Shy and Popular? Depends on Where You Live

"We are missing out on what shy people have to contribute."

Posted Aug 30, 2011

Kamshots via Flickr

"If I lived in China, I'd be very popular."

In a previous post, my wife, Barb referenced a study that found shyness and sensitivity to be highly desired personality traits among children in China. On the other hand, these same traits were far less desirable among Canadian children.

Many other studies confirm that there are cultural differences in how we perceive reality. Most telling are those that compare Eastern and Western cultures. David Brooks summarizes these studies in his most recent book, The Social Animal:

American and Japanese subjects were asked to describe what they saw when they looked at pictures of a fish tank. Americans overwhelmingly described the biggest and most prominent fish in the tank. The Japanese were much more likely to refer to the context and background elements, such as the water, rocks, bubbles, and plants in the tank.

In another study, 6-year-olds were asked to describe their day. American children made three times as many references to themselves compared to the Chinese children.

When looking at a painting, such as the Mona Lisa, Americans spend more time looking at the face, whereas the Chinese shift more between the subject and the background.

Westerners tend to focus more narrowly on individuals, independence and on individuals taking action, while Asians are more likely to focus on context, harmony, and interdependence.

By rewarding risk takers, America has been a leader in innovation. Many shy people have contributed great new ideas, or have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to bring about new advances. However, our culture has evolved to where we now reward the loudest and most self-aggrandizing. We are missing out on what shy and quiet people have to contribute.

Growing up, I was always one of those shy and quiet people. Throughout my education, I was always perceived to "lack motivation" because I didn't speak up often. One day, in my family therapy class in graduate school, two of my classmates were debating a very boring and esoteric topic. The professor surprisingly interrupted their argument to ask my opinion. I startled myself by blurting out, "I think this whole discussion is BS." The professor responded, "Good point! Speak up more often."

The family therapy class was a turning point for me. I was rewarded for saying something that could have been very unpopular (at least with two of my classmates). Over time, I began speaking up more. I found that all my years of sitting back and observing had provided me with a unique perspective in analyzing situations. I actually had valuable things to say.

Family therapy, much like Asian culture, emphasizes interdependence, complex interactions, and paradox. I remember hearing a basic axiom of family therapy that states: "The quietest member of the family usually has the most to say."

My career as a psychologist, regardless of the setting where I have worked, has been about helping people find their voice. That is what our blog is about-recognizing the value in what shy people have to say, even when they say it quietly, or without words. Barb and I hope that by sharing our thoughts, we might help you accept yourself in some small way. We also hope to learn from you as you share your experiences with us.

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