MODERN society has medicalised shyness.
Doctors prescribe tablets for social anxiety disorder, rather than accept that it is part of the human condition, says Joe Moran, professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool’s John Moores University.
Mr Moran, who has written a book, Shrinking Violets — A Field Guide to Shyness, says that shyness is a kind of social deafness, a tin ear for non-verbal cues, a sense that you have failed to grasp some invisible thread that holds community life together.
“It feels like coming late to a party, where everyone else is about three beers in and entering that state that allows them to have fluent exchanges that settle on some pre-agreed theme, as if by magic.”
Unlikely people have shared their stories of shyness with Joe.
He says shyness is a condition without logic.
“Shyness is very erratic. You never quite know when it is going to hit you. It doesn’t have any logic.
“I am quite good at public speaking, but not good in groups. It is such a common experience.
“We are not entirely rational beings. It is about fear and being human.”
Joe says he cannot dial a new phone number without having written down, like a call centre worker with a corporate script, what he is going to say to the person who picks up.
He keeps a notebook of things to say to people, in case he runs out of small talk.
The real problem for the shy person is informality. At work, this happens at places like the photocopier, where gossip is exchanged and alliances cemented.
In recent decades, hugging has also transformed from a marginal pursuit to a constant of social life.
Joe says that for the truly socially inept, even a handshake can be fiddly.
“As a young man, I used to botch them all the time, offering the wrong hand or grabbing the other person’s fingers, instead of their palm.
“And then, just as I had completed my long internship in the art of the handshake, I realised it was losing currency and I had to hastily reskill in hugging, or at least allowing myself to be hugged, while I managed a sort of bear-claw hold, with my arms hanging limply down the huggee’s back. Hugging me is like trying to cuddle a scarecrow.”
In his book, Joe says that shyness, whilst not a boon or a burden, can result in increased creativity.
There are a multitude of shy writers and musicians. The poet, Emily Dickinson, addressed her house visitors from behind a half-closed bedroom door, while Agatha Christie would only agree to take over as chairman of the Detective Club once she was given the proviso “that she would never have to make a speech.”
In his book, Joe recounts an interesting case of unexpected shyness in the footballer, George Best.
Best, he says, was so shy that he turned to alcohol for “liquid extroversion.”
Without the help of alcohol, he couldn’t ring a restaurant to book a table.
Best’s childhood hero had been Zorro. Best would beckon defenders towards him, daring them to tackle him, but back in the dressing room he was mild-mannered and mumbling again.
Moran writes that Best’s problem was not just with alcohol, “it was whatever the drink was meant to drown out.”
Moran’s book is very reassuring for shy people.
Whatever your social awkwardness, there are dozens of examples of others who are more socially inept.
The fifth Duke of Portland, for example, was so shy that he communicated by posting notes into letter boxes inside his house.
He also asked staff on his Wellbeck Estate “to pass him as if he were a tree.”
The Duke also built grand tunnels beneath his land, so that when he went walking he would never meet a member of the public.
The eighth Duke of Bedford, the Duke of Portland’s contemporary, rarely left his London home and only then in a carriage with the blinds down.
The eleventh Duke of Bedford stationed lookouts around his grounds to warn the electricians wiring Woburn Abbey that he was coming, so they could hide in cupboards.
Moran says that while shyness might have its roots in human self-consciousness, it leaves us at the mercy of our animal emotions — making us, in extremis, shake with fear, run away, and hide.
Meanwhile, Joe Moran emphasises that he isn’t a “cheerleader” for shyness, but nor is it something to be ashamed of.
“There is a backlash against medicalising it. People are starting to realise it is not something you can take a pill for.
“I have come to the stage where I am a bit zen about it. I am not expecting myself to sparkle socially. I don’t want to be a cheerleader for it. I know it can be very painful for people.
“My book is a biography of lots of people who were shy, unusual, or odd. If you know enough about shyness, you can’t help but be empathetic. It is part of the ineluctable oddness of being human.”