Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Shy or stuck up?

When I was 29 years old, I was at a teacher's conference when Charlotte, a good friend and colleague from my school, tugged on my sleeve and whispered in my ear, "You're feeling shy, but it's coming across as snotty. Just smile and say, 'Hi!'" This revelation about my shyness transformed my 30s and explained a lot of my troubles interacting up to that point. 

I was reminded of this turning point the other day. My daughter is a lot like Charlotte. She's usually a charmer and a social whiz, so I don't often have to put much motherly oversight into introductions, but we recently experienced a glitch when my daughter was meeting another girl for the first time. I was busily greeting the mother when I sensed tension. One look at the mix of anger and confusion on the new girl's face made me turn on my mother radar to check for bogies. My little girl's face revealed she was feeling a quirky and uncharacteristic surge of shyness. The other little girl was reacting to the shyness as if it were snobbishness. The wariness in my daughter's expression, an "I don't know if you will like me or if I should like you," was the understandable culprit. It really is a bit hard to tell the difference between shyness and snobbery sometimes, especially with younger girls.

Even when it is read correctly, a shy reaction to a friendly greeting can put people off. Getting to know an actively shy person is going to take some work and in this fast-paced world, people just don't have that kind of time to invest. I learned the skill of overcoming a natural shyness late in life by taking Charlotte's advice, asking for her input, and implementing it. Inwardly, I'm still shy, sometimes even scared in social settings, but I don't let those emotions get in the way. I've tried to teach my children how to meet, greet, and be greeted without letting their emotional ups and downs interfere with the process, too.

Here's what I know about my own battles with feeling shy.

  1. Everyone is shy. The ones who behave shyly are the only ones who get to wear the label. Shyness is merely a reaction to a social unknown. If you are feeling shy, chances are others around you are, too.
  2. Shyness is self-directed. You aren't thinking about other people when you are feeling shy as much as you are worried about how those people are thinking about you. The focus is on you and the longer you stay focused on yourself, the more shy you will feel.
  3. The equation 1 - 2 = -1 cures shyness. Understand #1 above. Take #2 away by focusing on something other than your own social tension, i.e. take yourself out of the equation! Focus instead on everyone else--concentrate on making everyone else feel at ease--and your outward focus will ease your inwardly focused shyness. Your mind is concentrating on something other than its own feelings and so you are not the center of your attention. You are no longer #1. You are, instead, out of the equation, or minus 1! Get it?
I don't know if that makes sense for you, but it works for me. It keeps me outwardly focused on others and not inwardly focused on my emotional state and helps me not behave as shyly as I feel. It helps others overcome their own feelings of shyness as they respond to my overtures of friendliness. I always remember to smile and say, "Hi!" first, then I try to ask a question or two to get the other person talking to further set them at ease. I overcome my innate shyness by giving myself a job to do socially: it is to listen and be interested, not to sit back and give in to my feelings of social awkwardness.

You never know how you are coming across when you are feeling shy, but a smile and being interested in others is almost always seen as friendly. When in doubt, treat others well. If it doesn't help the situation, it couldn't hurt it.


  1. I suffer from social anxiety disorder which is shyness magnetized by 5000 it seems most days. What you are describing here is very accurate and is a good primer in not coming across snobby. Unfortunately, for me, I had to have some behavioral therapy (practice looking into people's eyes etc) which is a great alternative to drugs, thankfully. The only thing I ever warn against is that a lot of therapists try to get people with SAD or extreme shyness to walk, head held high with false confidence and smile like you are on the red carpet. I have found that sometimes people mistake that for arrogance or snobbery as well. I think of Princess Diana's shy smile with the slightly bowed head has worked better for me. Most people see it as, she's nervous, she's shy, I'll go say hi.

  2. Kristen, you have my sympathy! It sounds like you have worked hard to attain these skills. It's good to know that I'm on the right track here, so thank you for commenting!

    Great point about Princess Di's smile--it's approachable and it's communicating that a brazen "HOW ARE YOU DARLIN'!" kind of Big Texan glad-handing would be overwhelming!

    I have social skills on my radar a lot because my son with Autism must be taught them systematically--they come second nature to some of us and they are a foreign language to others of us. I find myself analyzing situations in order to teach a skill like "How to greet and be greeted." I'm going to be presumptuous and ask for you to remember me and forward any good stuff my way.