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Shy Young Thing

Sian Prior

I’m standing on the fringes of a room full of strangers and a familiar sensation is seeping through my body. It’s as if someone has snuck up behind me and spiked my drink, so that instead of a glass of mineral water, I’m now sipping a kind of sparkling, liquid concrete. My limbs are growing rigid, my neck is seizing up and my smile is turning into one of those insane grins on the faces of young ballet dancers whose pointe shoes are actually killing them.

It’s 7.45 on a Saturday night in winter. My fella’s football team won by twenty-six points, he’s had a couple of beers and a whisky somewhere between the MCG and the birthday party, and now I can’t find him in the crowd. I’m over forty but feeling about fourteen, and I’m sidling towards the door. The car needs to be moved, I tell myself. An hour won’t be long enough, there must be a better park somewhere close by. (Or far away. At home, perhaps.) Anyway, I’ll just go and move it, shall I?

My movements have suddenly become as fluid as a cat after a bird. Putting down my glass of fizzy concrete, I take three steps and I’m out the door and free and moving fast now, so fast it must look suspicious but I can see the car and I’m pressing the blue button on the key ring and the headlights are flashing and I’ve got hold of the handle and now I’m inside the car and alone and safe.

If it wasn’t so ridiculous, I’d be laughing out loud. What’s a polite, nearly middle-aged woman like me doing leaving a party without even saying goodbye to her fella, let alone to the birthday girl?

Regressing, that’s what. Behaving like she used to before she became A Confident Career Woman. Like she did in the bad old days, when she was A Shy Young Thing.

*

At a holiday music camp in an old bluestone boarding school one summer in the early 1980s, I squeeze myself onto a bench at the long communal breakfast table. The dining-room is full of people I’ve never met, and as I pick up my spoon, shyness strikes like a sudden palsy. The spoon full of soggy cereal begins to shake, and I have to put it down. There are two certainties in my mind, and they are entirely contradictory. First: everyone is looking at me, and second: I am completely invisible. If only the latter were true.

A thin boy with lips bruised a deep pink from the pressure of his trumpet mouthpiece sits down opposite me and introduces himself. I blush and stammer but somehow manage to have a conversation with him—and spend the next two weeks mistaking profound gratitude for romantic love. Turns out he comes from a city on the other side of the country, so I don’t have to live with my mistake. But several decades later, I remember his kindness and am grateful still.

*

According to a website called shakeyourshyness.com, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Ella Fitzgerald were all painfully shy but it hasn’t prevented them from becoming household names. No less than eighty immortals are outed on this website as the kind of people who’d probably scuttle away from parties with the least provocation.

There’s a whole page dedicated to ‘Tips For Shaking Your Shyness’, including such gems as: ‘Let People Know You’re Shy’ and ‘Conversation Topics—Never Leave Home without Them’. ‘Brush up on current events and the weather’, is the advice proffered, ‘and anything else that might be the small-talk you need to get the conversation going!’

If only they’d invented the internet a century earlier. I imagine Albert Einstein perusing this chirpy little website, then checking his pockets before setting off to collect his Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921: ‘Handkerchief—yes. House key—yes. List of conversation topics for the after-party—ah yes. Should I start with the weather? Rained today, could be sleet tomorrow. Or would current events be better? Jolly interesting news about the majority support for Silesia’s reannexation to Germany, don’t you think? And presumably you’ve heard that they’ve given women the vote in Sweden? By the way, did I mention that I’m painfully shy?’

Strangely enough, it’s possible that Einstein would have felt entirely comfortable speaking from the distance of the Nobel Prize winners’ stage to a thousand awestruck fans of his theory of relativity—just as Ella Fitzgerald was able to improvise her way confidently through a memory lapse while singing ‘Mack the Knife’ live in Berlin in 1960. Shyness doesn’t necessarily impede public performance, especially when you don’t have to interact one-on-one with your audience.

Fitzgerald’s performance on that Berlin stage, complete with brand-new rhyming lyrics and a wicked impersonation of Louis Armstrong, is interspersed with girlish giggles as she gives up trying to remember the original words and surrenders to the moment. Offstage, she may have been reserved and self-conscious, but onstage, even amid what she later described as a ‘wreck’ of a performance, she is clearly enjoying herself.

*

Back in the car, I’m driving around the block, trying to decide what to do. I find a park with no time limit, so there goes my one excuse for not returning to the party. Still, I can’t go back. And I can’t ring my fella because if he’s still there somewhere and is in the middle of a party conversation, answering my call is going to be very embarrassing for him.

Resorting to the shy person’s technology-of-cowardice, I send a text, apologising for my disappearance and telling him I’ll see him later. Then I turn off the phone, restart the car and, with limbs once again leaden, drive slowly back home. Pathetic.

*

Sometime in my early twenties I talked my way into a job as a national campaigner for a major environment organisation. I still remember that job interview almost word for word. It’s as if someone else took over my brain. I went in knowing very little about the Australian Conservation Foundation’s history or goals and came out charged with the responsibility of alerting the nation to the looming threats of radiation contamination, ozone depletion and global warming. Two weeks into the job, I had to speak to a crowd of twenty thousand people at an anti-nuclear rally in Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl. Yet again I was inhabited by an alien, one who’d never heard of the word ‘shyness’, and who was filled with the righteous conviction that the citizens of Planet Earth must be saved from self-destruction.

My family was astounded. Wasn’t I the child who’d had to be dragged out from behind the pages of a book whenever visitors dropped in? Wasn’t I the teenager who’d been so socially stricken that she’d avoided all school dances? What on earth had happened?

The answer, I decided many years (and several careers) later, was that if I was representing someone or something else, I could be virtually fearless. Any public role would do—ACF campaigner, ACTU arts officer, ABC presenter—I wasn’t me, but the embodiment of an idea (save the world, save the workers, save the population from ignorance) and if I believed strongly enough in that idea, all symptoms of shyness would magically disappear.

But like a wet umbrella, my protective initials had to be abandoned at the front door when I arrived at a party. An understanding of how the circumpolar vortex contributed to Antarctic ozone depletion was of little help when it came to dealing with a room full of strangers. Reciting all the words to ‘The Internationale’ may have been mildly amusing but, given the choice, most party-goers would rather dance to Madonna than hear me exhort the workers to arise from their slumbers.

I was often more comfortable in the workplace, where roles and interactions were relatively stable, than being a free radical floating about in the social environment. But the Victorian stonemasons who campaigned so hard to ensure we only have to work an eight-hour day would surely have turned in their graves if I hadn’t taken advantage of my eight hours play. To mangle the Beastie Boys song, they’d had to fight for my right to party, and it would be ungrateful of me not to do so.

*

The teenage daughter of a friend is describing the social cliques in her high school year. There are the Fashion Girls, the Cool Guys, the Arty Crowd, the Sports Jocks—and the Invisibles. The first four are easy to picture, but at the last label I catch my breath. You know, she explains patiently, the ones you don’t notice much. They don’t belong to any group and never really say anything. So, like, they’re invisible.

I do know, and can recall how close I came to being one of them. But each time the black hole of social invisibility threatened to swallow me up, some extrovert would suddenly appear and rescue me—some social comet in whose wake I could trail, enjoying the fizz and spark. My best friend was always the person who ended up telling the funniest stories to the largest number of people at any social gathering, and I was happy to lead the laughter.

*

Back home now and, post–party paralysis, I’m giving myself a very hard time. The shyness website uses the term recovering shy person, and just as reformed alcoholics berate themselves every time they fall off the wagon, shy people often mentally beat themselves up every time the mask drops and their social anxiety is revealed to the world.

I try to remember previous victories in my battles with this thing; other evenings that have metamorphosed from Hieronymus Bosch triptychs of hell into Pieter Bruegel paintings of jolly wedding festivals—where I’ve gone from wanting to disappear into the wall paper to swapping email addresses with half the party guests. How has distress been converted to pleasure? Alcohol often helps, but tonight I’m on the wagon, in preparation for singing in a recital tomorrow afternoon – hence the mineral water. Does that put me into that clichéd category of grog-dependent social animals?

Self-flagellation gradually gives way to genuine curiosity. To control something, surely you must first of all try to understand it. Long ago I worked out that labelling yourself ‘shy’ and giving yourself permission to avoid situations that might provoke an attack of social anxiety was a mug’s game. Morrissey expressed it so neatly in The Smiths song ‘Ask’: ‘Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things you want to.’

But what exactly is shyness, and how do other shy people feel? Are all quiet, introverted people shy? Are shy people always the losers in the genetic dice-roll, or are there advantages to being shy? And does shyness ever magically disappear?

*

In his book Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury, 1995), American psychologist Daniel Goleman examines shyness in the context of temperament: ‘the background murmur of feelings that mark our basic disposition … the moods that typify our emotional life’ (p. 215). To some degree, he says, we each have a favoured emotional range—‘temperament is a given at birth’—but the question is ‘whether such a biologically determined emotional set can be changed by experience … can even an innately shy child grow into a more confident adult?’

I first became acquainted with the term temperament just over two decades ago, when I spent a summer squeezing a stapler. It was during a hiatus between completing my undergraduate degree and heading overseas with a backpack, and I needed some cash. Day after day I sat in a sweltering university office, collating and stapling pages of typed questions before shoving them into envelopes. The envelopes were being mailed out to 2500 mothers of newborn infants, the first of hundreds of such questionnaires that would be sent out over the next twenty-four years to the participants in a new Australian study of temperament.

The researchers were interested in how temperament could be measured and, if so, how early in development. Could they identify children with easy or difficult, shy or sociable, adaptive or non-adaptive types of temperament? And was temperament stable across time, or did it change as children grew into adulthood?

When I was acquiring a mild case of stapler-induced repetitive strain injury from the first temperament study mail-out, I remained blissfully ignorant of these questions in contemporary psychology. And yet they were about to become very pertinent to me, as I prepared for six months of solo travel in Europe. Six months of staying in youth hostels full of complete strangers; six months without friends, family members or my usual routines; six months of making decisions—alone—about how to fill every minute of every day. For a shy person, this was somewhat akin to holding your hand over a burning flame, to see just how much suffering you could endure.

Daniel Goleman cites the research of American developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, who studied the physical symptoms of so-called ‘timid’ and ‘bold’ children. Timid children, Kagan posited, have a neural circuitry that is highly reactive to even mild stress. They sweat more and their hearts beat faster in response to new situations; they are paralysingly anxious in company; and they ‘treat any new person … as though (they) were a potential threat’ (pp. 216–17).

Their distress is both physical and psychological, and I knew mine would be too, as soon as my backpack hit the luggage carousel in Rome Fiumicino airport. But I also suspected that if I didn’t confront these fears, they could rule my life.

The summer stapling gig was the result of nepotism. One of the architects of the Australian Temperament Project was psychologist Professor Margot Prior—my mother. And now, after more than two decades of analysing those returned questionnaires, few people in the world know more than she does about temperament.

(She is also the person who first tried to induce me to behave like a ‘bold’ child rather than a ‘timid’ one. It was before she became a psychologist, so you couldn’t really call it behaviour therapy—more like standard parental bribery. If I would pluck up my courage and go visit my friend who lived at the other end of our sand-belt suburban street, she would give me a reward. It rarely worked.)

Conveniently, then, when I decide to find out more about shyness, I don’t have to go very far.

According to Margot, temperament theorists describe shyness as ‘an inborn but not immutable biological disposition’. As children, we all fit somewhere on a spectrum called ‘approach-withdrawal’, ranging from the most engaged, extroverted kids who are happy to be with anybody, to the most withdrawn kids who hang their heads, won’t pay attention and seem fearful and anxious. To find out where the children in The Temperament Study sat in this spectrum, the early questionnaires asked parents questions such as; how does your child react the first time a babysitter comes, or if you introduce some new experience or throw them into a new group of people? Do they approach and engage or back away and hide behind your legs?

*

In a crowded town hall, at the end of a public forum that I’ve been hosting, I meet an older cousin who hasn’t seen me for many years. He is shaking his head: ‘I can’t believe that was you up there. I remember when you were about four and you’d hide behind your mother’s legs—I used to try and get you to talk but you were such a shy young thing.’

And I remember him as a beanstick-thin giant with John Lennon spectacles and a blue sailing boat he’d pulled up onto the sand on a windy bay beach and though I can’t recall much else about the day, I do remember the shrinking, scalding feeling and the flap of my mother’s sundress around my head and the squinting sun watching me—and even now as we’re joking about my cousin still wearing the same glasses, I know that old please-don’t-look-at-me fear is still only a shallow breath away.

*

As a psychological metaphor, the idea of a spectrum is very appealing. You can picture yourself perched somewhere on that straight line from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’ like a bird on a wire. But when it comes to shyness, perhaps the metaphor is too simple, because it turns out that not all withdrawn people are shy, and not all anxious people avoid approaching others. And when you throw introversion and extroversion into the mix, the taut wire starts to look more like a game of Pick Up Sticks.

As Margot explains it, kids who are very shy are more vulnerable to becoming anxious, but not all shy kids become anxious adults, and many adults who are anxious have not been shy kids. Introversion and extroversion are more expanded traits—the products of temperament plus experience, if you like—your natural proclivities plus how you’ve interacted with people, whether it’s gone well and what you have learnt about the world. And there are plenty of introverted people—including many scholars, writers and musicians, for example—who could not be described as shy because they don’t find it distressing being in company, but their preference is for being alone, in their own world.

Perhaps Albert Einstein doesn’t belong on the honour roll of the ‘shakeyourshyness’ website. Perhaps he just found physics infinitely more interesting than humans, and the scientific community should thank their lucky stars that he did.

*

There’s a man I know who plays the piano with black-rimmed fingernails. He improvises for hours at a time, dominant sevenths and diminished chords rippling out from under the door of his music room as he follows a winding trail of jazz riffs. And when he emerges, chances are he’ll go straight out into his garden and spend another few hours crouching low, pulling sly weeds out from between clumps of whispering native grasses. Perhaps he’ll have the old transistor radio on, listening to his football team get thumped again, as he tends to bulging pots of orchids inherited from his mother.

In company he is quiet but not uncomfortable; content to observe; a good listener, following the winding trails of others’ conversations. But he is just as happy being alone, at the keyboard or among his orchids. Hours and hours of wordlessness, of losing himself in the movement of his hands. Alone but rarely lonely—an enviable state of being.

*

I envy shy kids in twenty-first-century Australia. They can choose to socialise while sitting alone in front of a PC, interacting without having to be physically proximate. They can join invisible communities of people who share their own obscure interests, and create semi-fictional characters to inhabit while conversing with other (possibly semi-fictional) young folk. They can even guide digital avatars of themselves around imaginary worlds, cartoon characters who are possibly better dressed, better looking and more socially skilled than their creators. Just as I was able to hide my shyness behind various professional personae in my early working life, they can hide their social insecurities behind multiple layers of self-reinvention.

One young woman I taught in recent years was so painfully shy she would always sit alone, both in class and during the breaks, avoiding her classmates and tapping away on a tiny laptop. She was an above-average student, so I naively assumed her constant typing was study-related. But one day in a break I asked her what she was writing, and she turned the computer towards me. Scrolling across the glowing screen was a conversation in text, a witty, flirtatious interaction between someone called ‘honeyman’ (who may or not have been a man, or a honey) and my student, known only to her correspondent as ‘cutencuddly’.

I stopped worrying about her after that. She’s not lonely, I told myself, and she’s not unsociable—she’s adaptive. The digital world has offered her a non-threatening way to have the kind of flirtatious fun that extroverts take for granted.

During my own adolescence, there were no PCs, no emails and no Second Life. Most of my vicarious experience of the world came from books, and as a teenager I spent many weekends lying under the glare of a bedside lamp, avoiding new, interesting and unpredictable social interactions in order to read about them.

Jane Austen and Margaret Drabble took me to England; E.M. Forster and Salman Rushdie took me to India; Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley took me around Australia, and George Orwell and Margaret Atwood took me into the future.

At some point, though, it became obvious to me that vicarious experience would not suffice. I wanted a larger life than the one bounded by my innumerable, irrational fears. Just as Ella Fitzgerald had done when the safety net of song lyrics disappeared from her mind, I wanted to be able to make it up as I went along.

*

Outside a theatre I’m introduced to an actor, a vivacious woman with lipstick redder than a traffic light, who’s just been given a standing ovation for her night’s work. She’s talking and talking and talking at me, finishing my sentences and telling me what I was just about to say, and her kohl-rimmed eyes are creased from the effort of making conversation with a stranger, and suddenly I realise—she’s one of us. The loud ones with too much to say; the quiet ones who can’t meet your eyes; the haughty ones who stand tall with backs too straight; the pedants, the preachers, the perspiring prattlers; and the smiling ones who are looking for the nearest door; we’re all in the grip of this thing, dealing with it as best we can, waging war with our genes.

*

I return to the phrase psychologists use to describe shyness - ‘inborn but not immutable’. What makes the difference between a shy, timid child who remains a shy, timid adult, and an adult who overcomes their social anxiety—if not by completely eradicating it, then by finding a way to suppress or re-direct all that nervous energy?

Does the fact that I still occasionally do a runner from a room full of partying strangers mean that I’ve lost the battle? Or can I console myself with the knowledge that I’m still willing to enter such a room in the first place?

According to Margot, there are two clear choices for shy folk. They can either steer clear of situations where they might become paralysed with shyness—the avoidance response—or they can decide to try and change. And part of what helps is desensitisation to the situations that they find uncomfortable, by having experiences which help them to develop confidence that it’ll be all right out there—that they’ll be acceptable.

*

In a youth hostel on the Spanish coast just south of Barcelona, I am sitting on a narrow bed, feet resting on my backpack, listening to the murmurs of some young men in the next room. Their words are muffled by the door between us, but from the pitch of their cadences, they sound like they might be English. I am rigid with indecision. Four months into my travels, easygoing interaction has become a craving that no amount of churros con ciocolata can satisfy. The two Canadian travellers who had briefly adopted me in Italy have headed home, and it’s been almost a week since I’ve had a conversation in my native tongue. The staccato sounds of the glottal stops coming from next door are unmistakable now, and I really want to know what they’re saying.

And yet they are strangers. What if I can’t think of anything to say to them? What if they don’t want to talk to me? What if they’re quite happy with their own company, thanks very much, and don’t need some random Aussie bird barging into their boy’s own adventure? What if they can smell my loneliness?

I sit there in the empty room, armpits drenched, locked in battle with myself as one form of distress competes with another.

Finally something tips and I stand, take the three steps to the door and knock. The voices go quiet and after a little while I knock again and, without waiting for permission, I open the door.

And the world does not come to an end.