The following is a slightly revised version of a discussion in my book, The Shyness Guide, of the enigmatic question – “What is Shyness”.
Psychologist Philip Zimbardo, founder of the Stanford Shyness Institute in California, has devoted much of his life to shyness. In his 1978 book, Shyness – What It is, What to Do About It, he says, “Shyness is a fuzzy concept; the closer we look, the more varieties of shyness we discover.” To demonstrate this, he quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary:
To be shy is to be difficult of approach, owing to timidity, caution or distrust. The shy person is “cautiously averse in encountering or having to do with some specified person or thing.” “Wary in speech or action, shrinking from self-assertion, sensitively timid,” the shy individual may be “retiring or reserved from diffidence” or from a different mold, “of questionable character, disreputable, ‘shady'”.
“But,” says Zimbardo, “such definitions don’t seem to add much to common-sense knowledge. No single definition can be adequate, because shyness means different things to different people.”
Well, when we can’t define something because it means something different to each of us, we should realize that we’re not in the realm of science. Where we are is hard to say. But Zimbardo says we can’t abandon the investigation because of that.
He conducted extensive surveys about shyness, in which he took the interesting approach of allowing people to define shyness themselves. “First,” he says, “we asked people to accept or reject the shy label. Then we wanted to know what went into that decision.” The survey produced some interesting statistics:
80% of people reported that they were shy ‘at some point in their lives’.
7% said they had never experienced shyness.
40% considered themselves ‘presently shy’.
25% said they were ‘chronically shy’.
4% said they were ‘shy all of the time, in all situations, and with virtually all people’.
That’s from 1970s North America. I think the shyness percentages might drop today, but only because the prejudice against shyness is stronger now. Shy people are more reluctant to admit being shy now. While others have been coming out of the closet, many of us have been going in.
But let’s go back to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has more to say about shyness.
At one time, believe it or not, ‘shyness’ referred mostly to the behavior of horses and other non-human animals. For example, one 19th century usage example refers to shyness as the “chief vice of Irish horses”. A 1787 example said that to be shy was to be “hare-brained; high mettled, head-strong; as wild colts”. An 1840 example said to be shy was to be:
wild in conduct…..a shy boy, or a shy girl, is wanton, unsteady, amorous
How about that for a different definition of shyness? And just when and why did we stop perceiving shyness that way?
What the modern approach to shyness lacks is this sense of wildness. It is the wildness inherent in shyness that makes me prefer to talk about it rather than introversion, social phobia, social anxiety, etc. My two novels both address the wildness of shyness, and I think they succeed pretty well.
Why wild? Well, before we developed civilization, we humans lived in the wilderness. We were wild ourselves, and I don’t think enough time has passed to extinguish all the wild genes in us. But, evidently, some of us have more of this left than others.