TERRY PRONE: Making a quiet stand for the much-maligned shyness brigade

Just as drinkers are threatened by non-drinkers because they convince themselves the teetotallers are soberly watching them getting pie-eyed, making notes for subsequent use, so the happy-clappy brigade are threatened by anyone who wants to opt out.

I’m thinking of starting a new movement.

The Shyness Liberation Front. Here’s the problem. This country is prejudiced against shy people.

It wants shyness exterminated and shy individuals integrated into society so that their unique characteristics can be rubbed out. It wants everybody to be open, upbeat, part of a group, awash in self-esteem and bubbling with chatty, chirrupy confidence.

This active discrimination starts in pre-school, where the kid who wants to sit in the corner and observe, rather than participate, gets coercively jollied into “sharing” on the basis that it’s for their own good. It continues throughout school, where the shy individual is looked on as insufficiently socialised. It surfaces in the workplace, where to be “not a team player” practically calls for the shy loner to be fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet. It’s everywhere, this anti-shyness prejudice.

As a card-carrying member of the shy brigade, I want something done about this. Shy people are the least offensive people in the world. They’re not attention-seekers. Rather the opposite. They don’t demand that you entertain, flatter or feed them. They don’t get in a snit in the office if the chairperson doesn’t call on them to contribute at the marketing meeting.

Mostly, they just want you to go away and leave them alone. To leave them out of your social diary. If you want to organise a stag party in Prague or a hen party in Edinburgh, the attitude of the shy person is to wish you luck and to share with you the fact that, on the weekend in question, they have an unbreakable date with a good book.

Which is not to suggest that all shy people are reclusive, just that many of them find the company of people in books much more enjoyable than the company of real live people. Indeed, one of the oddities about shyness is that shy people are to be found in the most public of professions.

Some of the best actors are shy. Two of the wittiest of our politicians are shy. Both men, one from Fianna Fáil, one from Fine Gael, are witty, well-read and highly effective. It’s just when they have to cope with a sudden influx of new people, you can see that momentary hesitation, that split second of retreat, before they take the situation by the scruff of the neck. Most people would never suspect either man of shyness – because they work in such a public profession.

But being naturally shy doesn’t mean you have to end up in a contemplative religious order or do a Thoreau. (Not that Thoreau did a Thoreau, either. Not really. His long-suffering mistress kept his hovel and underwear clean and him well supplied with casseroles, while he was letting on to be bravely reclusive at Walden Pond.)

Of course, some shy people are reclusive, and what the hell is wrong with that? Unfortunately those members of the populace who are chronically social and ever-extrovert, up for constant collective fun (“you gotta have a laugh”) and who would rather be hospitalised than spend a Saturday or Sunday evening at their own homes are deeply threatened by those who are reclusive.

Just as drinkers are threatened by non-drinkers because they convince themselves the teetotallers are soberly watching them getting pie-eyed, making notes for subsequent scabrous use, so the happy-clappy brigade are threatened by anyone who wants to opt out. They figure there’s something wrong with anyone who prefers their own company.

“It’s not good for you,” they announce. “You have to take a break. You have to relax.”

To which the shy person’s answer is “I’m trying to take a break, you yammering animated smile badge. I’m trying to take a break from you. Because I do have to relax. And the best form of relaxation I’ve identified, so far, is getting away from you and everybody else.”

There used to be a place for the slightly bookish isolate. In universities, they were the ones who didn’t join the L&H and who went on for a Masters or a PhD. Now that every other graduate does a Masters or a PhD, even that area of endeavour is no longer safe for the dowdy, eyes-downcast bookworm. Preferring silence to chat and failing to see the point in Twittering is to invite condemnation.

After all, whenever you see a spree-killing, isn’t it always the quiet guy who never spoke to anybody who did it? (Not so, in truth. In the case of the Columbine shootings, just to pick one relatively recent example, at least one of the two killers was obsessively communicative.)

Christopher Lee, a research Professor at Northwestern University in the United States, maintains that shyness has been re-defined in one generation.

“In my mother’s generation,” he writes, “shy people were seen as introverted and perhaps a bit awkward, but never mentally ill. Adults admired their bashfulness, associating it with bookishness, reserve, and a yen for solitude. But shyness isn’t just shyness any more. It’s a disease. It has a variety of overwrought names, including ‘social anxiety’ and ‘avoidant personality disorder,’ afflictions said to trouble millions – almost one person in five, according to some estimates.”

The morphing of perfectly normal shyness into a personality disorder requiring chemical intervention is a fearsome example of how psychiatry still tends to fit itself around the perceived needs of society at any given time.

Back in the days before civil rights included the right to be gay, psychiatry was pretty damn sure homosexuality was a dire but curable disease. It was attributable to the wrong kind of mothering, understandably, since psychiatry tends to operate on the principle that a mother’s place is in the wrong.

Today’s more enlightened psychiatry doesn’t see homosexuality as anything more than a point in the continuum of general human sexuality. Which is great for gay people. Not so great for shy people, since the urge to medicalise the normal has now passed on to their “problem.”

Inverted commas surround the word “problem” because for most shy people, their condition is a characteristic, rather than a hassle. They like their own company, enjoy quiet places and hobbies and manage to avoid parties, receptions and night clubs without much difficulty. They pick professions that allow them to observe and attend rather than transmit all the time.

And yet, as Professor Lee points out, doctors eager to diagnose shy people as sick include, as symptoms defining the disorder, “fear of sounding foolish and of being stumped when asked questions in social settings – fears that doubtless afflict almost everyone on the planet.”

The end result of all this, of course, is medication, starting with the covert vial of Rescue Remedy in the back pocket and working right up to the big brand name happy-making prescriptions.

Trying to unite the victims of this prejudice dressed up as healthcare is going to be a problem, though. They won’t want to go to meetings, put their names to petitions or talk to Joe Duffy on the air.

Like Garbo, they just want to be left alone in their shyness.


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