Shyness: The New Solution
The results of a recent survey are shaking up our ideas about shyness and pointing to a surprising new approach for dealing with it.
By Bernardo Carducci published January 1, 2000 - last reviewed on May 6, 2020
At the core of our existence as human beings lies a powerful drive to be with other people. There is much evidence that in the absence of human contact people fall apart physically and mentally; they experience more sickness, stress and suicide than well-connected individuals. For all too many people, however, shyness is the primary barrier to that basic need.
For more than two decades, I have been studying shyness. In 1995, in an article with shyness pioneer Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., I summed up 20 years of shyness knowledge and research, concluding that rates are rising. At the same time, I ran a small survey that included five open-ended questions asking the shy to tell us about their experiences.
The thousands of responses we received have spawned a whole new generation of research and insight. In addition to the sheer volume of surveys, my colleague and I were surprised at the depth of the comments, often extending to five or 10 handwritten pages. It was as if we had turned on a spigot, allowing people to release a torrent of emotions. They understood that we were willing to listen. For that reason, perhaps, they were not at all shy about answering. This article represents the first analysis of their responses.
The New View
"My ex-wife picked me to marry her, so getting married wasn't a problem. I didn't want to get divorced, even though she was cheating on me, because I would be back out there trying to socialize. [But] I have a computer job now, and one of my strengths is that I work well alone."
Traditionally, shyness is viewed as an intrapersonal problem, arising within certain individuals as a result of characteristics such as excessive self-consciousness, low self-esteem and anticipation of rejection. The survey responses have shown, however, that shyness is also promoted by outside forces at work in our culture, and perhaps around the globe.
In addition, our research has led us to conclude that there is nothing at all wrong with being shy. Certainly shyness can control people and make them ineffective in classroom, social and business situations. Respondents told us that they feel imprisoned by their shyness. It is this feeling that seems to be at the core of their pain. But ironically, we find that the way to break out of the prison of shyness may be to embrace it thoroughly. There are many steps the shy can take to develop satisfying relationships without violating their basic nature.
The Cynically Shy
"My shyness has caused major problems in my personal/social life. I have a strong hate for most people. I also have quite a superiority complex. I see so much stupidity and ignorance in the world that I feel superior to virtually everyone out there. I'm trying [not to], but it's hard."
Of the many voices of shy individuals we "heard" in response to our survey, one in particular emerged very clearly. Among the new patterns our analysis identified was a group I call the cynically shy. These are people who have been rejected by their peers because of their lack of social skills. They do not feel connected to others -- and they are angry about it. They feel a sense of alienation. And like the so-called trench coat mafia in Littleton, Colorado, they adapt a stance of superiority as they drift away from others.
Their isolation discourages them from having a sense of empathy, and this leads them to dehumanize others and take revenge against them. This process is the same one used by the military to train young boys to kill. The difference is, the military is now in your house, on your TV, in your video games.
Inside the Shy Mind
"As we talked, I felt uneasy. I worried about how I looked, what I said, how I said what I said, and so forth. Her compliments made me uncomfortable."
One of the solutions to shyness is a greater understanding of its internal dynamics. It is important to note that a critical feature of shyness is a slowness to warm up. Shy people simply require extra time to adjust to novel or stressful situations, including even everyday conversations and social gatherings.
They also need more time to master the developmental hurdles of life. The good news is that shy people eventually achieve everything that everyone else does -- they date, marry, have children. The bad news is, it takes them a little longer.
An unfortunate consequence of the shy being on this delayed schedule is that they lack social support through many important life experiences. When they start dating and want to talk about first-date jitters, for example, their peers will be talking about weddings. As a result, the shy may need to take an especially active role in finding others who are in their situation. One way is to build social support by starting groups of like-minded people. Another is to seek out existing groups of shy people, perhaps via the Internet. While technology often works against the shy, it can also lend them an unexpected helping hand. Our research reveals the fact that the shy tend to make unrealistic social comparisons. In a room full of others, their attention is usually drawn to the most socially outstanding person, the life of the party -- against whom they compare themselves, unfavorably, of course. This is just a preemptive strike. Typically, they compound the negative self-appraisal by attributing their own comparatively poor performance to enduring and unchangeable internal characteristics -- I was born shy" or "I don't have the gift of gab." Such attributions only heighten self-consciousness and inhibit performance.
The shy are prone to such errors of attribution because they believe that they are always being evaluated by others. Self-consciously focused on their own shortcomings, they fail to look around and notice that most people are just like them -- listeners, not social standouts. Our surveys show that 48% of people are shy. So not only are the shy not alone, they probably have plenty of company at any social function.
The No. 1 problem area for the shy is starting a relationship. Fifty-eight percent told us they have problems with introductions; they go to a party but nothing happens. Forty percent said their problem was social; they had trouble developing friendships. Only seven percent of the shy have a problem with intimacy. If you get into an intimate relationship, shyness no longer seems to be a problem. Unfortunately, it's hard to get there.
The New Cultural Climate
It is no secret that certain technological advances -- the Internet, e-mail, cell phones -- are changing the conditions of the culture we live in, speeding it up and intensifying its complexity. This phenomenon, dubbed hyperculture, has trickled down to alter the nature of day-to-day interactions, with negative consequences for the shy. In this cultural climate, we lose patience quickly because we've grown accustomed to things happening faster and faster. We lose tolerance for those who need time to warm up. Those who are not quick and intense get passed by. The shy are bellwethers of this change: They are the first to feel its effects. And so it's not surprising that hyperculture is actually exacerbating shyness, in both incidence and degree.
Another effect of hyperculture is what I call identity intensity. Our society is not only getting faster, it is getting louder and brighter. It takes an increasingly powerful personality to be recognized. We see this in the emergence of shock jocks like Howard Stern and outrageous characters like Dennis Rodman. People have to call attention to themselves in ways that are more and more extreme just to be noticed at all. That, of course, puts the shy at a further disadvantage.
We are also undergoing "interpersonal disenfranchisement." Simply put, we are disconnecting from one another. Increasingly, we deal with the hyperculture cacophony by cocooning -- commuting home with headphones on while working on our laptops. We go from our cubicle to the car to our gated community, maintaining contact with only a small circle of friends and family. As other people become just e-mail addresses or faceless voices at the other end of electronic transactions, it becomes easier and easier to mistreat and disrespect them. The cost of such disconnection is a day-to-day loss of civility and an increase in rudeness. And, again, the shy pay. They are the first to be excluded, bullied or treated in a hostile manner.
As we approach the limits of our ability to deal with the complexities of our lives, we begin to experience a state of anxiety. We either approach or avoid. And, indeed, we are seeing both phenomena -- a polarization of behavior in which we see increases in both aggression, marked by a general loss of manners that has been widely observed, and in withdrawal, one form of which is shyness. Surveys we have conducted reliably show that over the last decade and a half, the incidence of shyness has risen from 40% to 48%.
So it is no accident that the pharmaceutical industry has chosen this cultural moment to introduce the antidepressant Paxil as a treatment for social phobia. Paxil is touted as a cure for being "allergic to people." One of the effects of hyperculture is to make people impatient for anything but a pill that instantly reduces their anxiety level.
The use of Paxil, however, operates against self-awareness. It makes shyness into a medical or psychiatric problem, which it has never been. It essentially labels as pathology what is a personality trait. I think it is a mistake for doctors to hand out a physiological remedy when we know that there are cognitive elements operating within individuals, communication difficulties existing between individuals, and major forces residing outside of individuals that are making it difficult for people to interact.
It is much easier for the shy to take a pill, doctors figure, than for them to take the time to adjust to their cautious tendencies, modify faulty social comparisons or learn to be more civil to others. The promise of Paxil does not include teaching the shy to develop the small talk skills they so desperately need.
Strategies of the Shy
"I have tried to overcome my shyness by being around people as much as possible and getting involved in the conversation; however, after a few seconds, I become quiet. I have a problem keeping conversation flowing."
In our survey, we asked people what they do to cope with their shyness. What we found surprised us. The shy put a lot of effort into overcoming their shyness, but the strategies they use are largely ineffective, sometimes even counterproductive. Occasionally their solutions are potentially dangerous.
Ninety-one percent of shy respondents said they had made at least some effort to overcome their shyness. By far, the top technique they employ is forced extroversion. Sixty-seven percent of them said they make themselves go to parties, bars, dances, the mall -- places that will put them in proximity to others. That is good. But unfortunately, they expect the others to do all the work, to approach them and draw them out of their isolation. Simply showing up is not enough. Not only is it ineffective, it cedes control of interactions to others.
But it exemplifies the mistaken expectations the shy often have about social life. Hand in hand with the expectation that others will approach them is their sense of perfectionism. The shy believe that anything they say has to come out perfect, sterling, supremely witty, as if everyday life is some kind of sitcom. They believe that everybody is watching and judging them -- a special kind of narcissism.
Their second most popular strategy is self-induced cognitive modification: thinking happy thoughts, or the "Stuart Smalley Effect" -- remember the sketch from Saturday Night Live? "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me." Twenty-two percent of the shy try to talk themselves into not being shy. But just talking to yourself doesn't work. You have to know how to talk to other people. And you have to be around other people. The shy seldom combine extroversion with cognitive modification.
Fifteen percent of the shy turn to self-help books and seminars, which is great. But not enough people do it.
And about 12% of the shy turn to what I call liquid extroversion. They are a distinct population of people, who, often beginning in adolescence, ingest drugs or alcohol to deal with their shyness. They self-medicate as a social lubricant, to give them courage. And while it may remove inhibitions, it doesn't provide them with what they desperately need -- actual social skills, knowledge about how to be with others. Further, drinking interferes with their cognitive functioning.
Liquid extroversion poses the great danger of overconsumption of alcohol. Indeed, we have found in separate studies that a significant proportion of problem drinkers in the general population are shy.
But shy alcoholics tell us they do not like having to drink to perform better; they feel uneasy and lack confidence in their true selves. They begin to believe that people will like them only if they are outgoing, not the way they really are.
Interestingly, the largest program for problem drinkers, Alcoholics Anonymous, works squarely against shy people. Whereas the shy are slow to warm up, AA asks people to stand up right away, to be highly visible, to immediately disclose highly personal information. It is my belief that there needs to be an AA for the shy, a program that takes into consideration the nature and dynamics of shyness. A meeting might, for example, begin by having a leader speak for the first 45 minutes while people get comfortable, followed by a break in which the leader is available to answer questions. That then paves the way for a general question-and-answer period.
"I can be anyone I want to be on the Internet and yet mostly be myself, because I know I will never meet these people I'm talking with and can close out if I get uncomfortable."
"I think the Internet hinders people in overcoming their shyness. You can talk to someone but you don't have to actually interact with them. You can sit in your room and not REALLY socialize. "
Another strategy of the shy is electronic extroversion. The Net is a great social facilitator. It enables people to reach out to many others and join in at their own speed, perhaps observing in a chat room before participating. Still, Internet interaction requires less effort than face-to-face interaction, so it may increase their frustration and cause difficulties in real-life situations where social skills are not only required, but born and learned.
We know that people start out using the Internet for informational purposes, then progress to use that is social in nature, such as entering chat rooms; some then progress to personal use, talking about more intimate topics and disclosing information about themselves. The danger of electronic extroversion is that anonymity makes it easy for the shy to misrepresent themselves and to deceive others, violating the trust that is the foundation of social life.
And talk about disconnecting. The irony of a World Wide Web packed with endless amounts of information is that it can also be isolating. As individuals head to their own favorite bookmarked sites, they cut out all the disagreement of the world and reinforce their own narrow perspective, potentially leading to alienation, disenfranchisement and intolerance for people who are different.
In addition, the shy are more vulnerable to instant intimacy because of their lack of social know-how. Normally, relationships progress by way of a reasonably paced flow of self-disclosure that is reciprocal in nature. A disclosure process that moves too quickly -- and computer anonymity removes the stigma of getting sexually explicit -- doesn't just destroy courtship; it is a reliable sign of maladjustment. Shy people tend either to reveal information about themselves too quickly, or hold back and move too slowly.
Like most cultural influences, the Internet is neither devil nor angel. It's a social tool that works in different ways, depending on how it's used.
The Solution to Shyness
"I was very shy as a kid. Every situation scared me if it required interacting with others. After high school and into college, I became much less shy. I consciously made each interaction an exercise in overcoming shyness. Just talking to people I didn't know, getting a part-time job, volunteering. I had always been afraid to sing in front of people, but now I sing all the time. That's a big deal to me."
Every shy person believes that shyness is a problem located exclusively within the self. But our work suggests that the solution to shyness lies outside the self. To break free of the prison of shyness, you must stop dwelling on your own insecurities and become more aware of the people around you.
Through our survey, we have identified a group of people we call the successfully shy. Essentially, they recognize that they are shy. They develop an understanding of the nature and dynamics of shyness, its impact on the body, on cognitive processes and on behavior. And they take action based on that self-awareness. The successfully shy overcome their social anxiety by letting go of their self-consciousness, that inward focus of attention on the things they can't do well (like tell a joke). They accept that they aren't great at small talk or that they get so nervous in social situations that they can't draw on what is inside their mind. Or that they are paying so much attention to their feelings that they don't pay full attention to the person they're talking to. In place of self-consciousness, they substitute self-awareness. Rather than becoming anxious about their silence in a conversation, they plan ahead of time to have something to say, or rehearse asking questions. They arrive early at parties to feel comfortable in their new setting. By contrast, less successful shy people arrive late in an effort to blend in.
The fact is, these are the same kinds of strategies that non-shy people employ. Many of them develop a repertoire of opening gambits for conversation. When among others, they engage in social reconnaissance -- they wait to gather information about speakers and a discussion before jumping in.
The successfully shy also take steps at the transpersonal level, getting involved in the lives of others. They start small, making sure their day-to-day exchanges involve contact with other people. When they pick up a newspaper, for instance, they don't just put their money on the counter. They focus on the seller, thanking him or her for the service. This creates a social environment favorable to positive interactions. On a larger scale, I encourage volunteering. Once the shy are more outwardly focused on the lives of other people, shyness no longer controls them.
The successfully shy don't change who they are. They change the way they think and the actions they make. There is nothing wrong with being shy. In fact, I have come to believe that what out society needs is not less shyness but a little more.
The Eight Habits of Highly Popular People
If you were ever the last person picked for a team or asked to dance at a party, you've probably despaired that popular people are born with complete self-confidence and impeccable social skills. But over the past 20 years, a large body of research in the social sciences has established that what was once thought the province of manna or magic is now solidly our own doing -- or undoing. Great relationships, whether friendships or romances, don't fall out of the heavens on a favored few. They depend on a number of very sophisticated but human-scale social skills. These skills are crucial to developing social confidence and acceptance. And it is now clear that everyone can learn them.
And they should. Recent studies illustrate that having social contact and friends, even animal ones, improves physical health. Social ties seem to impact stress hormones directly, which in turn affect almost every part of our body, including the immune system. They also improve mental health. Having large social networks can help lower stress in times of crisis, alleviate depression and provide emotional support.
Luckily, it's never too late to develop the tools of the socially confident. Research from social scientists around the world, including relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D., and shyness authority Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., show that the most popular people follow these steps to social success:
1. Schedule Your Social Life
It is impossible to hone your social skills without investing time in them. Practice makes perfect, even for the socially secure. Accordingly, the well-liked surround themselves with others, getting a rich supply of opportunities to observe interactions and to improve upon their own social behaviors.
You need to do the same. Stop turning down party invitations and start inviting people to visit you at home. Plan outings with close friends or acquaintances you'd like to know better.
2. Think Positive
Insecure people tend to approach others anxiously, feeling they have to prove that they're witty or interesting. But self-assured people expect that others will respond positively -- despite the fact that one of the most difficult social tasks is to join an activity that is already in progress.
3. Engage in Social Reconnaissance
Like detectives, the socially competent are highly skilled at information gathering, always scanning the scene for important details to guide their actions. They direct their focus outward, observing others and listening actively.
Socially skilled people are tuned in to people's expression of specific emotions, sensitive to signals that convey such information as what people's interests are, whether they want to be left alone or whether there is room in an activity for another person.
To infer correctly what others must be feeling, the socially confident are also able to identify and label their own experience accurately. That is where many people, particularly men, fall short.
Good conversationalists make comments that are connected to what is said to them and to the social situation. The connectedness of their communication is, in fact, one of its most outstanding features. Aggressive people actually make more attempts to join others in conversation but are less successful at it than the socially adept because they call attention to themselves, rather than finding a way to fit into ongoing group activity. They might throw out a statement that disrupts the conversation, or respond contentiously to a question. They might blurt something about the way they feel, or shift the conversation to something of interest exclusively to themselves.
"You don't have to be interesting. You have to be interested," explains John Gottman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Washington. "That's how you have conversations."
4. Enter Conversations Gracefully
Timing is everything. After listening and observing on the perimeter of a group they want to join, the socially competent look for an opportunity to step in, knowing it doesn't just happen. It usually appears as a lull in the conversation.
Tuned in to the conversational or activity theme, the deft participant asks a question or elaborates on what someone else has already said. This is not the time to shift the direction of the conversation, unless it comes to a dead halt. Then it might be wise to throw out a question, perhaps something related to events of the day, and, if possible, something tangentially related to the recent discussion. The idea is to use an open-ended question that lets other participate. "Speaking of the election, what does everybody think about so-and-so's decision not to run?"
"People admire the person who is willing to take a risk and throw out a topic for conversation, but you have to make sure it has general appeal," says Bernardo Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast. Then you are in the desirable position of having rescued the group, which confers immediate membership and acceptance. Once the conversation gets moving, it's wise to back off talking and give others a chance. Social bores attempt to dominate a discussion. The socially confident know that the goal is to help the group have a better conversation.
5. Learn to Handle Failure
It is a fact of life that everyone will sometimes be rejected. Rebuffs happen even to popular people, What distinguishes the socially confident from mere mortals is their reaction to rejection.
They don't attribute it to internal causes, such as their own unlikability or inability to make friends. They assume it can result from many factors -- incompatibility, someone else's bad mood, a misunderstanding. And some conversations are just private.
Self-assured people become resilient, using the feedback they get to shape another go at acceptance. Studies show that when faced with failure, those who are well-liked turn a negative response into a counterproposal. They say things like, "Well, can we make a date for next week instead?" Or they move onto another group in the expectation that not every conversation is closed.
And should they reject others' bids to join with them, they do it in a polite and positive way. They invariably offer a reason or counter with an alternative idea: "I would love to talk with you later."
6. Take Hold of Your Emotions
Social situations are incredibly complex and dynamic. One has to pay attention to all kinds of verbal and nonverbal cues, such as facial expression and voice tone, interpret their meaning accurately, decide on the best response for the scenario, and then carry out that response -- all in a matter of microseconds. No one can pay attention to or correctly interpret what is going on, let alone act skillfully, without a reasonable degree of control over their own emotional states, especially negative emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety -- the emotions that usually arise in situations of conflict or uncertainty.
Recently, studies have found that people who are the most well-liked also have a firm handle on their emotions. It isn't that they internalize all their negative feelings. Instead, they shift attention away from distressing stimuli toward positive aspects of a situation. In other words, they have excellent coping skills. Otherwise, they become overly reactive to the negative emotions of others and may resort to aggression or withdraw from social contact.
7. Defuse Disagreements
Since conflict is inevitable, coping with confrontations is one of the most critical of social skills. It's not the degree of conflict that sinks relationships, but the ways people resolve it. Disagreements, if handled well, can help people know themselves better, improve language skills, gain valuable information and cement their relationships.
Instead of fighting fire with fire, socially confident people stop conflict from escalating; they apologize, propose a joint activity, make a peace offering of some kind, or negotiate. And sometimes they just change the subject. That doesn't mean that they yield to another's demands. Extreme submissiveness violates the equality basic to healthy relationships -- and a sense of self-worth.
As people gain social competence, they try to accommodate the needs of both parties. Managing conflict without aggression requires listening, communicating -- arguing, persuading -- taking the perspective of others, controlling negative emotions, and problem-solving. Researchers have found that when people explain their point of view in an argument, they are in essence making a conciliatory move. That almost invariably opens the door for a partner to offer a suggestion that ends the standoff.
8. Laugh A Little
Humor is the single most prized social skill, the fast track to being liked -- at all ages. Humor works even in threatening situations because it defuses negativity. There's no recipe for creating a sense of humor. But even in your darkest moments, try to see the lighter side of a situation.
If you need more help, call the American Psychological Association at 1-800-964-2000 for a referral to a therapist near you. For further resources check www.shyness.com.
- 64% of shy individuals view their shyness as a result of external factors beyond their control, such as early family experiences, over protective parents or peer victimization.
- 24% attribute shyness to internal factors within their control, such as intrapersonal difficulties, like low self-esteem and high self-consciousness, or interpersonal difficulties, like poor social skills and dating difficulties.
- 62% experience feelings of shyness daily.
- 82% report shyness as an undesirable experience.
Types of Individuals who make the shy feel shy:
- 75% strangers
- 71% persons of the opposite sex, in a group
- 65% persons of the opposite sex, one-on-one
- 56% persons of the same sex, in a group
- 45% relatives, other than immediate family
- 38% persons of the same sex, one-on-one
- 22% their parents
- 20% siblings
- 46% believe their shyness can be overcome.
- 7.2% do not believe their shyness can be overcome.
- 85% are willing to work seriously at overcoming shyness.