The man who knows both Romney and Obama says, “Both are almost shy, which is amazing in this business.” Actually, it’s not that unusual. Many in corporate America report the difficulty of dealing with their own problem of shyness. In the May Fortune, for example, Doug Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soup, says that he just tells people that he’s shy. Although Conant says that it’s not “in his nature” to be outgoing, I doubt that his “shyness” negatively impacted his successful tenure at Campbell soup.
Shyness is far more widespread than many would believe. Philip Zimbardo, the reigning expert in the field of shyness, reveals that more than 80% of those questioned in his research reported that they were shy at some point in their lives. Thankfully, Zimbardo’s research and practice have found a number of key to the resolution of those difficulties.
Deep-seated emotional states?
Psychologists and psychiatrists used to think that shyness, like many other so-called pathological issues, could be traced to deep-seated pathological, emotional-motivational states. But now, they focus less on unobservable inner mechanisms and more on specific behaviors and their consequences. Behaviors are the target of change, not people.
Although it’s rare to see much in the media about shyness, The King’s Speech addressed a form of shyness—stuttering. Now that the movie is making the rounds on the tube, it provides us with a fine opportunity to visualize what some go through in their experiences of shyness.
Upside of shyness
Many of us can tick off the downside of shyness: awkward and intimidated in social situations, lacking confidence and social skills, anxious and even incapacitated, and in some instances, paralyzed. But like all human attributes, shyness has some distinct upsides. Zimbardos’ research finds that 10 to 20% of shy people prefer shyness. They enjoy appellatives like “reserved,” “modest,” “unassuming,” and “retiring.” Shyness makes a person appear discreet, seriously introspective and in some cases, very intelligent.
Moreover when these behaviors are polished, they are often considered “high class” and “sophisticated.” The number of celebrities who have used their shyness in this fashion is surprising. Among the group are David Niven, Prince Charles, Katherine Hepburn and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy.
Furthermore, shyness provides an anonymity that some feel releases them from the sense of “ought” or “should.” They don’t stand out from the crowd. That also makes it possible for them to take their own good time in making decisions and taking action. Zimbardo nails it: “Shyness is prevalent, often a problem full of anxiety and grief, but for some a sought-after state of being.”
Chutzpa, pride, and not-shy Jews
But if you want to develop a more open and less shy competencies, there’s a lot to learn about shyness from Jewish-Americans. Among the students who answered the Stanford Shyness Survey, Jewish-Americans were the least shy. Although more than 40% of the respondents considered themselves shy, only 24% of the Jewish-American group reported themselves as presently shy. They were less introverted, more extroverted, and when they thought they were shy, they tended to be more situationally shy.
The statistic regarding cultural Jewishness, however, is highly instructive. In research by an Israeli, Dr. Ayala Pines, a survey of 900 Israelis finds that only 35% report being shy in any situation or thought it to be a problem. And that is the lowest, by far, when compared with people of other nationalities. The study found 73% of Americans, 75% in samples from Japan, 58% from Taiwan and 82% from India viewed shyness as a problem.
Why so much statistical difference? Israelis argue that there are cultural reasons operating within society that support the extroverted style. Persecuted for centuries, communal life and life within the family has become very strong. Indeed, children are usually included in adult conversations, invited to perform their tricks for family and friends and then lavishly praised for their actions. That’s much in contrast to the parental admonishment that children are meant to be seen and not heard.
Not inborn, but learned
Thus, it ought to be clear. Shyness is not inborn or inherent, but a learned behavior. Shyness can be polished or unlearned and the relevant social skills added to one’s toolkit. Zimbardo recommends the development of social skills and even lays out a path for building self-esteem and for resolving the issue of shyness. I’ve worked with Zimbardo’s approach, coaching at least one hundred clients through those issues. Like Zimbardo, I’m convinced that a key issue is the lack of social skills.
But think carefully about the notion of social skills. Social skills are not merely the ability to converse openly. Instead, effective social skills are intentional. They are oriented to achieving specific objectives: building relationships, achieving personal objectives, sharing ideas and experiences, gathering personal information and so forth.
Well, do you consider yourself a bit shy? There are two clear-cut paths to change and growth.
Flickr photo by Claimin