Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Beware the ‘S’ word, Prime Minister [July 15]

‘Shy’: such a small word, and it begins with an instruction to keep quiet: shhhh. It’s used to describe the timid, unconfident people in our midst, those who prefer to remain silent as a way of avoiding attention. At least, that’s one common stereotype we attach to this particular temperament trait. And unfortunately it’s a description that simply doesn’t fit the public perception of our Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.

Yesterday the PM admitted to being shy at a Press Club Luncheon; a gathering of perhaps Australia’s most cynical political journalists. Today’s headlines are entirely predictable: ‘Gillard’s ‘Shy Girl’ Plea For Understanding’, ‘Gillard Confesses She’s A Shy Girl’, ‘Shy PM Fights Back Tears’. Whether it was a strategic move aimed at gaining sympathy and thereby political advantage, or a simple statement of fact (or both), it was a mistake.

Our perceptions of shyness are a veritable Rubik’s Cube of contradictory behaviours. On the positive side, we associate it with empathy, sensitivity, loyalty and with being a good listener. We often assume that behind the blushing façade, shy people are sweet-natured and harmless.

Few of these stereotypes fit our image of the current Prime Minister. Her perceived lack of loyalty to, or empathy for, her predecessor Kevin Rudd still hounds her, and those opposing a carbon tax claim Julia Gillard is not listening to their concerns.

On the negative side, shyness is linked with self-consciousness, hypersensitivity, self-pity, emotional withdrawal, social awkwardness, ‘goody-goody-ness’ and a lack of assertiveness. Shy people are often thought to be simply unwilling (too lazy, perhaps) to make an effort in social situations or to be ‘team players’ at work. Shyness is perceived as a form of weakness, a character flaw that should be erased with the help of assertiveness training, psychological counseling or even pharmaceuticals.

Publicly ascribing these qualities to one’s own personality, albeit tacitly, is clearly not the best way to win friends or influence people. Indeed, confessing to shyness more often provokes bullying than sympathy. Even our use of the word ‘confession’ implies that there is something shameful about being shy. And after all, who wants to vote for a weak leader?

Many, though, would find it hard to believe that someone who has climbed the political ladder to become the first female Prime Minister is timid. The Prime Minister usually presents herself in the media as calm, confident, assertive and in control; in her own words, a woman of ‘steely determination’.

So by ascribing any of these stereotypical shy attributes to herself, positive or negative, she risks being perceived as ‘Ju-liar’ once again, only this time we’ll assume she’s lying about her own personality. Television reporters have already begun joking about ‘the REAL real Julia Gillard’, and one Age Online commentator described her as ‘looking like a woman trying to get out of a speeding fine.’ If she’s not directly lying, then at best she appears to be trying to make excuses for her own perceived failings.

But what if we were to take her at her word?

Psychologists I have interviewed about shyness claim the essence of this temperament trait is ‘fear of negative evaluation’. We all experience this fear at times, but for shy people the anxiety about how others perceive us is much more extreme, persistent, and at times disabling.

As Prime Minister, Julia Gillard has frequently been criticised for not sticking to policy positions and promises, for doing political ‘backflips’ and for being overly concerned with opinion polls. Admitting to being shy is like admitting those criticisms are valid; she’s so worried about negative evaluation by Australian voters, she can’t stick to her guns.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Prime Minister in admitting to shyness is her gender. Many of the stereotypical attributes of shyness are traditionally associated with ‘typical’ female behaviours. Men are assertive, women are timid. Men are the speakers, women are the listeners. Men stick to their guns, women are easily swayed by their emotions. Most female political leaders are forced to try to counter these stereotypes throughout their careers or risk being dismissed as unfit to lead. (I suspect Malcolm Fraser is deeply shy but his emotional reserve was deemed acceptable because he was a man.) With one small word, Julia Gillard has confirmed the prejudices of those voters who were already suspicious of her simply by virtue of her gender.

Many of these myths and stereotypes about shyness (and gender) are just plain wrong. Shy people find strategies to overcome the anxieties accompanying this particular temperament trait. I’ve interviewed self-describing shy people who have become highly successful actors, musicians, teachers, broadcasters, corporate leaders and politicians, often adopting alternative ‘personae’ that enable them to lead their professional lives in public while they protect their private lives from scrutiny.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem here. With Bob Hawke, what you saw was what you got – an extrovert with no need for a self-protective professional persona – and much of his popularity was based on our sense that he was ‘the real deal’. Perhaps our obsession with the ‘real’ Julia Gillard reflects our prurient desire to strip away the political persona and see the vulnerable person underneath. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, women rarely gain sympathy by stripping.

In admitting to shyness the Prime Minister sought our understanding, perhaps even our pity. I fear she is more likely to have lost our respect.

(A version of this article was published in the Sunday Age on July 17th, 2011.)