I've never been the life of the party. When I'm among others, I often feel awkward and unsure of how to interact. Shy, you might say. And after two years of social isolation and working from home, my social skills have only grown rustier.
I'm far from alone in this. Research shows that the extra isolation wrought by COVID-19 has increased people's social anxiety. Our social skills have gotten out of practice as we've adapted to new social norms, such as conducting virtual meetings. For many now, meeting in person can seem more challenging than before.
Recently, Mind Tools had an in-person connection event. It was the first time I'd met my colleagues since starting in January. Like many new hires, I was onboarded virtually and had been interacting with my new team solely via computer screens for four months.
As I rode the bus to the venue where I would meet everyone in person, my stomach churned with nerves.
Why Being Shy Is Not Such a Bad Thing
After reading Joe Moran's book "Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness," I've thought a lot about my tendency to withdraw. Little did Moran know when he wrote the book (first published in 2016) that understanding this common human experience would soon be more relevant than ever.
According to Moran, shyness is universal. Most of us experience some form of tongue-tied social awkwardness at one point or another. (The author mentions being surprised by confident-seeming people who described themselves as shy.)
Shyness is also particular – a defining trait for some human beings, that sets them apart from more socially fluid peers. It's often seen as a problem, and it can be difficult to experience. But it has positive sides too.
Moran argues that shyness is a different way of being that offers a unique perspective, equally valid to that of more outgoing folks. He shares anecdotes of shy celebrities whose creativity, strategy, and unique insights made powerful contributions to the world.
Being Shy Shows We're Connected
While shy people may want to avoid others, they are very aware of them. Moran notes that shyness is only isolating because we're thinking about other people. So, fundamentally, the presence of shyness shows that we're connected.
I thought of this as I walked into the gathering of colleagues I was meeting for the first time. The event, after all, was called EW Connections. Even if we didn't know each other yet, we shared a common context.
Keeping this common ground in mind took the edge off my awkwardness. And despite feeling like the new kid at school, I found my coworkers to be friendly and welcoming.
Different Ways of Being Seen
Moran mentions that shy people's contributions are often overlooked, given that they are less inclined to call attention to what they do. Yet shyness is context-dependent and individual, and Moran's definition of it is broad.
He discusses shy artists and performers whose strong desire to communicate results in them finding comfortable contexts to do so. Some shy people feel comfortable giving concerts or scripted talks to crowds. But nervous when entering the flow of conversation.
"That's me," I thought when reading these anecdotes. I've often wondered why I can enjoy public speaking but freeze up at social hour. It's the spontaneity and added interaction that gets me.
It helped that EW Connections included guided activities and offered gentle invitations to participate. And people appreciated my contributions to the group exercises. This went from using my drawing skills in a hands-on activity to coaching a colleague through an Everyday Coaching exercise.
Respecting Different Social Needs
While my social battery was drained too soon to stay for the karaoke party, I made it through a couple of social hours following the activities. This included ending up at a dinner table with my line manager and the CEO, without being too awkward (I hope).
I felt timid at times but enjoyed everyone's company. Key to this was my colleagues' openness to letting people follow their own time schedules and set their own boundaries.
I wonder how many other people felt shy as they milled around doing ice breakers in a crowded room? Shyness isn't always something you can see.
And as Moran points out, it isn't something to "get rid of." It's important to accept its presence in ourselves and support others who may experience it. As it turned out, my colleagues value what I have to say. Even if I'm a bit of a shrinking violet.
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What experiences have you had of being shy or shared with shy people? Join the discussion below and let us know!