Essay Shyness

We have kept till now the main violation of simplicity, and greatest of modern hindrances to conversation, which we have already mentioned in connection with modesty.

What distinction are we to make between Shyness and reserve, two qualities whose effects are generally similar, and each of which is a great hindrance to good conversation? We may start from the distinctions in ordinary use. No man or woman will openly claim to be reserved, but many will plead that they are shy. The reason of this is that shyness is assumed to be a physical or at least constitutional thing, whereas reserve implies deliberate choice to stand aloof, and repel any intimacy of conversation as unwarranted either by the circumstances or by the relative 49position of the speakers. Thus though reserve may arise from modesty, it is generally a form of pride, which for that reason no one will attribute to himself.[4] On the other hand shyness is either assumed to be a form, or an excess, of modesty, which is a virtue, or it is assumed to be congenital, and therefore a defect to be excused rather than a fault to be censured. So shy people as a rule rather ’fancy themselves’; for though they urge their peculiarity as an excuse for social defects, there lies behind a secret conviction that they at least have escaped the vice of forwardness, or of that coarseness of mental fibre which is implied in forwardness. Accordingly, though there 50are many people who sincerely regret their shyness upon particular occasions, as for example, when they are compelled to make a speech, or entertain some great personage, yet you will not find any one who would exchange it as a permanent quality for perfect ease, or assurance, or total absence of nervousness, or whatever else the opposite of shyness may be called. The more we reflect on this and other similar symptoms in shyness, the more we shall be convinced that here we have not to deal with mere modesty, but with conscious modesty, with modesty without simplicity, and therefore really with a subtle form of conceit.

  1. I am reminded that there are, especially in England, people who desire to be thought reserved, and are secretly proud of this reputation. It is, of course, part of this pride not to declare it publicly. These exceptional cases are, however, to be classed with those of people who are secretly proud of other vices, and do not disturb my theory.
  • 17. There are of course cases of children who are allowed to run away whenever a stranger appears, as if nature were a state of war, and man the natural enemy of man. Such children will require training to be cured of their own and their parents’ stupidity, and must be taught that 51every stranger is not a bogy. But this is mere domestication, such as we apply to the lower animals. It is also possible, though rare, that some people of refinement and culture may have a physical repugnance to meeting any but their intimates, and that they may make honest efforts in vain to overcome this stubborn nervousness. The great majority of shy people are not of this kind. Thus you will see a girl extremely shy in ordinary society, who blossoms out when she receives attentions from some one who may possibly marry her. Or else you may find a youth, who jumps over a hedge to avoid meeting a party of his acquaintances on a country road, anything but modest in lower society, thus showing that it is a consciousness of unfitness for good company and a fear of being criticised which dominate him. In almost all the cases which occur there is therefore modesty without 52simplicity, a conscious and almost guilty air; it is often nothing better than vanity which fears the results of conversation, which desires to be thought well of, and which from mistrust of itself puts on the garb of modesty.

If shyness really arises from this cause, it is a grave moral fault. But in any case it is socially a crime. How can any conversation be easy and natural, how can it range from topic to topic, and bring out the tempers and the characters of the speakers, if any of them displays this vice by dogged silence, by conscious blushing when any personal topic arises, or by the awkwardness which always accompanies this noisome preoccupation with one’s self? If then the capital conditions of pleasant intercourse are modesty and simplicity, this defect which always contradicts the latter, and generally both of them, is to be regarded as the most prevalent and destructive anti-social vice. The only 53high quality which may be concealed, or perhaps even displayed by shyness, is a delicate sensitiveness, which shy people generally postulate in themselves, but which has far better and nobler ways of affecting society than by impeding conversation.

  • 18. Reserve, which few venture to claim for themselves, is a far higher and better feeling, for it implies that the unwillingness to enter upon conversation arises from some deliberate judgment as to the relative positions of the speaker and his company—often a correct judgment, saving us from the vice of familiarity, which in an inferior is offensive, in a superior uncomfortable, in either case distinctly vulgar. We feel that reserve can be laid aside in pleasant moments, and among congenial people, and that there is often force and dignity behind it. But it is rarely a virtue which improves conversation, and therefore need not occupy 54us here. It may indeed act as a check on licence, and so by bringing the company back from some aberration, start it afresh on nobler and pleasanter topics. This is so indirect a mode of action, and may be so much more easily attained in other ways, that I need only mention it for completeness’ sake.

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