SHY AWAY Unabashedly bashful: Researchers are discovering that some people are shy from birth while others just feel shy in certain circumstances.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In 1959, Carol Burnett took Broadway by storm in "Once Upon a Mattress," a musical based on the fable "Princess and the Pea."

Only this Princess Winifred was scrappy and athletic, swimming the moat to get at the prince. Staggering across the stage, grabbing men and tossing them willy-nilly, Ms. Burnett bellowed out this show-stopper:

"Someone's being bashful, that's no way to be, not with me. For I am just as quiet as you, and I can understand your point of view. 'cause I've always been" -- long pause here -- "SHHHHHHHHHHY! I confess that I'm SHHHHHHHHY!"

Today, with up to one in two Americans reporting they have a problem with shyness, one has to wonder whether the country is full of Princess Winifreds, braying mock laments, or in the throes of a crisis created by lifestyles and technologies that increasingly isolate us from one another.

Johnny Carson is famously shy, as is David Letterman. Barbra Streisand has spoken of her struggles with shyness -- in countless interviews with mass-circulation magazines. In fact, Ms. Burnett -- the comedian who became a star singing about shyness -- has said for years that she is, yes, shy.

Locally, the shy ranks include William Donald Schaefer and Mary Pat Clarke, although both had long and successful careers in politics. Being shy didn't keep Mr. Schaefer from donning an old-fashioned bathing suit and jumping into a tank at the National Aquarium.

It all seems so counter-intuitive, so baffling. How can public figures be shy? What is shyness?

Shyness, under the more general rubric of temperament, is a subject of intense scrutiny at universities, although communication and psychology professors use other words to describe it: inhibition, or social phobia.

Whatever one calls it, extreme shyness is a handicap, undermining one in school, work and relationships. It is not the same thing as being a loner, or introvert, who chooses a solitary life. By definition, a shy person longs to change -- with good reason.

"In our culture, it is one of the most damaging problems you can have," says Dr. James C. McCroskey, professor of communications at West Virginia University. "All our research indicates that."

Yet we are surprisingly eager to step up and claim for ourselves something that can ruin our lives. Unlike other undesirable traits -- obesity, obsequiousness, sloth -- shyness tends to be over-reported, according to some who study it.

Others insist that anyone who feels shy, is shy.

Some of the most important research in inhibited behavior is being done by Robert E. Adamec, a professor of psychology at Memorial University in Newfoundland. He has clearly identified that some of his subjects are born with aggressive tendencies, while others are naturally anxious and timid in a way that cannot be explained by social conditioning.

It is not known how many of the subjects consider themselves shy, as they are cats and notoriously tight-lipped about all their feelings, except, possibly, hunger.

After observing cats in several situations from kittenhood on -- interacting with rats, entering strange rooms, listening to another cat's howls -- Dr. Adamec was able to break his cats into four groups: super-aggressive felines, with virtually no fear; sociable cats who showed some intimidation when exposed to rats; cats who never attacked rats, although they were comfortable going after mice; and a group that was easily intimidated by virtually anything novel.

"The most severe guys were really, really inhibited," Dr. Adamec says. "They would not approach a rat. If stuck in a strange room, they would always go and hide. They were very, very intimidated by anything that was new."

About 14 percent of the cats he studied belonged to this group. That corresponds to studies of humans, which finds 10 percent to 20 percent predisposed to shyness at birth. These people will exhibit certain characteristics -- an aversion to novelty and stimulation -- as early as 4 months.

Studies of twins also point up a biological factor in shyness, with identical twins more likely to share the trait than fraternal ones.

Biology, however, is not destiny, as Jerome Kagen of Harvard University reports in his book "Galen's Prophecy," cited by several professors as a seminal work in the temperament field. Yes, he writes, it is possible to identify babies predisposed toward anxiety and fear. ("High reactives," in his words).

But experience also will play a role in how the child develops. While some of those identified as high reactives may grow out of their fearfulness, others will become fearful because of things that happen to them.

Why, then, is it important to identify shyness early? Says Steven Reznick, an associate professor of psychology at Yale, who also studies temperament and psychology: "If the child has this biological basis, they're not going to be the life of the party, but you can help them."

Not shy on stage

As a concert pianist and artist-in-residence at Goucher College, Lisa Weiss often performs in front of large groups of people. Once she begins to play, she is fearless.

"Performance itself is a release for me from the agonies of other types of communication," says the soft-spoken 43-year-old. "It's a chance to say who I am honestly at that point."

But when it comes to the self-promotion necessary for any performer, or just the routines of daily life in Lutherville, Ms. Weiss finds it much more difficult to express herself.

"I think life experience tells me over and over again that I'm a shy person," she says. "When I try to be aggressive, it doesn't come out right. . . . It's a problem being that person in the everyday world."

Ms. Weiss' experiences touch on the seeming oxymoron of the shy celebrity. Actors, politicians and public figures are fine as long as they're performing, says Dr. McCroskey of West Virginia University. But they have an inverted hierarchy of social fear, and panic as groups get smaller. For a performer, a one-on-one encounter may be the most unbearable.

"I said this on a radio show one time and the whole bank of phones was lighting up," he recalls. "Everyone was saying, 'That's me, I thought I was the only one.' "

Ms. Weiss did not think she was the only one. And she has come to understand that weaknesses can be strengths. She draws on her shyness not only in performance, but in studying the martial arts.

"I'm fine on a serious level," she says. "It's all those other levels you're forced to live on, the superficial ones, that are difficult. You get timid because it's possible to screw up in a really big way."

Quick test for shyness

Dr. Bernardo Carducci at Indiana University Southeast has a foolproof way to find out if someone is shy: He asks them.

That, he says, "reflects a true sense of self-perception. They can tell you from personal experience the circumstances that make them uncomfortable."

He is, of course, aware that studies show only a small portion of the population is biologically predisposed to shyness. But he is more interested in helping every person who thinks of themselves as shy.

That is at least 40 percent of the population in some polls. Dr. Carducci puts the figure even higher -- at 48 percent -- and says it will only worsen, partly because computers cut down on our face-to-face contact.

In an article for Psychology Today last year, detailing 20 years of shyness research, Dr. Carducci said the shy are "excessively egocentric."

But isn't there a difference between being painfully withdrawn and simply being obsessed with what others think of you? Dr. Carducci says looking at it that way takes his comment out of context.

"They're egocentric in that they're thinking about themselves as how they're perceived by others," he explains. "Their egocentrism makes it difficult for them to interact successfully."

He gives these "excessively egocentric" people practical advice on starting a conversation: Compliment someone, ask a leading question, bring up something in the news.

Wouldn't a better treatment simply be a stern admonition to snap out of it, that no one else is really thinking about you?

"It's like driving the speed limit," Dr. Carducci says sternly. "To you, it's so trivial, but to them it's not. We're scraping people off the sidewalks because they don't use common sense, they don't wear seat belts and they speed. The best way to overcome a behavior is to start with the basics."

At the Shyness Clinic in Portola Valley, Calif., psychologist Lynne Henderson agrees that "if someone thinks they have a problem, they probably do.

Using what she calls a "social fitness model," Dr. Henderson tells those who visit the clinic to compare their treatment to a new exercise program. They wouldn't expect to be Olympic athletes in just six months' time, so why do they expect to become "social athletes"?

Homework exercises may include making eye contact with a stranger, initiating a one-minute conversation or participating in a group activity. Extensive role-playing is used as well. The emphasis is on realistic, attainable goals, whether it's making friends or doing better at work.

How shy are some of the people she treats?

"We see some of the most extreme cases," she says. "We see people who have never had a date, a sexual experience, a full-time job."

Shy Guys

The food court at Towson Town Center on a recent Sunday afternoon. It is busy and loud, full of people, alone and in groups.

A highly unscientific, non-rigorous poll produces these results: Two out of three people here say they are shy -- higher even than Dr. Carducci's 48 percent. If this is true, there might not be enough people left by the millennium to start conversations at cocktail parties.

Mike Streett is having lunch with Ryan Franks, an old friend. Mr. Franks has no hesitation describing himself as shy, while Mr. Streett says he is under certain circumstances. Yet it's not a problem at work for these two police officers.

"At work, I have a role," Mr. Streett says. "I know what I have to do."

Chatting with these men and others, a pattern emerges. They are shy in some situations, such as talking to people they don't know. For them, shyness is a mood -- transient, fleeting, affected by external conditions. In fact, when people are asked if they've ever experienced shyness -- as opposed to being shy -- the number of those saying yes rises to 93 percent.

Shyness remains, if not desirable, then somehow appealing, a word that denotes modesty and humility. To be shy is to be Jane Eyre, waiting for Mr. Rochester to notice you in the corner. And if you're in a 19th-century novel written by Charlotte Bronte, it might work out that way.

But if you're hanging out in the 20th century, you might want to use Dr. Carducci tactics and try a compliment or remark about the weather.

If all else fails, try this: "Hi. Do you consider yourself shy?" You'd be surprised how many people are willing to talk about shyness.

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