A couple of years ago I was riding in a car with an older man I had just met. Some friends of mine were buying a car from him, and we had flown to Florida to pick it up. As we rode along I considered making small talk, but ultimately decided against it—too much effort. I was never going to see him again, didn’t particularly like him, and doubted we would have had much to say to each other—he a crass retiree living in a West Palm Beach golf course community, getting his kicks ripping off a couple of young people on a poorly described 1980s BMW.
“How far are we from the airport?” I offered.
“It speaks! It’s ALIVE!” The AARP member roared with laughter at his own joke. My friends chuckled. I sat in the back seat, swallowing down tears. That was it. I absolutely hated this guy.
As a shy person, I’ve experienced this scenario countless times before. That Floridian was hardly unique. Social situations are difficult enough for the shy and the last thing we need is to be ridiculed by some “real card”, forcing us back into our self-doubting shells.
And here’s the thing—I get it. If you’re not shy you might not understand how shattering a comment like that can be. With years of sometimes crippling shyness behind me, I’ve compiled a few tips that might offer those of you who have been endowed with social ease a little empathy.
DON’T POINT OUT HOW QUIET I AM. JUST DON’T.
Seriously, there’s a reason this is first. It is the thing that almost invariably makes me feel like a terrified prepubescent troll.
Boom, there I am in fifth grade, my teacher has just walked out of the room and I’m shaking in my desk, staring intensely at the paper in front of me. Of course, I can’t actually read it as I’ve lost the ability to think about anything but my imminent humiliation.
“Why don’t you ever talk?”
“Just say something.”
My peers were really fucking funny.
I usually didn’t respond, counting the seconds until my teacher’s footsteps clicking down the hall would at least temporarily alleviate my discomfort.
Publically pointing out that someone is being quiet defies all logic. If I’m quiet, it likely means I am uncomfortable, so I really don’t need negative attention for my reticence. Don’t worry—I’m keenly aware of it and am probably already beating myself up about it.
I know it’s usually not mean-spirited, and you are probably just trying to include me in the conversation, but there are much better ways to do that, like, asking me about myself, for example. I appreciate that kind of attention, and will likely be grateful for the opportunity to talk, as getting into a conversation and out of my head usually puts me at ease.
Most shy people are uncomfortable with their timidity. It’s the cycle of social anxiety: you’re anxious, start worrying about appearing anxious to others, and then get even more anxious. So give us a break, don’t single us out for not being gregarious. We might even talk more if you’re lucky.
BUT DON’T IGNORE ME EITHER!
This is a real mean girl tactic, and frankly, I think we should all be above it at this point. I get it; you’re the alpha or whatever. There’s no need to treat me like shit. I’ve had people, mostly females, step right in front of me when I am clearly in the middle of a conversation with someone. They see me as weak because of my timidity and try to use it to their advantage to make themselves feel better. Well, when you do this, I see how tragically insecure you are, and so does everyone else. Let’s cuddle and work out our self-hatred together.
Being shy does not make me invisible, though I wish I were at times. There’s a funny duality to shyness—you are terrified of being ignored or dismissed, while at the same time afraid that if people really see you they will be horrified.
I’M NOT A BITCH.
Well, actually I am. But the reason I’m avoiding eye contact is not because I’m a snob. I don’t think I’m better than you. In fact, quite the opposite, I’m afraid of being judged myself. The reason I don’t want to do karaoke at your party isn’t that I think it’s dumb. I’m just not comfortable going up there, all eyes on me, and singing, for Christ’s sake.
As a shy friend of mine once put it, while we stood on the sidelines watching our fellow party-goers belt out Meatloaf like it ain’t no thing, “I don’t want to hear my own voice, much less amplified.”
Which brings me to my next point:
DON’T STARE AT ME LIKE I’M THE CHALLENGER JUST CAUSE I’M DANCING. I’M NOT GOING TO COMBUST.
When I started going to sock hops (yes, they were actually called that) at my local JCC in fifth grade, I danced awkwardly (duh) to Hot Boy$, DJ Jubilee, and pretty much any CASH MONEY MILLIONAIRE. I guess I didn’t feel too self-conscious because I was with girls I had known since kindergarten, or maybe I hadn’t yet been subjected to the cruelty of adolescents.
I can assure you that once I entered the Machiavellian world of junior high, I did not dance in public again for a good ten years. What made it even worse was that anytime I did dance, everyone made a huge deal out of it. Oh, look: Frances is dancing. She’s so shy, why is she doing that?
Here’s the thing: I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. Standing conspicuously in the corner while everyone else dances brings social humiliation, as does dancing when you are known to be shy and have been actively avoiding it for the past decade. I knew I had to start somewhere, and it was terribly difficult at first. But the more I dance, the more I enjoy it under the right circumstances, so just let me be. Mystikal and I are having a moment.
I’M NOT A PRUDE.
Shy is not synonymous with not-fun, conservative, or uptight. The fact that I am reserved has nothing to do with my sex life, political beliefs, or desire to have a good time. I swim topless, have radical leftist political beliefs, am sex-positive, and have a totally sick sense of humor. Maybe you’re the prude.
Not wanting to do mushrooms with a bunch of strangers it doesn’t mean I’m a narc. I doubt social anxiety is more fun with a psychedelic twist.
Sometimes, and this has gotten much better over the years, my shyness has inhibited me from truly enjoying myself. There are times when I am so wrapped up in my “I’m the piece of shit at the center of the universe” (as shyness can be a twisted narcissism) that I can’t enjoy a social gathering. But if I am able to use the tools amassed from years of therapy and overcome irrational thoughts, I’m great. It just takes a little more effort.
To be honest, most of the suffering I’ve experienced because of my shyness has been inflicted by my inner-critic. My dad, who is also shy, tried to convince me many times, when I was experiencing my worst social anxiety, that there were great things about being shy. One example he loved to give was that some of the best actors, writers, statesmen, musicians, etc. have been shy. And he was totally right.
Shy people are incredibly resilient, as many things that are easy for most people require a great deal of effort on our part. We are creative, unintimidating, and intuitive, and there are a lot of us. Something like 80% of the population identifies as shy.
Yet most people who consider themselves shy are not actually introverts, but rather extroverts, genuinely craving social interaction, but fearing rejection. So, please, just don’t be a dick to us.