In defence of shyness – but there’s a downside

| March 25, 2014

Being shy can be quite charming, but also isolating. Leicester Warburton says that when we look up, smile and show a genuine interest in people, we realise we are not alone.

I think shyness is an endearing quality, don’t you? It is an admirable feature of the human psyche with its close relatives – modesty and even self-effacement.

I used to be painfully shy. I was quite good at reciting poetry, which was a common performance when I was eight. But, as my mother told it, (and I have a faint recollection) I insisted on reciting my own original poem to visitors from behind the lounge room door.

It runs…

“An old and venerable ship was she
For she had sailed full many a sea.
With tattered sails and time-worn wood
With all her wear she still was good.”

You can hold the applause right there – I had enough from the visitors to last me a long lifetime. So you can tell that although I was painfully shy, I have always had my share of a very protective characteristic – vanity.

But I digress. The basis of this blog has come not from a book or a lecture or a TV feature, but from my own son and, as a supportive bonus, from my son-in-law.

You see, many people are basically shy. No shattering observation there. But the truth is that they, noble as the majority are in one way or another, are missing out on living. We are all citizens of the world. We share the vicissitudes of occupying this planet and, in varying degrees, the joys and inspirations. Most of us feel we’re damn lucky to be here, certainly in this country.

And yet many people go through much of life (me included) missing out on the warmth, the brother- and sisterhood, of actually being related if you go far enough back. But you would never know it. Many people avoid eye contact in public as if it immediately gave them chronic conjunctivitis. They narrowly avoid a crick in their neck as they appear to make a close study of the ice-cream wrapper in the gutter. Or they look up at an invisible (to us) UFO just shooting across the eastern sky. Anything to avoid making eye contact and, goodness, me, saying “Good Morning”!

Oh yes, my mother always told me not to speak to strangers and, in today’s society that’s undoubtedly a good caution if a child is his or her own. But I’m talking about just a bit more cohesiveness instead of the determined isolation of so many of us.

Which brings me to the two men in my family. We used to walk down the street and sometimes I would find myself talking to myself. One or the other would be chatting with a complete stranger. Go into a restaurant, and in ten minutes the waitress is an old friend. Join a group of people and they find some commonality that has them all laughing and joking or sharing some philosophical opinion that has them nodding in serious agreement.

Some folk work hard at retaining their privacy and that is their right. But it is surprising how many are lonely in one way or another? Nowhere is this more common than in a big city like Sydney. A friendly encounter can shine a light on that. People who are very shy or withdrawn suddenly open up, smile and realise they are not alone.

I’m not kidding. When my son walks into a room with a group of people, he has them laughing in minutes flat, when at first they were sometimes in awkward, self-conscious groups. That’s because they realise that he is interested in everything and, usually, he has his light-hearted, positive take on most subjects.

You don’t have to be a performer, just show a genuine interest in other people. I go for a walk each day now and, where I can and without pursuing eye contact like a heat-seeking missile, I’m rewarded with a “Good Morning” and sometimes a smile. Like my sons, I also try to be entertaining company.

For the one-time small boy reciting behind the lounge-room door, that’s been one of life’s real bonuses for me and, I hope, for others.