, we can definitely get through a day, should we choose to, without the warm frictions of human contact. But we also have so many more ways of talking, and connecting, and being social, and being human—and of judging ourselves when those communications go, in our estimation, somehow awry. The world of the current moment, overlaid though it may be by the cool cords of the internet, is just as hot and busy and noisy as it ever was—more so, really. And it remains, at least in the United States, generally biased toward those who are willing to match it in heat and zeal and volume.

That is the paradox that animates Shrinking Violets: Shyness is an extremely normal condition that has yet, despite it all, to be normalized. Moran, in his book, has summoned insights from the ancients to their successors to prove what he, as a shy person, has already lived and known, all too well: that the world, for all the strides it has made when it comes to progress and acceptance, still does not look kindly on timidity.

Freud considered shyness to be evidence of displaced narcissism.

In that sense, Shrinking Violetsin its portrayal of the world’s insistence that the violets in question would be so much better if they would just exert themselves a little more, and stand a little taller—is reminiscent of Susan Cain’s 2012 book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Shrinking Violets considers a common emotional condition, but it is more insistently, if more obliquely, a condemnation of a world that treats that condition with ambivalence, suspicion, and confusion. Just as schools and businesses, as Cain argued, are generally built for extroverts—because, indeed, they are so often built by extroverts—so, too, Moran suggests, are the world’s social structures generally most accommodating of the lusty and the loud.

Squeaky wheels, as it were, get the cultural primacy. And that may be especially so now, as American culture not only offers more ways to talk than ever before, but also as it tends to emphasize talking as a panaceatic requirement of modern life. Good and constant communication, many assume (or hope), will help to ensure successful business ventures, and successful romantic partnerships, and successful educational performance. Extroversion will save us. Those corporate posters helpfully reminding their viewers that teamwork is good, and that there is no “i” in “team,” and that rowing crew is a really great metaphor for life in general? They make the point efficiently. Suck it up. Join in. Get in the boat.

Perhaps we would all do a little better, though, were we in general just a little more accommodating of those who prefer, at least occasionally, to do their rowing alone. Perhaps we would do better if we were more open-minded about what constitutes charisma, and creativity, and social success. Perhaps we should all heed Moran’s advice, offered as it is with the compelling confidence of the timid. “Humans are social animals by instinct and by default setting,” Moran writes; “shyness simply makes us social in peculiar and circuitous ways.” It deserves to be celebrated for that—and maybe even to be given, in that boatful of straining, smiling rowers, just a small space of its own.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *