A few years ago, one of my friends happened to mention that she had attended the same party as a well-known actress. “She was so arrogant,” my friend told me afterwards. “She just stood in the corner, talking to no one.”
So a few days later, I was surprised to read a newspaper interview with the same actress, who lamented how awkward she had felt at the very same party. Making small talk to strangers, she claimed, left her “paralysed with shyness”. She had to run out of the room after just 10 minutes. Clearly even the talented and famous can feel awkward and tongue-tied from time to time.
The story came to mind when I interviewed the cultural historian Joe Moran about his new book Shrinking Violets – A Field-Guide to Shyness. As Moran shows, many prominent public figures – from Charles Darwin and Agatha Christie to Morrissey – have battled social anxiety, and it is often difficult to find a logic in that mess of feelings.
Moran offers a particularly charming story about Francoise Hardy (pictured above) and Nick Drake, who met for tea to discuss their songwriting. Apparently they were both so nervous of the meeting, they barely raised their eyes from their cups. Taking to the public stage may seem foolish if you are naturally timid and reserved, but Moran points out that “maskenfreiheit” (literally, the liberty that comes with wearing a mask) may release your inhibitions while performing, only for the awkwardness to return once the mask slips and you return to everyday life.
I’ve suffered severe shyness over the years (as I’ve written about here) and but I found that one particular study, from 2000, helps to put those feelings in perspective. The team, led by Thomas Gilovich, were examining the “spotlight effect” (the feeling that everyone is watching us) and asked some students to wander through a crowded room wearing an embarrassingly unfashionable Barry Manilow t-shirt. The researchers found that the participants vastly over-estimated how many people would have judged their fashion faux-pas; in fact, only 25% of the onlookers questioned had recognised Manilow’s face.
Gilovoch then placed their participants in groups to discuss a thorny political issue, and afterwards they had to note down the 5 best and worst things they had said during the conversation, and whether they thought others had noticed. Again, they assumed that the others were paying far more attention to them – both good and bad – than they actually were.
Shyness often comes from the fear that other people are watching your every move – and the more conscious you become of their eyes, the harder it becomes to behave naturally. But the harsh truth is that unless you happen to be a famous film star, you are probably the last thing on their minds. And depending on how you feel about yourself, that fact is either depressing or deeply reassuring.