On Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness

Standard

“Shy people unsettle others because they unsettle the tacit conventions of social life.”

Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness was not as great a book as I, a lifelong shy person, expected. It did not shed a lot of light on shyness and all its forms and shades – it mostly just introduced us to a slew of famous shy people and the various forms of shyness that ailed them. I expected something more informative or rigorous/scientific somehow, but oh well. Sure, there was some exploration of history, psychology and philosophy and what those disciplines have to say about shyness. But not quite enough.

A few interesting points but mostly it boils down to what I knew before (even if that seems arrogant to say; I know I don’t know everything): being shy is being shy, many people are surprised when they learn that you consider yourself shy, it is not a rare affliction, and sometimes you can fake it (i.e. fake not being shy) in certain circumstances. You never totally get rid of it, but you can tame it – it’s a strange and often mercurial beast.

It has been a swift read as a result of its brevity and lack of depth, so pleasurable and entertaining even if nothing I would necessarily recommend except for a few spots that intersect with topics and conversations I’ve touched on with different people.

Notable bits/quotes:

“Zeno founded the school of Stoicism, a philosophy of self-reliant estrangement from the world and of equanimity in the face of public approval, since status and fame were mere baubles. ‘Stoicism has qualities which foreordained for the bracing of shy souls, as if the men who framed its austere laws had prescience of our frailty,’ write Dalton in Apologia Diffidentis. ‘It is the philosophy of the individual standing by himself, as the shy must always stand, over against a world which he likes not but may not altogether shun.’”

 

“Unlike many of his compatriots, Taine did not think English reserve was the result of an obsession with rank and class that had constipated their emotional lives. It was rather, he felt, that they were brimful of feelings, which were all the more affecting for so rarely bubbling up to the surface to disturb dead-calm waters. The English expressed their passions in ways overlooked by the inattentive, but those who watched carefully could see ‘the emotions pass over these complexions, as one sees the colours change upon their meadows’.”

 

“Shyness may have its roots in human self-consciousness, but it leaves us at the mercy of our animal emotions — making us, in extremis, shake with fear, run away, and hide.”

 

“Shyness did not always have to be an inadequacy but could be a positive quality – something you were rather than something that stopped you from being who you were. Shyness’s energies are often reactive and damage-limiting…; “If you can somehow prevent your shyness from clotting into neurotic risk aversion, it can help you face the world with an added layer of gentleness and curiosity.”

 

(Society-level) shame has receded while (personal) embarrassment has grown: “Although we are more able to retain our self-respect in the face of others’ disdain, we are also more likely to feel ashamed when others might see no reason for us to be.”

 

Oh yes yes yes!: “All through history, letter writing has offered salvation for the shy.”

“A correspondence via the Royal Mail has the potential for show-growing intimacy, enhanced by a deliciously expectant wait between sending and receiving, which e-mail and text messages have since destroyed.”

 

“The Nordic countries rival Southeast Asian ones in the subtlety of their language of embarrassment. A shy Finnish historian I met once told me all the different Finnish synonyms for “embarrassed.” Nolo, the most common word, had a negative sense — for instance, in the phrase “Vähän noloa!” (How embarrassing!), “Nobody wants to be nolo,” he said, “because it also connotes being pitiful.” But there were others words, he added, that roughly tallied with embarrassment — kiusaantunut, vaivaantunut, hämillinen, hämmentynyt — which evoked a more general sense of confusion or discomfort and had a neutral or even positive meaning. Another word, myötähäpeä, the vicarious embarrassment one feels for others, what schadenfreude’s kinder cousin.”

 

(Charles) “Schulz came to believe, in a classically Minnesotan form of self-laceration, that his own inhibitions were upended narcissism. ‘Shyness,’ he wrote, ‘is the overtly self-conscious thinking that you are the only person in the world; that how you look and what you do is of any importance.’ But the lesson of Peanuts is quite the opposite. Who, after all, is a better model of humanity: Lucy van Pelt, who shouts at the world with bone-shuddering conviction, or Charlie Brown, whose shyness has made him a gentle, fair-minded stoic?”

 

“Cultures with a reputation for fostering shyness, such as the Nordic, seem to have a higher tolerance for silence than most. The Swedish ethnologist Annick Sjögren, raised in France, noticed that in her adoptive country the spoken word “weighs lightly” and is no sooner dispensed than it will “vanish into thin air”. French conversation is a rhetorical performance, detached from oneself, so one can say things without thinking, simply to enjoy the sound of the syllables on one’s tongue, without being afraid that one will be called to account for it. In Sweden, by contrast, what one says is a personal marker, and words are pondered for their meaning. Small talk is kallprata, “cold talk”, and Swedish words for the talkative, such as pratkvarnar (chatterboxes), pladdermajor (babblers), and frasmakare (phrasemongers), convey a suspicious attitude toward talking for its own sake. ‘Talking apparently never ceases to be a problem for the Swedes: a lean across an abyss,’ reflected Susan Sontag after living in Stockholm at the end of the 1960s. ‘Conversations are always in danger of running out of gas, both from the imperative of secretiveness and from the positive lure of silence. Silence is the Swedish national vice.’

The Swedish and Finnish words for shyness, blyg and ujo, carry positive associations of being unassuming and willing to listen to others. Many Finnish proverbs point to the value of choosing words carefully and not saying any more than necessary: ‘One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.’ ‘Brevity makes a good psalm.’ ‘A barking dog does not catch a hare.’ ‘One mouth, two ears.’ According to the Finnish scholars Jaakko Lehtonen and Kari Sajavaara, in an essay on ‘the silent Finn,’ the overuse among their compatriots of what linguists call backchannel behavior — nodding, eyebrow raising, saying ‘hmmmm’ while the other person is speaking — is considered intrusive and the preserve of drunks.”

 

My exact observations when I saw film in question; so few words: “The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s characters are similarly sparing with speech. They work away silently in dull jobs at supermarket checkouts or kitchen sinks and drive through the country’s backroads, chain-drinking vodka while exchanging cryptic grunts. In The Match Factory Girl (1990) thirteen minutes pass, in a film just sixty-eight minutes long, before anyone speaks. …”

“Even in the Nordic countries, silence can carry awkward or hostile subtexts, Ingmar Bergman, in his autobiography, attributes his stammering s a boy to the determination of grown-ups not to speak to a misbehaving child until the child was visibly contrite — a cold shoulder far more painful, he recalls, than the ensuing interrogation, wheedled-out confession, and ritual fetching of the carpet beater. The SWedes have a phrase for it: att tiga ihjäl (to kill by silence). Different cultures may differently assess what constitutes a healthy balance between talking and listening. But silence can be deadly in all of them.”

New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, struggled with a lifelong shyness that crippled her, was subjected to extensive electroshock therapy and nearly lobotomized. Finally found a therapist who understood her (Cawley), who did not ask her to change herself but instead encouraged her to live alone and write – embrace her nature. Learn to live with shyness.

Storr (another psych), “Like Cawley, Storr came to feel that solitariness had its uses and that salvation did not always lie in others. … The naturally solitary could find meaning in their lives by embracing this inheritance rather than simply, as Freud advocated, trying to cure make-believe with cold reason.”

Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins, was famously shy and retiring and not a particularly pleasant personality. And her Moomins reflect this. “Jansson was a great admirer of the book Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle toward Self-Realization, by the psychoanalyst Karen Horney… ; …According to Horney, there are three kinds of neurotic ‘solutions’ to feeling unsafe or unloved: the expansive, the resigned, and the self-effacing. The expansive neurotics pursue mastery over others; the resigned neurotics strive for independence and self-sufficiency; and the self-effacing neurotics are conflict-phobic, criticizing themselves before others have the chance.”

“Jansson’s lesson is not that shy people should come out of their shells; it is that they should learn to become unneurotic introverts. For Moomins may sulk and skulk fleetingly, but most of the time they are neither needy nor neurotic. Their response to a problem is to think deeply and then make something — a hut, a painting, a poem, a boat carved out of bark — as a way of whittling meaning out of a terrifying world.”

The book even delves into Morrissey and his awkwardness and shyness, which, unlike many others so afflicted, managed to make his shyness work to his advantage. And what I most related to: “In this pre-internet age Morrissey relied, like many other shy British teenagers, on the marvelous efficiency of the Royal Mail and the cheapness of its second-class postage to keep in touch with his fellow human from a distance. The most intense crisis of his adolescence, he later said with his trademark blend of flippancy and dead seriousness, was when the price of stamps rose by a penny.”

And within the Morrissey section, a sub-section on Keats:

“The natural mode for the shy lover was the lyric poem: it recollected one’s embarrassment in tranquillity, at a safe distance from the beloved, and eternalized it within a classic literary form. In Keats and Embarrassment (1974), Christopher Ricks argues that one of the great consolations of poetry, with its public articulation of intensely private feelings, is that it helps us to express embarrassment and put it to creative use, making us feel less lonely and estranged in the process. Keats, he says, was a poet particularly attuned to , and insightful about, embarrassment. He felt embarrassed by his lack of formal education, his lowly apprenticeship as an apothecary, his poetry’s poor critical reception, his height (only just over five feet tall)…”

Keats realized that “among the sane, fortifying, and consolatory powers (nature) has is the power to free us from embarrassment, to make embarrassment unthinkable.”

“Keats’s willingness to face the subject of embarrassment in his poems and other writings allowed him to turn awkwardness into ‘a human victory’.”

The keys, though, if you could even call them ‘keys’ as opposed to ‘grin-and-bear-it’ grit (just get through it) come nearer the end of the book.

When offered anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals to help, the writer concludes pretty much what always crosses my mind: “The sadness caused by shyness is real, and helping others to take the edge off that sadness is a noble aim. But taking a drug for social anxiety — for feeling stupid, boring, or unlikeable — feels like shouting at the wind, arguing with the rain. It feels like trying to find a cure for being alive.”

“All the people I have written about in this book were as shy at the end of their lives as at the start of them. They found ways to hide their shyness, channel it, finesse it, or work around it, but it never went away.”

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