A few weeks ago, I sat down to write a post about shyness, but, as often happens to me, I was immediately distracted by a small bit of trivia that should have been a mere footnote, and ended up heading off on a tangent that finally took up the entire post.
What happened was this. I sat down to write my post with a topic in mind, (a better start than some posts have had!), and as usual, hoped that a title would suggest itself. On this occasion, the title popped into my head the instant I sat down. It was a lyric (and song title) from a silly 80′s pop song: Too shy shy, hush hush, eye to eye, by a band aptly titled Kajagoogoo.
But as soon as I’d inserted this idiotic title into the title field, I felt as if I couldn’t just move on and talk about the topic of shyness, leaving those ridiculous lyrics hanging there unexplained. For a start, anyone born after about 1984 would have no clue as to the origins of the title, and I’d be forever misconstrued as a terrible poet.* It seemed that the lyrics were too incredibly stupid NOT to focus on.
But I won’t dwell any further on this lame pop song. Rather than divert another post right off track, let’s move on. This post is attempt number 2: Shyness.
A few weeks ago I attended a talk about shyness, by an Australian writer and broadcaster, Sian Prior, whose memoir, Shy had just been published. No doubt like many others in the audience, I attended the talk because I consider myself a shy person, and felt a jealous curiosity to hear how someone else who describes herself as shy, has made a career out of doing things I self-selected out of - radio broadcasting, arts journalism, writing reviews – and developed a high public profile in the process.
The main two questions that come up for me, after attending this talk and then reading other people’s blogs on the topic, are: what is the difference between being an introvert and being shy? – and, how do you differentiate between shyness, introversion, and low self-esteem?
I know that shyness and introversion are not the same as one another, nor the same as having low self-esteem, but in my own case at least, I feel that my shyness is a product of having two very shy parents, as well as having had very low self-esteem as a child.
One of the posts I read while researching was this great post about being an introvert, by dorkymum. As she mentions, “introversion” means a tendency to need time away from others in order to re-energise, (as opposed to the olden-day perception of introverts as people with no self-confidence) and I completely relate to that. Dorkymum also described introverts as being stressed out by having too many things crammed into a day. I was not aware that was a trait of introverts, but I was certainly aware that was my own response to my time being too full! Having to go straight from an appointment, to work, to a dinner with friends feels like too much to me. Occasionally I have to turn down dinner invitations from an extraverted friend of mine because to cram in another social function on my weekend won’t leave me enough time for some quiet reflective activity – like reading, or writing this post. However, in a small group of well-known people I can come across as extraverted, and I arrive home after a good night out feeling energised by the socialising I’ve just done. So I’m not sure whether I am an introvert, or the term that Sian Prior uses for herself: a “shy extrovert”. But my interest in this topic goes beyond trying to work out how to classify myself.
One of the reasons I’ve thought about shyness, and/or introversion, for a while was that I was looking to change jobs, and in the arts industry, at least, it seems to be hard to find any Position Description that does not, between the lines, require you to be an extraverted, confident, high-achieving go-getter, prepared to try anything, and to spend your free time networking for the organisation. Now I love working in the arts, don’t get me wrong, clearly that’s why I stick with it. The trouble was that on paper I met the criteria for a lot of jobs, and made it to interviews for a high percentage of those I applied for, but after being told about 10 times over 3 years that I was “only just missed out, you were our second choice”, I couldn’t help but suspect that what let me down was my natural shyness and/or introversion.
Somehow I feel sure those jobs all went to extraverted, high-achieving, twenty-something go-getters that bounced into the interview oozing with so much confidence that the panel hired them on the spot. Maybe I’m displaying a soon-to-be totally outmoded Generation X way of thinking, but I find the idea that one person can be just amazing at everything from managing the finances and running payroll, to creating the artwork for marketing, to building the website, booking the tickets, working at reception, setting up the AV, managing the casual staff, ensuring all legal compliance is covered, and bringing in sponsors and donors, as well as the bins at night*, a little bit unrealistic. Whether people are shy, introverted, or extraverted is only one of the factors that make them the right person for the job, but I feel as if PDs in the artworld are all written with confident extraverts in mind.
Isn’t it just common sense to play to people’s strengths? The shy amongst us often make great people to do your administration, your graphic design, your contracts, your databases, your IT, or your back of house technical and stage set up – because we like to do the essential work in the background that keeps projects running. We may not want frontline roles. We may not be the best person to manage your Front of House, your Publicity Campaign, or to represent your company at the industry trade show. That’s not to say that shy, or introverted people, can’t do these things well, but that in general, most prefer not to. Shy, or introverted people can be creators of cultural products (or other kinds of products). For goodness sakes, writers are the epitomy of introverts, aren’t they? A preference for solitary activity – tick! Reenergise by spending time alone? Tick! Enjoy reflective thought? Tick! Sian Prior is only one example in a long line of shy or introverted people who are also writers.
I think our self-image as shy or introverted allows the shy amongst us to self-select out of certain careers without realising what a limited picture we have of the career, and of ourselves. When I was at school, I contemplated journalism as a career, for about 10 minutes. Based on what I’d seen on TV, all I knew about being a journalist back then was that I’d need to be able to push my way through a scrum of other media to get to the front at a press conference and yell out questions, something which I could do about as comfortably as I could nominate myself to become Prime Minister of Australia*. No other kind of writing-based career occurred to me way back then (there were probably no other examples supplied in the Year 10 Job Guide). Now, I think that public radio would have suited me, because of my love of music and ability to amuse myself and sometimes others with my scintillating verbal repartee, but back then I’d never heard of public radio, and I was probably correct in assuming that to be an announce on commercial radio would have required me to be not only extraverted but pretty much cut-throat competitive. That definitely ruled me out!)
But was it shyness, introversion, or a lack of self-esteem, that caused me not to pursue those things? In my case I think a lack of self-esteem. That was a distinction I would have been interested to hear Prior talk about. Prior talked about feeling anxious knowing she had to go to a party, and called that shyness, which it is. But I wonder, of myself, what lies even deeper. What causes my “shyness”. Isn’t it a sense of not being good enough to command others’ attention? I know that feeling. I always expect people will forget my name. (Invariably I’m correct, because my name belongs to a dark haired, olive skinned woman, not a freckled, fair-skinned and sandy-blonde one, but these days I don’t take it personally since I forget everyone else’s names too.)
After years of bad publicity, “introversion” and “shyness” are finally traits we can admit to without shame, but “low self-esteem” is still not kosher to admit to, certainly not as a current personality trait. “Hi there, boy- that-I-kissed when I was 17! Sorry I never called you back all those years ago, I had low self-esteem, so when you said I should get your number from our mutual friend and give you a call, I assumed you were just saying that to be nice.”*
I think my confidence has improved with age. Compared to my childhood self, I am an outgoing extravert! Compared to my teenage self, I’m socially at ease in a room full of slightly-known people! But I could still improve. Even my writing betrays my lack of confidence in myself.
I mentioned earlier that Prior writes reviews, another activity that I’m a bit jealous of. The difficulty for me is that writing reviews requires a decent amount of self-esteem, because you need to form a strong opinion and have the confidence to feel that opinion is correct, before you put it out there for the world to read. I write a blog, and a lot of posts on my blog reference books and music, and, to a lesser extent, theatre and visual art, but I deliberately avoid writing anything that could be formally called a “review.” That’s because I don’t have the confidence to do that. And that’s not shyness or introversion, is it?
Links to other posts on this topic:
- I saw an interestingly titled post about Famous Introverts on the Huffington Post but every time I try to load a page of the Huffington Post, my browser crashes – I lost a paragraph of this post as a result. So search and click at your own risk – but save your work first!
*I AM a terrible poet, if we can go by that poem I spent most of my first year psychology tutorials writing.
*that mix of tasks was pretty much covered in a PD I recently looked at, with the exception perhaps of putting out the bins.
*We are looking for new nominations for Prime Minister of Australia, as the current one seems to be broken and continuing to use him is causing irreparable damage. Alternatively we are willing to trade him for an incomplete set of Star Wars cards or an old pair of socks.