Shyness in the classroom [January 20]
The TES (Times Educational Supplement) recently commissioned me to write this essay on shyness, published January 2020.
‘Come as you are, leave as you want to be!’ shouts the billboard outside the local grammar school. It sounds great, but it’s a false promise. No school – and no individual teacher – can fundamentally re-shape a student’s inherited personality. Different temperament traits can impact on students’ behavior and learning styles, and when it comes to shyness in the classroom, I have experienced the downsides first hand.
Shyness has afflicted me throughout my life. I was a timid young child but my fears became more acute and distressing in my teenage years. At secondary school I felt lonely, isolated and ‘weird’. My reluctance to speak up in class left me bored and frustrated. My teachers thought I was arrogant and aloof; one even told me so directly as she was handing me an award for Dux of Humanities.
As an adult I developed strategies to overcome my shyness in most professional situations, but in my personal life it has continued to cause me distress. To put it simply, being with other people has often made me feel anxious and hyper-vigilant. Over the decades this anxiety has impacted profoundly on my friendships and my love life. I will cross the road to avoid having to engage with acquaintances, and dating has always been an agony for me. I could never understand why it required so much emotional energy for me to interact with other humans, and why I felt compelled to hide my fears.
Singer-songwriter Morrissey describes the impact of these fears in his song ‘Ask’. ‘Shyness is nice’, he sings, ‘and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.’ When shyness leaves you feeling breathless, voiceless and friendless, though, it can be anything but nice.
A decade ago I was teaching vocational education, freelancing as a journalist and working up the courage to write a book about shyness. Deep down I was hoping to ‘come as you are’ to this book project and ‘leave as you want to be’: cured of shyness. I began my research by interviewing a number of eminent professors of psychology.
Shyness, I learned, is an inherited temperament trait on a spectrum stretching from ‘approach’ to ‘withdrawal’. If you are at the approach end (the non-shy end) you are naturally more socially confident. If you are on the withdrawal end you are more inclined to be fearful of people you don’t know intimately.
Temperament psychologists have observed evidence of these traits in babies and toddlers. Some will happily reach out their arms to strangers, while others cling fearfully to their parents when approached by people they don’t know. It all made so much sense to me. My older cousins still tell stories about how, as a toddler, I would hide behind my mother’s legs when visitors came to our house.
Given both my parents were shy, it’s not surprising that I was born way down the withdrawal end of the spectrum. Discovering that my shyness was inherited rather than a character ‘flaw’ was very comforting, and some of the shame I felt about my irrational fears began to melt away.
I also discovered that Charles Darwin was one of the first scientists to make a study of shyness. In his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal (1872) Darwin described shyness as one of ‘the mental states which induce blushing’. As a shy person himself, Darwin had a sympathetic understanding of this state.
‘It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush,’ he wrote. ‘Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance.’
According to the psychologists I interviewed, Charles Darwin was spot on. As we shy folk are growing up these fears of ours begin to manifest as social anxiety, at the heart of which is a fear of ‘negative evaluation’. We worry about what others think of us, and feel self-conscious in company. We may be reluctant to speak up in social situations for fear of saying the wrong thing.
Acute shyness can feel like a permanent state of performance anxiety, with the same physical symptoms – blushing, sweating, trembling and hyperventilating. For some people social anxiety becomes so extreme that it turns into a phobia, and those people avoid social situations at all costs.
No wonder the school environment had been so challenging for me. For thirteen long years I had been forced to spend many hours each day with large groups of people in situations where I was often literally being evaluated, both for my academic success in the classroom and for my social status outside the classroom.
Mind you, not every quiet student is shy. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, notes that shyness and introversion are not the same thing. According to the psychologists I spoke to, introverts are not necessarily anxious being in company. They might be quite happy spending lots of time alone or with just a few close friends. Solitude is not unwelcome. If you’re shy, though, you may long to have more friends and be included in more social circles but find it difficult to reach out to others for company or intimacy. This has certainly been my experience.
I recall my mother trying to encourage me take the initiative with my childhood friends. In my book about shyness I describe my reluctance to visit my classmate Sally who lived just around the corner from us. My anxious mind was full of ‘what ifs’ – what if she doesn’t want me there? My mother even resorted to bribery to try and persuade me to visit Sally. It rarely worked.
Speaking to other shy people for my research I discovered we had much in common. Writer Kate Holden, author of the best-selling memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic, described herself as having been a shy child.
‘My mother tells me that when we’d go to my friends’ birthday parties I wouldn’t leave her side. Then she would invite all these people for my birthday parties and I would run away and hide while they all sang happy birthday to the cake’.
Holden had vivid memories of being tormented by her fears.
‘I remember at school being asked to do something for a theatre class and freezing up. I sat on the side curling tighter and tighter into a little bundle with my knees up to my chin saying “no, no, no”. Everyone gathered around me asking “what’s wrong with her, Miss?” and the teacher took me to the staff room.’
Holden’s teachers contacted her parents and suggested she see a psychologist. ‘After six weeks the psychologist said “Leave her alone, stop pestering her, she’s not comfortable with this and not good at relating to people in these situations.”’
Holden reported feeling socially inept throughout her childhood. According to the psychologists I spoke to, though, research studies prove that shy people can do small talk as well as anyone else. But we are also highly self-critical and evaluate our own ‘performance’ in social encounters harshly.
In researching for my book on shyness I discovered that sociologist Dr Susie Scott has written a book called Shyness and Society: The Illusion of Competence. Dr Scott argues that this feeling of relative incompetence is central to the experience of shyness. She puts the blame on ‘the illusion of competence’; the mistaken belief that we all have to present ourselves as socially competent all the time.
According to Dr Scott, shy people are often perceived as failing to pull their weight in social situations. While non-shyness is seen as normal and acceptable, she says, shyness is seen as deviant and undesirable. This misperception of shyness as rudeness plagues many shy people, when in fact we’re often longing for social inclusion and connection. I have been told many times that I come across as remote in social gatherings, when in fact I’m usually grappling with anxiety.
I recently met a student who attends the same girls’ high school where I was educated all those years ago. She told me her classmates had done a research project in which they asked their fellow students how teaching could be improved at the school. The girls produced a booklet in which they wrote that some students ‘wished teachers could understand that they prefer to stay silent in class and just listen, because they learn best by listening’. Students are often ‘forced into answering a question, and when they feel they have to answer, or are preparing to be picked on, all their focus is placed on answering the question, and thus are no longer listening to the lesson’.
I have vivid memories of sweating with fear whilst waiting for my turn to speak in class. A friend of mine who is a psychology teacher told me she always gives her shy students more time than the outgoing students to contribute to class discussions. If they are worried about being negatively evaluated (as I was) they will be very focused on not saying the wrong thing.
The book I eventually wrote, Shy: a memoir (2015) is the one I wish someone else had written and handed to me when I was a teenager. Or perhaps I wish it had been handed to my schoolteachers, so that they were more understanding and patient with me. As Kate Holden’s anecdote demonstrates, pushing shy kids into situations they find frightening can make things even harder for them.
Imagine if, instead of trying to force all the shy kids to be extroverts, we talked openly about the positive attributes that often go with shyness? According to the experts I spoke to, Morrissey was right when he sang ‘shyness is nice’. Shyness is often accompanied by ‘pro-social’ attributes and behaviours, like greater sensitivity and greater levels of honesty. Shy people are often good listeners, with a lot of empathy. There are plenty of non-domineering positives that go with having a shy temperament.
After my book was published I began teaching a short course called ‘Wrangling Your Shyness’ for The School of Life in Australia. The verb in that title was chosen very carefully. Wrangling is something we do to manage wild horses or other unpredictable animals. For me, dealing with the symptoms of my shyness has often felt like managing something wild and out of my control. Wrangling also implies that you shouldn’t try to tame it, but rather try to understand how it works, and learn to work with it.
The dictionary has another meaning for the word wrangling: to ‘have a long complicated dispute with’. I’ve been doing that with my shyness for fifty years now and it’s time to settle the dispute. I hereby call a truce.