The Cost of Shyness
Excerpts from article from Psychology Today
By Bernardo Carducci, Philip G. Zimbardo, published on November 01, 1995 – last reviewed on June 13, 2013
The costs of shyness cut deeper than material success, and they take on different forms over a lifetime.
A shy childhood may be a series of lost opportunities. Think of the child who wants so much to wear a soccer-uniform and play just like all the other kids but can’t muster the wherewithal to become part of a group. And if the parents do not find a way to help a child overcome feelings of nervousness and apprehension around others, the child may slip into more solitary activities, even though he really wants to be social. The self-selection into solitary activities further reduces the likelihood of the child developing social skills and self-confidence.
Shy kids also have to endure teasing and peer rejection. Because of their general disposition for high reactivity, shy children make prime targets for bullies. Who better to tease and taunt than someone who gets scared easily and cries? Whether inherited or acquired, shyness predisposes to loneliness. It is the natural consequence of decades spent shunning others due to the angst of socializing. Reams of research show that loneliness and isolation can lead to mental and physical decline, even a hastened death.
Without a circle of close friends or relatives, people are more vulnerable to risk. Lacking the opportunity to share feelings and fears with others, isolated people allow them to fester or escalate. What’s more, they are prone to paranoia; there’s no one around to correct their faulty thinking, no checks and balances on their beliefs. We all need someone to tell us when our thinking is ridiculous, that there is no Mafia in suburban Ohio, that no one is out to get you, that you’ve just hit a spate of bad luck.
Shyness brings with it a potential for abusing alcohol and drugs as social lubricants. In Zimbardo’s studies, shy adolescents report feeling greater peer pressure to drink or use drugs than do less shy adolescents. They also confide that they use drugs and alcohol to feel less self-conscious and to achieve a greater sense of acceptance.
Shyness is linked to sexual, uh, difficulties. Shy people have a hard time expressing themselves to begin with; communicating sexual needs and desires is especially difficult. Shy men may turn to prostitutes just to avoid the awkwardness of intimate negotiations. When Zimbardo asked them to describe their typical client, 20 San Francisco prostitutes said that the men who frequented them were shy and couldn’t communicate their sexual desires to wives or girlfriends. And the shy guys made distinctive customers. They circled a block over and over again in their car before getting the nerve to stop and talk to the prostitute. To shy men, the allure of a prostitute is simple–she asks what you want, slaps on a price, and performs. No humiliation, no awkwardness.
Another cost–time. Shy people waste time deliberating and hesitating in social situations that others can pull off in an instant. Part of their problem is that they don’t live in the present, observes Zimbardo, who is currently focusing on the psychology of time perspective. “Shy people live too much in their heads,” obsessed with the past, the future, or both. A shy person in conversation is not apt to think about what is being said at the moment, but about how past conversations have initially gone well and then deteriorated–just as the current one threatens to. Says Zimbardo: “These are people who cannot enjoy that moment because everything is packaged in worries from the past–a Smithsonian archive of all the bad–that restructure the present.”
Or shy people may focus all their thoughts and feelings on future consequences: If I say this, will he laugh at me? If I ask him something simple like where he is from, he’ll be bored and think I’m a lousy conversationalist, so why bother anyway? The internal decision trees are vast and twisted. “Concern for consequences always makes you feel somewhat anxious. And that anxiety will impair the shy person’s performance,” says Zimbardo.
Factoring in past and future is wise, but obsession with either is undermining. Shy people need to focus on the now–the person you are talking to or dancing with–to appreciate any experience. “Dancing is a good example of being completely of the moment,” comments Zimbardo. “It is not something you plan, or that you remember, you are just doing it.” And enjoying it.
If the costs of shyness are paid by shy people the benefits of shyness are reaped by others–parents, teachers, friends, and society as a whole.
Yet shy people are often gifted listeners. If they can get over their self-induced pressures for witty repartee, shy people can be great at conversation because they may actually be paying attention. (The hard part comes when a response is expected.) According to Harvard’s Doreen Arcus, shy kids are apt to be especially empathic. Parents of the children she studies tell her that “even in infancy, the shy child seemed to be sensitive, empathic, and a good listener. They seem to make really good friends and their friends are very loyal to them and value them quite a bit.” Even among children, friendships need someone who will talk and someone who will listen.
For any society to function well, a variety of roles need to be played. There is a place for the quiet, more reflective shy individual who does not jump in where angels fear to tread or attempt to steal the limelight from others. Yet as a culture we have devalued these in favor of boldness and expressiveness as a means of measuring worth.
The Future of Shyness
To put it bluntly, the future of shyness is bleak. My studies have documented that since 1975 its prevalence has risen from 40 percent to 48 percent. There are many reasons to expect the numbers to climb in the decades ahead. Most significantly, technology is continually redefining how we communicate. We are engaging in a diminishing number of face-to-face interactions on a daily basis. When was the last time you talked to a bank teller? Or a gas station attendant? How often do you call friends or colleagues when you know they aren’t in just so you can leave a message on their machine? Voice mail, faxes, and E-mail give us the illusion of being “in touch,” but what’s to touch but the keyboard? This is not a Luddite view of technology, but a sane look at its deepest costs.
The electronic age was supposed to give us more time, but ironically it has stolen it from us. Technology has made us time-efficient and redefined our sense of time and its value. It is not to be wasted, but to be used quickly and with a purpose.
Office encounters have become barren of social interaction. They are information-driven, problem-oriented, solution-based. No pleasantries. No backs slapped. We cut to the chase: I need this from you. Says Zimbardo, “You have to have an agenda.” Some people don’t even bother to show at the office at all; they telecommute.
The dwindling opportunities for face-to-face interaction put shy people at an increasing disadvantage. They no longer get to practice social skills within the comfort of daily routine. Dropping by a colleague’s office to chat becomes increasingly awkward as you do it less and less. Social life has shrunk so much it can now be entirely encapsulated in a single, near-pejorative phrase: “face time,” denoting the time employees may engage in eyeball-to-eyeball conversation. It’s commonly relegated to morning meetings and after 4:00 P.M.
Electronic hand-held video games played solo now crowd out the time-honored social games of childhood. Even electronically simulated social interactions can’t substitute–they do not permit people to learn the necessary give and take that is at the heart of all interpersonal relationships. Technology is not the only culprit. The rise of organized sports for kids and the fall of informal sidewalk games robs kids of the chance to learn to work out their own relationship problems. Instead, the coach and the referee do it.
If technology is ushering in a culture of shyness, it is also the perfect medium for the shy. The Internet and World Wide Web are conduits for the shy to interact with others; electronic communication removes many of the barriers that inhibit the shy. You prepare what you want to say. Nobody knows what you look like. The danger, however, is that technology will become a hiding place for those who dread social interaction.
The first generation to go from cradle to grave with in-home computers, faxes, and the Internet is a long way from adulthood. We will have to wait at least another 20 years to accurately assess shyness in the wake of the new electronic age. But to do so, we must find a group of infants–shy and non-shy–and follow them through their life, rather than observe different people, from different generations, in different periods of their lives. Only then will we see the course of shyness over a lifetime.
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Marty Callahan has spent his life understanding and improving the lives of students both young and old. His passion led to the founding of Shotokan Karate Leadership School in Santa Rosa, CA in 1981 with a dream to awaken the extraordinary leader in his students. Having inspired, taught, coached, supported, and trained over 15,000 students in 40,000 classes in Santa Rosa, Marty has become Sonoma County’s preeminent martial arts leadership instructor. His students, hundreds of whom have gone on to become leaders in their chosen fields, appreciate his engaging, student centered approach to teaching and they believe you will too.