Updated from a 2012 post:
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 🙂
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?