On Courtesy, Shyness and Restraint (2014)

Updated from a 2012 post:

Miss Elinor

Miss Elinor

I identify strongly with literary characters like Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) and Renee Michel (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) – both of whom are held back from living fully by their excessive restraint. Like them, any regrets I have in life will always be things unsaid and undone – rather than regretting words and deeds that actually happened.

If you asked anyone I knew to describe me, they would probably use words like Quiet, Reserved and Serious. I have come to realize that reserve and restraint are very much a part of me, even when they don’t serve me well. As a child I was shy. I now define shyness as having a narrow comfort zone: shy people like to know what to expect, and they benefit from structure and rules – as well as gentle practice to grow out of them. I was also taught humility and modesty – one was never to brag. Because I was smart (I cringe to even say that!), my classmates at school delighted in every mistake I made, and crowed when I failed at anything. However, I was and am happy. Like all introverts, I recharge by having time alone and pursuing solitary pastimes.

Some of my greatest difficulties as a formerly shy person were:

  • Trying new things in public, such as a sport or activity, knowing I’d be mocked if I didn’t do well (this was actual and not imagined)
  • Joining a group, unless there was a kind person in the group who “took care of me,” observed my reactions, and diligently helped me feel at ease
  • Making small talk. I was content to listen to others and didn’t feel any desire to contribute when people talked about  safe “bonding” topics like the weather, the lottery, or bad customer service
  • Talking about myself. I was always happy to answer questions but never volunteered any information about myself. Interestingly, I think it was due to high self-confidence: I didn’t need all my thoughts validated by other people!
  • Speaking up within a group, because I refused to interrupt anyone, usually resulting in not being able to speak at all
  • Public speaking in front of a class or a group – I had a physical reaction with heart racing, palms sweating, and being short of breath

On the plus side, I was good at:

  • Listening and drawing people out
  • Including others (in “do unto others” mode)
  • Being good, and getting praise for being good
  • Avoiding ridicule and embarrassment
  • Working independently
  • Being the note-taker, researcher and organizer in groups
  • Setting and reaching goals

So from my point of view, if I focused on the things I did well, and avoided the things that were hard for me, I was always quite happy!

The main things that changed me were working in public service jobs such as retail, which required making small talk with customers and working as part of a team; attending a structured program in university (library science) which led to expertise and marketable job skills; becoming a supervisor because of this expertise and learning how to manage employees after the fact; becoming a parent (because you always have to advocate for your child); and eventually becoming a conference speaker. Oh, and it did not hurt that I always seemed to be quite successful in the romantic arena 🙂

Success, Dar-style

Success, Dar-style

To sum it up, I developed mastery in small steps by doing things in real-life situations. I might add that none of this took place until after I finished high school, so it was a long road. It probably took me more time than average to become assertive, and at-ease in a variety of situations. But hey, what’s an extra decade or two in the grand scheme of things?

I’ll end with some suggestions if you have a shy – or just quiet – child, relative, co-worker, employee, or team member of any kind:

  • Don’t rush to fill in every pause in a conversation. Allow time for the other’s thoughts to develop. Most shy people mentally prepare what they’re going to say, and don’t speak off-the-cuff.
  • Resist the urge to comment about how much or how little they are talking. When I was a kid and people asked me why I was so quiet, I replied I had nothing to say. Yes, this is possible. Some of us don’t have opinions on every topic, or don’t feel the need to share them.
  • In formal situations, such as team/committee meetings, state whether you want an open discussion (which will be monopolized by a few) or whether you want input from each person. If the latter, go around the table and ask each person what they think. Allow them to skip a turn and come back to them later. Moderate the meeting and prevent interruptions.
  • The old stand-by of giving the quiet person a task, such as registering guests or recording action items, is still a good one!
  • Don’t equate shyness with lack of confidence. A person can be quiet or reserved without being fearful. Some people speak better through deeds than words.
  • Give a shy or quiet person some advance notice about a new topic or activity so they can read and research on their own, and develop their opinions before the event.
  • Mentor a new person by telling them explicitly about school or workplace norms, so they don’t make as many faux pas.
  • Instead of providing one orientation at work or school and asking, “Do you have any questions?”, meet often and anticipate questions by just keeping on explaining things!
  • Some shyer people prefer one-to-one and small group meetings or activities, while others like the feeling of being more anonymous in a crowd. Ask!
  • Shy or anxious people may not be good at small talk about neutral subjects, like the weather. (I never knew how to make a conversation out of “It’s started raining” other than to say, “Oh.”) Surprisingly, it may work better to ask a more personal (and open-ended) question, like “What brought you to Montreal?”
  • Find out what they like, what they consider fun, and what makes them laugh. Do more of those things!
  • Finally, if you are quiet or reserved yourself, you are more likely to notice when others are uncomfortable, and you can help smooth the way for them.

Where are you on the shy-to-bold scale? How have you coped with shyness? Do you do anything differently when relating to shy people?


  1. Mel

    Excellent suggestions Dar! If you don’t mind, I will use some of these in my volunteer work.

  2. Fiona

    You are so good at drawing people out on your blog and initiating conversations, Dar – perhaps childhood shyness leads to more empathy?

    I have a relation who is exceptionally shy (out of home.) It’s frustrating to see how much schools frown on shy children. The parents are constantly told something is ‘wrong’. People are always trying to change children.

    Thanks for the tips. Will use them as a teacher as well as with family.

    • Thanks, Fiona. I agree with you. Everyone (or rather, extroverts) always assumed that because I was quiet, I must be fearful – that I wanted to speak up or join in but didn’t have the courage. And that was often untrue. I do think shyer kids need extra support and a little nudge at times, but not constant bombardment!

  3. Is that why you turned to blogging? Is it easier to get your thoughts over to others and then have an orderly question/answer section at the end?

    My son is quite shy but he can be very charming when mixing with others, I’m hoping he will come out of his shell a little when he gets a job as he is too comfortable sitting his A levels at the school he’s been at for years x

    • Although I can chit-chat and even do public speaking now, I have always presented myself better in writing. I definitely wouldn’t speak 1000 words in the same way I write them! Although I did fine in high school (socially and otherwise), I always thought school was a very artificial environment – everyone the same age and so much social/peer pressure – and that goes away in the workplace where people of different ages work together and are usually not so judgmental.

  4. EcoCatLady

    Ha! I fear I tend to err on the foot-in-mouth side of the shyness scale. I have tried diligently to cultivate quietness from time to time throughout my life, but my rowdy nature always seems to get the better of me.

    But I think it’s not accurate to assume that those who speak loud and often are actually more “comfortable” than the “shy and quiet” ones. For me, it’s always been a way to control the situation at hand, which is really just a different way of dealing with existential discomfort. There’s something ironically “safe” about being “on stage” all of the time. because the real you is never really threatened, it’s just an actor out there….

    • I like how you said that. A lot of outgoing people really seem to put on a public face and “perform.” And quite often, they are aware and self-conscious about it. I suppose I am the opposite, in that my public self is very reserved, while my private self is more open, but shared with fewer people.

    • Hah, I too am more foot-in-mouth than shy and retiring…but I am still nervous in certain situations- such as going somewhere for the first time or meeting new people in a new situation. I think I used to be quieter, but as I have gained in confidence I have got more rowdy!
      I am probably a bit of a nightmare if you are quiet- I tend to get over-excited and never stop talking, interrupt etc. (On the other hand, I would hope that I am good enough at interacting with people to moderate myself a little with quieter people!)
      I’d probably describe myself as ‘overexcited Labrador’ when I am in a comfortable situation…

      • Ha ha! I usually find it easy to deal with folks like you because you are aware of how you act, and talk about it, and invite conversation (if we can get a word in edgewise)!

  5. Angela UK

    Thought provoking as always and can see so much of what you say in my own younger self and also in a son of mine. However, unlike you I could not comfortably stand up in front of lots of people to this day and admire those who do. I am still happier to work on my own ( not a team player at heart but you are forced into it ) when I get the opportunity as well. I am good at talking to strangers though and love to find out about people. When my daughter and I went on hols last summer we met two interesting people on our flights there and back. My daughter joked afterwards that she thought I was lining them up for Christmas at our house! Thank you Dar for all the great suggestions.

    • I tend not to chat with strangers unless the situation arises where I see someone is uncomfortable and I want to help them feel at ease. For instance, if I’m in a line-up in a store and someone is meekly complaining about poor service, I might give them some support! I actually kind of like networking events because there are always people more awkward than myself and I can gently spend time with them and work them into conversations (if they want to!)

  6. I’m in introvert who easily passes as an extrovert. Most people who know me don’t believe I’m introverted at all. It is interesting how western society favours extroversion while eastern societies favour introversion.

    • I know a couple of people who label themselves that way. Mostly they have developed a “front” they use to get through social situations, but they need to “crash” afterwards!

  7. I am neither, but am both! It all depends on the situation I am being placed in. I am Marianne with my close friends and family, but Elinor with people who don’t know me, or people who I feel threatened by. I always felt more respect for Elinor when I read the book, but identified more with Marianne – I too am reckless in love!

  8. I’m definitely on the bold/loud/confident part of this spectrum, which at times surprises me. It surprises me when I think of the various situations I find myself in – I’ve never really felt fear like I have read about, with people not wanting to walk after dark/with a purse etc etc. I also find small talk easy – and see myself reverting to weather more than I wish! Like ‘it’s started raining’ would invite me to share if I remember my umbrella, if the change was expected, the bother it may cause. Yep, I could talk a leg off a chair. At other times, I HATE that a saleperson even says hello, and think ‘just leave me to browse!!’

    The BF is definitely not a quiet/shy person to me, but I know in social situations, namely my friends, he is. I also now know, from some difficult conversations, the stress and preparation he needs to ‘be out and about’ with a group of people he’s not close to (ie he’s ok with colleagues and his friends from where he’s from). I honestly had to say ‘I’d never thought of that’. I had never considered that it might be stressful or taxing to the degree he explained, to ‘hang out with friends’. With that in mind, I am better at ‘scheduling’ activities such as meals with my family or friends. I know last minute is too much to ask of him, but I’m also welcome to do it, if that makes sense. I didn’t realise that it’d be ok for me to go out last minute in a group, and exclude the invitation to the BF. I always assumed he’d want to be included, and therefore come, and repeatedly found myself ‘let down’ as I didn’t understand how he feels about this.

    • It’s really surprising what we find in other people’s minds, isn’t it? We know they’re not just like us, but it’s hard to fathom sometimes how different from us they can be! I don’t have a problem with small talk any more, knowing that it forms better connections with people and helps most people feel more comfortable. The only times I dislike it are when the other person notices I am quiet and just a passable rather than enthusiastic talker. Then they think I’m shy and frightened and make a big deal of it. It’s condescending. But fortunately that has become rare as I’ve become more fluent with chatter 🙂

  9. Lisa

    I have a shy and introverted spouse. Your suggestions are great reminders for me. I know I am sometimes guilty of pushing him to interact and talk more, and I can get quite frustrated with his shyness, not his being introverted, but the shyness. I believe there is a difference between being shy and being introverted. The former can create a lot of anxiety for the person. There really shouldn’t be an issue with being introverted, but sadly our society seems to value extroverted people more. Having said this, I am a little uneasy with the new treatment of shyness as a ‘mental disorder’, and worry if labeling like that will lead to ‘treatment’ with medications for kids.

    I wish my spouse had a supervisor like you, and then maybe it would not have been year 3 on the job before he learned he was entitled to some compensation that others get! He doesn’t like to ‘bother’ his supervisor with questions – ARGH!

    I, myself, am both introverted and extroverted. Really, my personality testing (e.g., Myers Briggs) always lands on the border. Sometimes I land on the introverted side, and sometimes the extroverted, but just over the line in either test case. Most people would call me extroverted, and I certainly become more so around introverted people. However, I need quiet time to recharge, and I am very noise sensitive (this is why I live on 33 acres in the country). I drive myself a bit nuts at times because I will crave social interaction, go out for an evening, and then crave for it to be done after a certain amount of time because I am over-stimulated.

    • I am concerned too, that shyness is becoming medicalized as social anxiety. The example you gave is a perfect one on the disadvantages of shyness: you don’t stand up for yourself, or don’t learn about “behind the scenes” knowledge that everyone else picks up on. Then again, some employers deliberately keep people in the dark or rely on them not to speak up.

      I didn’t know you had such a large acreage! It must have different effects on each of you.

      • Lisa

        Now you have me puzzling. When we were looking, we viewed both in-town and out-of-town houses. He didn’t seem to have a real preference for either, but only wanted a reasonable commute to work. I, on the other hand, cannot tolerate traffic noise. I will constantly hear the din of a highway, for example, where others seem to be able to tune it out. Many houses were ruled out because of me :S. How do you think a large, relatively quiet property would effect a shy/introverted person – any negatives? Maybe it is sometimes too isolating for such a person…hmmm.

      • Here are my guesses: probably no effect on work, but less access to after-work social opportunities (going out for drinks, agreeing to go to a festival together etc), fewer social groups and activities to attend near home, and sometimes rural folks are very tight-knit and it takes years to integrate newcomers! I bet it would be hard for a shyer person to join in with a group of local folks who meet at a coffee shop just to chat, because there’s nowhere else to go, or just meet at the ball field when their kids have a game. On the other hand, I’m sure there are lots of loners in cities who have access to everything, and just don’t participate!

        When I was a kid I lived out of the city and I think being surrounded by nature was really good for me. But as a teen I had no transportation to get a part-time job, and I felt quite constricted.

  10. Holly

    I am an introvert. I need to crash and recharge after a period of time of being with people. After a day of work with a lot of interaction and meetings, etc. I just need to sit for a bit when I get home. But I am not shy. I embraced public speaking years ago, and I enjoy it. I will talk to anyone, though I can be a little awkward in social settings unless I am the one in charge. And I definitely get my energy from within, vs. drawing it from being with people.

  11. Lane

    I’ve called myself a “social introvert”; I love to be alone, but enjoy people immensely. Then I want to go be alone. I had public speaking issues in my 20’s, but these have totally vanished with experience and time. One of my girls is such an extrovert, loves to have people around all the time, lives with 4 roomies. And the other is SO shy, introverted, brilliant; she happens to have an anxiety disorder that superceded her shyness and I am pleased she has a plan to deal with this so she can feel more comfortable. I still don;t know what I can say to her at times.

    • I really like people too! I know what you mean about your daughter. Giving “advice” is only helpful to a point, no matter how much we want to fix things. During kids’ years at home, we can help by arranging social activities, counselling, medical appts etc, but eventually it comes down to them – speaking from my experience here, too!

  12. This is terrific advice and reflection. It also speaks to a mistake many make. I found myself nodding to your suggestions. I once told me my gregarious mother to let my younger son speak and answer her questions as she would fill his pauses and the conversation would shift and opportunity would be lost. Like my son, some folks are reflective before they speak. I think our world would be better off, if we let those folks speak more and let some who like to hear themselves talk speak less. By the way, there is trend toward more CEOs being more introverted as their world is complex. They will get you to charge the hill, but make sure it is the right hill to charge. Great post, BTG

    • Thanks. When I was a kid, I had the experience all the time, of people trying to anticipate what I wanted to say, and saying it for me. There is a 2012 book called Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, that I would like to read!

  13. Thanks for the suggestion.

  14. Excellent post! I wish I had been able to read this when I was working with groups of people–it would have been super useful (as an Aspie my social skills are usually all over the place ugh). I’m going to re read this post just to drill into my head some of the habits I should be using!

  15. Shannon D.

    As an introvert in American culture I was/am made to feel abnormal, which I use to feel a bit disstressed about. I find chit chat awkward and stressful and people often speak over me since I don’t speak fast or forcefully. I like my alone time but I do like finding out about people. Fortunately, I have a pretty good opinion of myself! I have been trying to use the word introvert in speaking about myself to help people understand that I am not antisocial.

    Tablet went down – glad to get my replacement so I can follow blogs again!

    • Hi Shannon, I completely relate to what you said! Sometimes when I tell people I’m quiet but not shy, they don’t believe me. In your words, I don’t speak fast or forcefully, so I must be a mouse or a doormat. Welcome back!

  16. I’m naturally a loud bubbly person but I’m technically an introvert as I prefer solitude over companionship to decompress. I’m also quite awkward when it comes to crowds and usually lack self-confidence (admittedly). So I’m on this weird position on the shy-boldness scale.

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