When Shyness Looks Like Rudeness

And how to change that

The staircase in 59 Rue Rivoli, Paris December 2018.

In psychology and sociology, a breaching experiment is when a researcher intentionally breaks unspoken social rules to see how people react.

They take a norm we all participate in without realizing (like facing the door in an elevator or standing a reasonable distance away from other people while talking), and do the opposite. More often than not, people respond by trying to normalize the situation — so if the researcher stands uncomfortably close, they’ll move away.

According to the sociologist Susie Scott, as quoted by Joe Moran in Shrinking Violets, shy people are constantly performing an unintentional breaching experiment. Moran writes:

‘The behaviour of shy people can be similarly jarring. Their body language shouts discomfort. Their silence unnerves. They lack the split-second timing that allows those deep in discussion to perform like riffing musicians…Shyness turns you into an onlooker, a close reader of the signs and wonders of the social world.’

We are all social animals and shy people thwart our social norms. They don’t make eye contact, they fidget, they let long silences drag on, they don’t ask questions. It’s no wonder shyness is so often mistaken for (or mislabelled as) rudeness.

Sometimes I meet someone and I want us to click. I think they’re cool and funny and interesting and smart and witty. I want them to like me.

But then, when I least expect it, the shyness creeps in and seals up my throat. Inadvertently, I start to perform a breaching experiment.

My voice drops to a whisper. My eyes drop to the floor, then keep darting to the window or door. My hands keep curling into white-knuckled fists. My legs shake. My words shrink to quick monosyllables.

I think about running away, going home, crawling under my duvet with my cat and hiding. As soon as I think it, that becomes all I can think about. A tiny voice keeps hissing run. Now. Get away. I start plotting excuses, begin yawning and mentioning I haven’t slept much lately as the segway to my inevitable flight.

Then I’m home. Under my duvet. With my cat. Shaking from the knowledge that I came across as rude, that it’s happened again, that I now need to apologize or feel bad about not apologizing.

Shyness so easily comes across as rudeness.

Disinterest. Discomfort. Disengagement. Dislike. It can look like a personal affront to the other person — like you don’t want to be talking to them, even though you do.

The harder you try to trample it, the tenser and quieter you become. Even when you explain that you’re just shy, you wonder at the back of your mind if they’re wondering at the back of their mind if it’s personal.

Not all introverts are shy and not all shy people are introverts. But being a shy introvert comes with its own set of hurdles. Your energy for socializing is limited and when you muster up the courage to go out, sometimes you find yourself full of fear.

The energy is there. You want to connect. You want to be liked because everyone wants to be liked, especially by people you like. You’re just scared.

It is a vicious cycle. You are shy and that means socializing is likely to go badly, as you struggle and people pick up on that which makes you self-conscious, which makes your interactions more likely to go badly in the future, which makes you more likely to avoid them, which then makes you shyer.

The comparison between shyness and a breaching experiment can be a helpful one. For me, understanding that being shy makes me behave in offputting ways is enormously helpful. Even I can’t stop being shy, I can work with it and take responsibility for it.

This is what I’ve learned from researching this, and what works for me when I make an effort to do it:

When you start feeling shy, try to be mindful of your body language. Don’t judge yourself. Just be gentle and take note. What are you doing with your hands? Your shoulders? Your feet? Your jaw? Are you making eye contact? Are you leaning away from the other person or people? Are you hunching in on yourself? Are you holding an object, like your bag, in front of yourself as a barrier? What’s your breathing like?

Again: be gentle and don’t judge yourself. Just be aware. Once you start picking up on your own proclivities, you can start designing ways to alter them. If you need to make a conscious effort, so be it. The point is to break the cycle of being shy, making other people uncomfortable, then feeling worse next time.

If you’re shy about speaking, you can prompt the other person to keep talking in a few ways. As they come to the end of a train of thought, you can nod thoughtfully while making eye contact. Or you can repeat the last few words they said, as appropriate, again with eye contact. I learned both of these techniques from Never Split The Difference and they will almost always encourage people to continue talking.

The benefits of this are twofold. People like talking about themselves, as long as you make it clear you’re sincerely interested in hearing their words. This also buys you some time to focus on relaxing your body language and feeling more comfortable. Unless you’re stuck with a conversational narcissist, they will eventually direct the talk towards you. By this point, you can try to straighten your shoulders, make sure you’re turning towards them, and take a few deep breaths.

Fidgeting tends to come across as disinterest too. I struggle a lot with this — it’s not uncommon for me to rub my hands together so hard they bleed during a stressful conversation. If I cannot get myself to keep them still, I do two things. I always carry hand cream and I’ll put some on (and offer some to the other person), which is a way to fidget without looking uncomfortable. If that isn’t enough, I also carry a fidget cube. No, it’s not very classy but it works. If anyone asks, I say I need something in my hands and they’ll usually ask to try it out, then leave it at that.

Everyone is shy some of the time.

Some people will talk in front of a crowd of thousands with ease but shake with fear on a first date. Some people will climb mountains but cringe about telling a doctor their symptoms. Some people (*cough-me-cough*) will write frankly and honestly about their lives online, but very nearly stay home alone for Christmas because speaking to ten family members is overwhelming.

Which is why it is also okay to just tell people that you are shy, you are working on it, and not to take it personally. Almost everyone can relate to a certain extent. Each time I do this, it amazes me how accepting people are once you let them understand.

Shyness can make you self-centered. In a social situation, you can end up being too fixated on your own emotions to consider how you make others feel. But it is possible to break the cycle. It’s something I’m working on at the moment and even if I’m awkward and quiet, it does make a difference to try.

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