Because shyness can grip us in such powerful ways, it’s tempting to think of it as an immutable part of our emotional make-up, with roots that extend far into our personality and perhaps biology – and that we would be incapable of ever extirpating. But in truth, shyness is based on a set of ideas about the world that are eminently amenable to change through a process of reason because they are founded on some touchingly malleable errors of thought.
Shyness is rooted in a distinctive way of interpreting strangers. The shy aren’t awkward around everyone; they are tongue-tied around those who seem most unlike them on the basis of a range of surface markers: of age, class, tastes, habits, beliefs, backgrounds or religions. With no unkindness meant, we could define shyness as a form of ‘provincialism’ of the mind, an over-attachment to the incidentals of one’s own life and experience that unfairly casts others into the role of daunting, unfathomable, unknowable foreigners.
On contact with a person from another world or ‘province’, the shy allow their minds to be dominated by a forbidding aura of difference. They may (silently and awkwardly) say to themselves that there is nothing to be done or said because the other is famous while they belong to the province of the obscure; or because the other is very old while their province is firmly that of twenty somethings; or because the other is very clever while their province is that of the non-intellectual; or because the other is from the land of very beautiful girls while they hail from the province of average looking boys. This is why there can be no grounds to laugh, to hazard a playful remark or to feel at ease. The shy person doesn’t intend to be unpleasant or unfriendly. They simply experience all otherness as an insurmountable barrier to making their own goodwill and personality apparent.
We can imagine that in the history of humanity, shyness was always the first response. The people over the hill would have triggered the feeling because they were farmers while you were fishermen, or they spoke with a lilt in their vowels while your diction was monotone and flat.
Yet, gradually there emerged a more worldly, less exclusive way of relating to strangers: what we might call a psychological ‘cosmopolitanism’. In the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, prompted by ever increasing encounters between peoples who lived very different and mutually unfamiliar lives, thanks to developments in trade and shipping, an alternative to shyness developed. Greek travellers who worshiped human-like divinities learnt that Egyptians revered cats and certain birds. Romans who shaved their chins met barbarians who did not. Senators who lived in colonnaded houses with underfloor heating encountered chieftains who lived in draughty wooden huts. And among certain thinkers, an approach developed that proposed that all these humans, whatever their surface variations, shared a common core – and that it was to this that the mature mind should turn in contact with apparent otherness. It was to this ‘cosmopolitan’ mindset that the Roman playwright and poet Terence gave voice when he wrote: ‘I am human: nothing human is foreign to me’ and that Christianity made use of in rendering universal sympathy a cornerstone of its view of existence.
Someone becomes a cosmopolitan not on the basis of having a buoyant or gregarious nature but because they are in touch with a fundamental truth about humanity, because they know that irrespective of appearance, we are the same species beneath, an insight that the tongue-tied guest at the party or the awkward seducer in the restaurant are guilty of implicitly refusing.
The cosmopolitan is well aware of differences between people. They just refuse to be cowed or dominated by them. They look beyond them to perceive, or in practical terms simply to guess at, a collective species-unity. The stranger may not know your friends from primary school, may not have read the same novels or have met your parents, may wear a dress, or a large hat and beard or be in their eighth decade or only a few days past being four years old, but the cosmopolitan won’t be daunted by the lack of local points of reference. They are sure they will stumble somewhere upon common ground – even if it takes a couple of false starts. All human beings (however varied their outward appearance) must – they know – be activated by a few basic dimensions of concern. There will be uniting likes, hates, hopes and fears; even if it is only a love of rolling a ball back and forth or a mutual interest in sunbathing.
The shy provincial is a pessimist at heart. The moderniser won’t – they feel certain – be able to talk to the traditionalist, the enthusiast of the left must have no time for anyone on the right, the atheist won’t be able engage with the priest, the business owner must get awkward around the socialist. The confident cosmopolitan, by contrast, starts from the assumption that people are – of course – endowed with wildly opposed views, but that these need never fatally undermine the rich range of similarities that will remain in other areas.
Traditionally, rank or status have been major sources of shy provincialism: the peasant felt he could not approach the lord, the young milkmaid stammered when the Earl’s son visited the stable. Today, in an echo of such inhibitions, the person of average looks feels they could never hang out with the very beautiful girl, or the modestly-off lose any inability to talk to the very wealthy. The mind fixates on the gulf: my nose looks like a child modelled it out of plasticine, yours as if it had been carved by Michelangelo; I fear losing my job while you fear that the expansion of your business into Mexico won’t be as profitable as you’d forecast.
Shyness has its insightful dimensions. It is infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence, it is based upon an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomfited by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance. Someone with no capacity whatever for shyness is a scary possibility; for they implicitly operate with a dismaying attitude of entitlement. They are so composed and sure only because they haven’t taken on board the crucial possibility that the other person might rightly have a disenchanted view of them.
And yet, in most cases, we simply pay an unnecessarily heavy price for our reserve around people who might well have opened their hearts to us – if only we had known how to manifest our own benevolence. We cling too jealously to our province. The pimply boy doesn’t discover that he and the high school beauty share a taste in humour and a similarly painful relationship with their father; the middle-aged lawyer never unearths a shared love of rockets with the neighbour’s eight-year-old son. Races and ages continue not to mingle, to their collective detriments. Shyness is a touching, yet ultimately excessive and unwarranted way of feeling special.