Analysis, People, Reflection

Rethinking ‘Shy’

I don’t think “shy” and “introverted” exist as attributes of people; they are observed behaviors. The conclusions I’ve come to in the past hour are probably challenging to many people but I think it’s a good challenge.

I decided to just sketch this really fast while it’s on my mind and let my readers find the parts that need critique or expansion. I responded to someone on the Longwalks App today:

I drew heavily from interpersonal communication classes in that comment.

She is Fine the Way She Is

As I said all of that, I thought about a relative of mine. Some members of our family were critical of her for being less socially-inclined. They worried she might not be able to form relationships with co-workers. That was never the case: once she’s part of an office, and establishes a rapport with people, she has normal relationships with co-workers.

They worried she wouldn’t meet people and go on dates. That seemed to be partially true for a while but it was an illusion. She dated some strange men, though they were mostly harmless. Still, they weren’t the kind of people we wanted her to be attached to. Then, she met her husband through a close mutual friend; he’s wonderful. We too quickly assumed “oh, she’s not meeting someone good because she isn’t taking risks” when the reality is that awkward partners were inevitable. Moreover, we may have created the awkwardness when we met them! ‘Strange’ is a matter of perspective and circumstance!

She has a close, honest, secure relationship with her partner. In fact, the closer she is with anyone in our family, the more open & honest (by which I mean BLUNT but well-intentioned) she is with all of them. Some have marveled that she seems so different from one situation to another but it’s not extraordinary. The differences between people are in the quality and magnitude of the changes we affect as we travel through social-spaces. The stakes also matter: she doesn’t need to be at a crowded bar, so she isn’t; she does need to attend family gatherings with her spouse, so she’s there.

Behaviors Can Be Shy, People Cannot

Sometimes people who tend toward being reserved cling tightly to the idea of “being an introvert” and start to shape their responses to uncertainty around that identity. Introversion is a fancier label than shy but it’s just as hollow– we behave how we behave in specific situations and others struggle to understand how our past or our brain chemistry (or whatever) is creating those behaviors. Self-styled introverts strike back with the same kind of vocabulary: I AM this, quit trying to change me. The fact is, being reserved isn’t a universal inclination in a person. That person is simply using shy behaviors more.

If I fart more that does not mean I’m permanently farty. My gut microbes make gasses from recent meals and I have a farty episode. Great analogy, right?

Quit Shaming People for Being ‘Shy’

I’m not saying a person should fight their instincts to please society. I’m suggesting that there are strategies adults can use when they feel reserved but know they must press forward to a goal. That’s up to them: pressure from self-styled extroverts is 100% useless. Yes: 100%, because the extroversion won’t stick (for multiple reasons, I don’t need to list them all).

As for shy children, adults can use the control they have of the situation to make it more likely for a child to respond warmly. There are no guarantees, though, because children are at varying levels of animality (let’s be real)– we can’t expect them to understand and articulate all of their motivations. Again, it’s 100% useless to shame children about being “shy”. The best case scenario is that they IGNORE THE ADULTS rather than make that label part of their identity.

The challenge is to untangle a web of influences and tendencies and understand what is really happening inside of a person in an encounter. For instance, why do they have (as we called it in class) ‘high global uncertainty’? HGI is a tendency to struggle in initial encounters, which is rooted in a need to know the nature of the relationship and what will probably happen… reasonable instincts, calibrated higher for some people than others.

What can we do to reduce uncertainty?

That’s going to be different from situation to situation. However, I can offer one more model from class that I think will be helpful. Bear in mind, these are the fundamentals that have survived in my memory and not the assertions of PhD-level expert. This is a loose categorization of our responses to uncertainty; we get to choose which we use and when in every situation:

A Question-Based Approach: (this is sometimes called a rhetorical approach but I think that term is confusing). Before addressing something that happened or something that is going to happen, try to ask some probing questions: what’s the emotion? what in that situation could be causing it? what do I/we/they want? etc. In other words, have a deliberate and nuanced discussion. “but we don’t have time and energy to go through all that…” then don’t do anything! Let them be! If it doesn’t matter enough to be thorough, just let it be.

A Conventional Approach: this term is more illuminating; these responses rely on social conventions. The hard work is already done, we only need to implement the ‘rules’. It’s efficient. Conventional responses work well when everyone has a clearly defined role. Think of my relative in her work-place: professionalism creates safe boundaries and protocols. As a larger society, we forget that not all cultures do things the same way. Before we single someone out as “bad”, we should consider the possibility that in a different place and time their inclination would be valued and ours would be condemned.

An Expressive Approach: cutting to the chase, this is rarely successful with anyone other than our closest, most intimate family and friends. This is venting. I don’t need to explain it to y’all because we see it all the time in social media: with just a hint of anonymity, people explode with raw emotions and half-baked opinions. Volatile interpersonal situations demonstrate why a ‘shy’ response can be reasonable. Who wants to be exposed to invective? Nobody.

To review:

  • An expressive approach to someone’s shyness will never, ever work because volatility stokes uncertainty. This approach could (maybe, maybe not) cause more shyness in the future.
  • Conventional approaches work within the confines of organizations to accomplish goals compatible with those organizations. Cultural conventions might be used to pressure someone to be less shy but those ‘rules’ rely on cultural assumptions and shouldn’t be treated as absolutely right/moral/ethical/important/whatever.
  • A question-based approach requires more energy and requires everyone to be invested. It will take time and impatience is not an option. Children require additional patience.
  • Most importantly, adults who exhibit more frequent shyness are often doing fine, though it could be an obstacle to some goals. It should never be anyone’s goal to “cure” someone else’s shyness. That’s not how any of this works. Rather, people who understand themselves as shy need to realize how mutable that quality is and feel motivated to research and implement strategies to build relationships they need, if those relationships are lacking. That’s for them to discern because we don’t know all of the factors in-play.

I’m done. Submitted for your consideration.

Just me giving a “thumbs-up” with my purple hair, which appears blue because my webcam is quirky.

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