Thanks in large part to Susan Cain's bestseller Quiet, these days introverts are being celebrated as never before. But while it's now cool to claim to be an introvert and identify with other alone-time-loving super achievers like Bill Gates and President Obama, shyness hasn't undergone quite the same rehabilitation.
Social anxiety is still thought of as a bit of embarrassing handicap, this despite the fact that a large swath of the population sees themselves as shy and tons of well known and successful folks from Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Jordan to Jessica Alba and Kim Kardashian (yes, seriously) describe themselves this way.
But maybe that's about to change. Maybe shy people, like introverts, have found their champion in the form of cultural historian Joe Moran, author of the new book Shrinking Violets. Shy himself, Moran uses the book both to celebrate the world-changing contributions of the shy while also digging into the little considered positive sides of the trait.
The BBC recently interviewed Moran about his work, producing a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation that both acknowledges the difficulties inherent in being shy and also explores several reasons those afflicted with some degree of social anxiety should stop feeling embarrassed and start accepting their personality.
1. Self-reflection is a good thing.
Your awareness of your own behavior and how it's being received might be a liability in some social situations, but overall this inclination to pay attention and assess is an asset, Moran insists. He uses evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin as an example.
"I don't think you can talk about shyness without talking about that capacity for what Darwin called self-attention," he tells the BBC. "We can think about ourselves, reflect on ourselves, and be aware that there might be other humans thinking about us." In other words, the capacity for self-reflection and attention to detail that drive you to stress at a party might also drive you to achieve great things at work.
2. Your culture is part of the problem.
Shyness isn't treated as a problem universally, Moran notes. Some cultures are much more positive about the traits, like forethought, reflection, and a reluctance to offend, that make up what we call "shyness." That means that if you're suffering for your social anxiety in loud-mouth America, at least part of the problem is your country, not your personality.
The BBC articles points to a host of Finnish proverbs celebrating shyness, like "one word is enough to make a lot of trouble" or "a barking dog does not catch a hare," to illustrate the point. "If you go to Finland there's a different etiquette. There's a greater appreciation of silence in conversation," Moran notes.
3. Shyness inspires creativity.
Shy people often struggle to express their full knowledge and personality on the spot, which drives a healthy percentage of them to express themselves later (and more fully) in writing, music, or other artistic pursuits.
"A lot of the writing and art that I write about in the book... it kind of emerges from the sense that the spoken word or face-to-face contact is imperfect or has failed," Moran explains. "You can see how it might inspire people."
Shy people, do you see any upsides to this aspect of your personality?