The crystalline wall of shyness

Joe Moran writes: If I had to describe being shy, I’d say it was like coming late to a party when everyone else is about three glasses in. All human interaction, if it is to develop from small talk into meaningful conversation, draws on shared knowledge and tacit understandings. But if you’re shy, it feels like you just nipped out of the room when they handed out this information. W Compton Leith, a reclusive curator at the British Museum whose book Apologia Diffidentis (1908) is a pioneering anthropology of shy people, wrote that ‘they go through life like persons afflicted with a partial deafness; between them and the happier world there is as it were a crystalline wall which the pleasant low voices of confidence can never traverse’.

Shyness has no logic: it impinges randomly on certain areas of my life and not others. What for most people is the biggest social fear of all, public speaking, I find fairly easy. Lecturing is a performance that allows me simply to impersonate a ‘normal’, working human being. Q&As, however, are another matter: there the performance ends and I will be found out. That left-field question from the audience, followed by brain-freeze and a calamitous attempt at an answer that ties itself up in tortured syntax and dissolves into terrifying silence. Though this rarely happens to me in real life, it has occurred often enough to fuel my catastrophising imagination.

The historian Theodore Zeldin once wondered how different the history of the world might seem if you told it, not through the story of war, politics or economics, but through the development of emotions. ‘One way of tackling it might be to write the history of shyness,’ he mused. ‘Nations may be unable to avoid fighting each other because of the myths and paranoias that separate them: shyness is one of the counterparts to these barriers on an individual level.’ The history of shyness might well make a fascinating research project, but it would be hellishly difficult to write. Shyness is by its nature a subjective, nebulous state that leaves little concrete evidence behind, if only because people are often too uncomfortable with their shyness to speak or write about it. [Continue reading…]

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