The discussion on a SDaedalus thread included descriptions of dances for teenagers. The description of young men on one side, young women on the other, with few crossing over the gulf, caused me to ponder what a curse shyness is.

I am not sure what causes shyness. I suspect the nervousness of shyness comes from similar physiology to introversion. Introverts tend to have stronger startle responses and greater reaction to a drop of lemon on the tongue (they produce more saliva). However, not all introverts are shy, and some extraverts are. Most likely it is, at least partly, hereditary but there is probably more to it than bad luck at genetic roulette.

If shyness is a fear response to social situations, then what causes that? It would appear to be a phobia in that it is not a completely rational fear. At some level, for evolutionary reasons, social rejection could be a legitimate fear (loss of group protection would have been dangerous in earlier times) but I am not sure that is it (although it may be a partial explanation for the equally ridiculous approach anxiety).

Linking shyness to confidence only raises the question of what confidence is. Many shy people will be confident in other areas. They may express more doubts even in areas of competence but are probably not generally fearful.

It may not be that the non-shy person does not feel embarrassment but that the shy person feels it as more unpleasant. In much the same way that introverts “overreact” to a drop of lemon, perhaps they shy “overreact” to the feeling of social embarrassment. Perhaps the shy feel embarrassment so intensely that they seek to avoid even the possibility of it happening. This intensity of feeling may cause them to underrate their social acumen because they remember more vividly those occasions where they made some social misstep.

Although introversion and shyness are not the same, I suspect a strong link between the two. An introvert may feel less confident of their less used social skills; they will certainly have less practice. Because social interaction drains rather than energizes them, they will be less likely to overcome their fear through practice (most social situations do not end in grave embarrassment or social shame).

I do not know what causes shyness but would love to see its total eradication. For a woman it is debilitating but for a man it is devastating. It is true that practice is a good cure, but that can take a long time and may leave a long lasting (perhaps permanent) loss of overall confidence. The young men and women lining their respective walls at the dancehall would have had far more fun if they were not cursed with shyness.


While there may have once been a survival advantage to such over-caution, in the modern world shyness is grossly maladaptive. Although worse for a man, it is a detriment to both men and women. Shyness for a woman may mask her interest in a man; the averted gaze and subdued response may discourage the advance of a man she would be interested in.

13 Responses to “Shyness”

  1. modernguy Says:

    Lol. Maybe we should eradicate smaller fuel efficient engines because they’re not good at going fast. Or small displacement high performance engines because they can’t pull heavy shit. There are benefits to everything, even to seemingly “maladaptive” traits. Shy people are generally more endearing and they experience things more intensely. They are generally more aware about subtleties too. Just because it makes one thing more difficult doesn’t mean it doesn’t have benefits in other areas. But I wouldn’t expect anyone with the idiotic mentality of the typical American to understand that. Rather, what they understand is bigger, louder, stupider, and more aggressive. Oh, and evolution. To be maladapted in that kind of environment might even be considered a blessing. When you try to jam everything you can observe into the little box of gears known as evolutionary theory and see where it might fit, you tend to miss where it really fits in the real world. Not to worry though, I’m sure Merck or Pfizer is working on a pill to cure whatever ails you, evolutionarily speaking.

  2. sdaedalus Says:

    I don’t think Default is saying that shy people are less valuable, simply that they have a harder time of it. It is true that recognising their value may help from a cognitive thinking point of view, but shyness is instinctive rather than cognitive.

    A lot of shyness is self-perpetuating and simply practice in going out can cause it to improve, maybe even disappear. What lasts longer than shyness though is the lack of opportunity and acceptance of defeat caused by the shyness. I think it is possible to overcome this as well but it can be difficult.

    And it may simply be too late, in a biological sense, for women who get past shyness in a way it is not for a man.

  3. Default User Says:

    I see no benefit to shyness. It is a fear of something that can cause us no harm. While a fear of snakes, or even spiders, can keep us from danger, even in a modern society, a fear of people is nothing but a hindrance.

    I am not sure that shy people make up for their shyness by traits such as awareness of subtleties. Nature is not fare. It does not automatically grant the dumb great sporting skill, the weak great mental skill, the ugly great charm. Sometimes it inflicts a penalty with no corresponding reward.

    I am not sure why you go off on Americans. A sociable personality is probably highly valued in Ireland (gift of the Blarney), Italy, and many Latin or African societies. It is true that the English, for instance, are more tolerant of the quiet ones, but in all societies, comfort in dealing with others is an advantage.

    You are confusing shyness (fear of people and social situations) with introversion (a more reserved manner and a preference for low key interactions). A quite manner may be little detriment to a person who does not actually fear social situations. It is true that the US does have an extravert assumption (despite a roughly 50/50 intro/extra split) and admires (perhaps a bit too much) the self promoting climber. However, such a preference is not uncalled for in a society with social mobility and a reverence for up-by-the-bootstraps success.

    You also appear to confuse confidence and social ease with bombast. There is no rule that says that if you are not shy you become an intolerable bore. The non-shy are all types from the quiet, quirky, to boisterous and garrulous. Big, loud, and stupid make just a small fraction of the group.

    I distrust drug companies and the “pill for every ill” mentality. While I am not opposed to pharmaceutical (or herbal/diet) solution, I suspect the real cure comes from practice and what might fall under cognitive therapy (the feel the fear but do it anyway school of thought).

  4. Default User Says:

    Thank you. You are correct. I was not claiming that the shy have no value, merely that their shyness does not help them.

    It is true that shyness is likely self-feeding. I think a conscious awareness of it can help with the cure. If someone is aware that they are shy but that they can learn new behaviors and attitudes it will speed up their improvement as compared to a belief that they are stuck that way. It may be a tough challenge but should be doable for most.

    I think the important thing is to lose the shame over what is, or was, just a (perhaps unfortunate) trait. I think the shame of it is almost as bad as the fear. I suppose the other thing (also not easy) is to forget the sunk costs. The ability to see the past as gone is very useful. It is sad to look at lost opportunity but that should not blind you to the current opportunities.

    Regarding being “too late, in a biological sense” for a woman, I suppose that could be true for child bearing but not in all the other joys of life. Indeed a woman would have to be in her forties to completely rule out the chance of having children.

    Like any newfound skill the newly un-shy may be left with the “why didn’t I do this before” question. The trick is to enjoy the new skill and opportunities now, and forget about the past.

  5. modernguy Says:

    I think if someone has a problem with being shy and they want out of it with the desensitization that that entails, then that’s fine. I have no problem with solutions to those kinds of problems on an individual basis (up to a point, because people are short sighted). But to decree that shyness is some kind of disease that should be eradicated (presumably predicated on the idea that facilitating social interaction and copulation is the greatest good) is a mistake. Shy people live in their own world, as all of us do, with it’s own features and coloring which can be an impediment to certain goals but is not bad in itself.
    [DU: Fear of flying is not that bad, unless you need or want to fly somewhere. Fear of heights is not so bad, unless you need to work in a tall building or want to visit the Grand Canyon. If a person chooses not to partake in social, or copulatory, opportunities that is fine. If they would like to participate but are hampered by fear, I cannot see how that is a good thing. Shyness implies a fear or inability to partake in social activity when the person would otherwise chose to do so. They are not living in a world of their choice (as an unsocial but not shy person would be), they are prevented from fully participating in a way they would like.]

  6. David Foster Says:

    Shyness/non-shyness is also context-dependent. I have a relative who worked for a well-known news organization and interviewed dozens, maybe hundreds, of prominent people. But in day-to-day life she is painfully shy. This was evidently never a problem in her job; she felt like she was the organization rather than just her individual self.
    [DU: I suppose that proves it really is all in your head. As such, there seems to be a chance the shy person can overcome shyness through practice. Perhaps some shyness comes from an uncertainty over handling social expectations. The professional world may have more certain and rule bound expectations (less small talk, all straightforward business).]

  7. David Foster Says:

    Someone, can’t remember who, observed that shyness is much more crippling in an economy where there are frequent job changes, need to work as a free-lancer, etc, than in an economy where people spend their careers at a single company or government agency. In the latter case, a person’s true performance can be observed and if they’re lucky, the shyness won’t do too much harm (only works in certain fields, though)…but in the frequent-change economy, if they can’t form connections well and fast then they’ve got a problem.
    [DU: That makes sense. Even a solid worker needs to make a good first impression. Shyness would certainly make the interview/negotiate process less comfortable for the shy.]

  8. Hope Says:

    I work in an industry where my work speaks for itself, and so I don’t necessarily need as many connections to get a new job.

    In any case, I am not necessarily shy, merely take a while to warm up to strangers. Once I do though, I am fine. In fact I will seek out coworkers with whom I have a friendship and chat them up first.
    [DU: I would say that large portions of the population are the same. It makes sense to be at least somewhat guarded when you have just met someone. As you said, what you describe does not sound like shyness; it sounds like the manner of an introvert (a small amount of reserve, not fear). As you said, a good reputation is far better than a good line of patter (even if occasionally fast talkers do win over good workers).]

  9. modernguy Says:

    Look you are arguing for the removal of something of which you do not know the cause. Its not just a fear tacked on top of everything else that you can excise with a scalpel. Shy people are more sensitive in general. You might have noticed that the loudest people are often the most insensitive of unthinking. Its not just a coincidence.
    [DU: It is true that some, but not all, loud people are insensitive. It is not true that all non-shy are insensitive, or even overbearingly loud. It is possible to be both sensitive and non-shy (even if they might often go together). I am not sure why you seem to believe they shy should stay shy. I would imagine for most shyness is a painful condition that they would rather not have. That is, I imagine that most shy persons would prefer not to be shy.]

  10. Confidence « Default User Says:

    […] Default User « Shyness […]

  11. Linkage is Good for You: _______ Edition Says:

    […] User – “Shyness“, […]

  12. jso Says:

    agreed about shyness not necessarily making someone an introvert, I actually remember always being shy but at the very least being on my way to being an extrovert (or rather, just a normal kid) when I was very young. I won’t go into the details of The Dark Years, but basically I never had the chance to break out of my shell.

    also, surprised you didn’t link to this site:
    [DU: I had not seen the site before. Thanks]

  13. William Says:

    Over the years the knowledge of my shyness has just made me angrier towards myself.
    I’m being pulled from two sides: the fear of what the future holds if i don’t overcome it and the fear of what’ll happen if i do try and overcome it.
    [DU: Regarding the shyness: don’t get angry, get even. My Advice to a Young Beta Male post had some ideas for overcoming shyness. The most important thing is not to feel shame over it. A little anger may be good, if it provides energy for change, but it is probably best to just accept it. You can accept something as a current state even as you want to, and work towards, change.]

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