Being handed a syllabus with the words “classroom participation required” on it is enough to send some students running for the door. These students aren’t less intelligent than their peers nor are they less conscientious. They just aren’t comfortable speaking in front of others. Like an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the population, they suffer from shyness.
Dr. John Daly, professor in the College of Communication, has studied shyness for more than 20 years.
If shyness were simply the behavior of a bashful child hiding behind a parent’s leg, it might not matter a whole lot. Shyness, however, can affect nearly every aspect of an individual’s life.
“For people who are very shy, it’s a difficult world to live in,” says Dr. John Daly, the Frank A. Liddell Sr. Centennial Professor in the Department of Communication Studies. “Society places a premium on your ability to communicate forcefully, and there are many, mostly negative consequences for those with an apprehension about communicating.”
Daly has studied shyness for more than two decades. In the early stages of his research, he was interested in how people who are quite talkative seem to do better in society than those who are quiet. That led him to look at the other side of the equation. If the talkers do well in society, what happens to the non-talkers? What is the larger impact of being shy?
Everyone suffers from shyness in certain situations, Daly says. Even the most extroverted individual can be struck by shyness at times.
“Many people are reserved about presentations, but they’re perfectly comfortable in a conversation,” he says. “Some people are lousy at meetings, but a presentation or one-on-one conversation is perfect because they have more control in those situations.”
The occasional bout of shyness has little impact on an individual’s life. It’s the person whose shyness is not situational but rather dispositional who can see the negative effects of shyness more broadly. Shyness can play a part in everything from academic success to career choice, from finding a partner to parenting a child.
Shy people seem to not do as well at school, Daly says. They don’t participate in activities as much, and they’re less likely to be remembered by teachers and to receive recommendations. They may fade into the woodwork, but they may also receive inappropriately negative evaluations. As early as the first or second grade, students are put into groups based on skills such as oral reading ability.
“Teachers say that every year there are parents who receive reports that their children can’t read,” Daly says. “The parent says, ‘But she reads all the time at home.’ The teachers believe the student can’t read, but in reality that student may just be scared to death of performing in public.”
In higher education, shy people tend to choose majors that match their level of shyness. Rather than getting into fields that require a lot of public discourse, such as philosophy or communications or history, they may lean toward electrical engineering, computer science and accounting. Once they hit the job market, however, they once again find their shyness affecting their opportunities.
Shy people do less well in job interviews and are promoted less often than their peers. They are also more likely to turn down promotions when they are offered.
“When you think about it, most promotions are promotions into jobs where you have to do more interacting with folks,” Daly says. “So shy people get wise about these things. They say, ‘I am happy sitting at my desk doing my work. I don’t want to get involved with people and manage them, handle conflicts and pitch ideas and do meetings all day long. I know I’m not good at it, so I’ll turn down that promotion opportunity.’”
At the university level, the extroverted professor gets better teaching evaluations, though the shy professor may do well in small seminars. Shy academics are challenged when seeking funding if the funding source requires face-to-face contact.
Then there’s the fate of the shy person in the dating world. Daly says there is an entire area of research called “dating anxiety.” Even those who may not be shy in other parts of their lives can be stricken with this particular type of shyness.
“I remember a study involving the runner-up for Miss Indiana,” says Daly. “She got petrified whenever somebody called her up to ask her out. You’d never expect it.”
Thus, those who are predisposed to be shy approach dating with particular trepidation. Shy people are less likely to date around and less likely to break up with people once they find a partner. Recent research shows that shy people are more likely to use the Internet to meet people, taking face-to-face contact out of the initial interactions with a potential mate.
Are shy people more likely to choose to marry another shy person? Not necessarily, Daly says. Some shy people enjoy the quiet company of a fellow introvert. Others seek someone more outgoing to take charge in social situations. For some particularly shy people, activities such as returning merchandise to a store can be difficult. A less shy mate may come in handy.
The portrait of the shy individual may appear quite negative, given all the disadvantages to the trait. But Daly says that simply isn’t true. You may not find many shy Fortune 500 CEOs or candidates for political office, but most shy people manage to create environments in which they can be quite successful.
“You find a context where the disposition is irrelevant, one that lets you be who you are and succeed at it,” says Daly. “You create a world that works for you, choosing a career that doesn’t require a lot of talk and environments where you don’t have to always encounter new people and situations.
“If you think about it, it’s very sophisticated. People are magnificent at coping.”
Shy people are rarely shy with people they know well. And some people are able to overcome their shyness, especially if the shyness developed through learned behavior.
There is a lot of evidence that there is some genetic component to shyness. But it is also clear that shyness can evolve in a number of different ways. It may arise in a situation where talk was punished or even ignored and where not talking was reinforced. Think of the adage, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Individuals who grow up believing that what they say doesn’t matter or should be kept to themselves may become shy adults.
Shyness may also develop in the absence of social skills, suggesting that people become shy because they haven’t had the chance to develop their skills. Similarly, shy people may have lacked models of how to communicate in public.
“Role modeling is absolutely crucial for good communicating,” Daly says. “You have to learn how to argue without alienating people, how to be polite. If you don’t have models for those things, you may try to communicate and fail. That reinforces the fear of communicating.”
In many cases, then, shyness can be overcome, or at least managed. Skills can be learned. Appropriate models can be found. Some individuals turn to behavioral therapies. Others simply gain maturity and self-confidence and seem to grow out of their shyness. And Daly says not to forget the role of practice. Rehearsing anything from first date banter to job interview responses can be immeasurably helpful for someone apprehensive about communicating.
Daly says shyness need not be viewed entirely as something to be conquered.
“Once you get to know somebody,” he says, “your shyness can actually be quite endearing.”
Photo of Dr. Daly: Marsha Miller
Banner graphic photo and story photos: Sherre Paris