Why Be Shy

Many people are shy. Shy folks are not only easily embarrassed, they are also embarrassed by the fact that they are easily embarrassed. They tend to assume that shyness is unattractive, and that it mainly indicates lack of courage or strength. They wish they weren’t shy.

If you are shy and this is how you think, I have good news for you: shyness has important positive aspects. In particular: shyness promotes intimacy. Intimacy is a feeling of closeness, based in part on mutual vulnerability.  A person who is comfortable around most folks, talking or doing most anything, finds it harder to create mutual vulnerability. How can you tell such a person is comfortable with you, as opposed to conformable with everything?

In contrast, a shy person who is awkward and embarrassed around most folks, or when talking about many topics, can more easily show that they treat you differently. If they are less awkward around you, and are willing to talk to you less awkwardly about usually-awkward topics, you can take that as a good sign that you have achieved some level of intimacy. They treat you with less caution, presumably because they are less afraid you will hurt them. In this way, a shy person can more easily show you that you are special to them.

To better bond, be shy.  Reserve some topics as ones you will not talk with just anyone about, and some activities as ones you will not do with just anyone.  Then by selectively talking and doing, you can signal your intimacy with some relative to others.

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  • Miguel

    I’m a very shy person, and I’d never thought of it this way.

    But do other people actually realize this and react accordingly? Is there any evidence?

  • I think you’d want to emphasize the “makes you feel special” aspect, as it doesn’t seem like shy people are better at intimacy (if anything, the opposite).

    What you’re saying is that the shy person’s intimacy is focused on one or few people, rather than an outgoing person’s intimacy that he shares with lots of people. And the latter doesn’t result in less intimacy per partner — anyone who knows extraverted people knows that they are overflowing with bonding to share around. So their intimacy budget is a lot bigger than it is for shy folks.

    • in a shallow sense of the word; but another definition of intimacy is “very personal, private”. There was something a while back, it may even have been here, pointing out that women and men both formed roughly equivalent bonds with others, but men tended toward many, shallow bonds, like in a hunting party or business; whereas women tended to make fewer, but deeper bonds, as in families and close friends. This could suggest why women tend to be considered “shyer” than men generally, it fits more with their more common style of intimacy.

    • Imho many extroverted people often are falsely intimate with others and/or skilled at creating the sense of intimacy but it isn’t real. You simply cannot be intimate with scores of people it is impossible. Just like you can’t be close friends with scores of people.

      That being said, they still show true intimacy possibly faster than a shy person would. Being shy one is often slow to warm up to others. I know that’s true of me. But I wouldn’t say my extro significant other does not show he is closely to some people than others or that he is incapable of deep meaningful intimacy.

      Even extroverts don’t tell everything about themselves and hold back some for those who are special to them. You may know a lot about them as an acquaintance, but you’re seeing a persona. A public face. Hope this post made sense!

    • Amy

      I’ve found the opposite – that people who are more selective about their relationships tend to have deeper/longer lasting relationships, and that extroverts often spread themselves thin, making them good people to have at social functions but give the feeling that they aren’t quite there in intimate conversations.

  • We often hear people exhorted to be more outgoing, and rarely hear people exhorted to be shy. This may be because we live in societies with much larger than Dunbar’s number of inhabitants. In the past, unjustified overconfidence can earn you a social drubbing, but that is much less likely as your casual acquaintances today are unlikely to know each other or share an opinion of you.

    Since our brains are evolved to survive in forager societies, we expect to see a systematic bias towards being more respectful and circumspect than is optimal in today’s society. And indeed, we see this to be the case; brashness pays in an age of urban anonymity.

    • People are sometimes exhorted to “shut the hell up” or “chill” if they are too extroverted. But I agree that in “far” mode we see extroversion as positive.

    • lemmy caution

      People are often called shy because they are uncomfortable around or aversive to strangers. When the strangers are likely to kill you, this is probably a good idea.

      • I know that I am more shy around people who seem to be judgemental, as I sense this about them. They could be outgoing smiley types, but somehow I still don’t feel right about them. My intuition is telling me they are two-faced judgers. As with a friend of my sig other’s. She’s always the nicest thing, but it turns out she was saying vicious things behind my back! Shytrovert intuition never fails!
        Well, sometimes…LOL

  • gwern

    Maybe this is why shy anime character are so ‘moe’ and popular.

  • noematic

    I’ve usually found that it is the discussion of usually-awkward topics itself rather than any particularly selective discussion of those topics that manufactures intimacy. As such, manufacturing intimacy seems to me to be a qualitiative rather than a quantitiative matter, with the key task being to identify those topics likely to generate intimacy.

  • Jason Malloy

    “shyness promotes intimacy… To better bond, be shy.”

    Extraversion is commonly found to be a predictor of relationship trust and satisfaction. If you are bad at connecting with strangers, you will probably be bad at connecting with your partner.

    • Perhaps being shy, all else equal, makes intimacy easier. But it also makes it harder to meet people, makes you more uncomfortable even with partners potentially. It’s also correlated with a bunch of other things (being low status, feeling bad about yourself, etc) which are hardly helpful.

      Personally I guess whatever gains are to be had from shyness are overwhelmed by the costs.

      • Luna

        I agree with R. Wiblin. I am crippled by my shyness. While it does help me to see that I have made strong relationships with people, it comes at a great cost -I’d rather be outgoing and talkative. People sometimes think that I don’t talk to them because I’m being a snob -which definately is not the case. I simply can’t talk to people, its almost impossible for me. Though, on the plus side, its a great boost when people really put in effort to get past your shyness, and really get to know you -that’s when you know you’ve found a good friend.

      • Constant

        You would think so, but as with any other property that a significant fraction of the population shares, if the gains were overwhelmed by the costs then shyness would be quickly eliminated from the species.

        This does, of course, leave open the possibility that shyness is a negative side-effect of some other advantageous property. Like sickle-cell disease, for example.

      • Miguel

        I agree with both Robert and Luna. My shyness has cost me a lot in personal relationships and has hindered my career a lot…

      • John Maxwell IV

        “You would think so, but as with any other property that a significant fraction of the population shares, if the gains were overwhelmed by the costs then shyness would be quickly eliminated from the species.”

        Constant, how do you explain widespread homosexuality?

      • Kobajack

        Wiblin is right. Constant is totally wrong.

        Being shy might work more smoothly for a cute, little woman, but for a guy in particular it is a severe hindrance. Any kind of lack of confidence is not a good thing at all. That’s not to say the other extreme, overconfidence, isn’t bad either.

        I completely disagree with this article. It’s patronizing. Okay, so it’s trying to see the lighter side of the issue, but it’s not realistic. If you would rather side with Denial over Realism, believe this nonsense.

  • Psychohistorian

    I’d love to see actual evidence on this. It seems totally wrong. It might be correct, if you are interested in being intimate and if you have the opportunity to do so with an equal number of people. Being shy should, however, cause you to meet fewer people and be less comfortable interacting with those you do meet, both of which should reduce the number of intimate friendships you have. In particular, shyness is not conducive to meeting romantic partners, especially for men, but for women as well.

    I suspect shyness is either a holdover from smaller tribes, or learned behaviour based on difficulties making friends during one’s childhood.

  • Riley Jones

    I too question your conclusion that shyness is good for intimacy. Shyness however, does seem to foster loyalty. It makes you more dependent on a small number of carefully chosen allies, more reliable, less likely to be overcommitted. It is natural that a shy person will cultivate a few strong ties instead of many weak ones. The shy have a greater incentive than the outgoing to make strong ties, but perhaps less ability to do so.

  • Men and women are not really the same in this context. Most of the claimed advantages of shyness, seem to apply more to women.

  • J. Daniel Wright

    I believe it works with kindness, too. Someone who is nice to everyone starts to seem ingenuous because of his/her egalitarian stance towards people. On the other hand, someone who is selectively nice to his/her most intimate friends and guarded/short with those outside the circle seems honest for their meritocratic stance. The nicer person may have to shift towards the other end of the spectrum, i.e. tease “with a bite”, in order to show his/her friends how close their friendship really is.

  • Joe Teicher

    I don’t think it really works like that. In my experience, what people really want is to be singled out for intimacy by a charming extrovert with a million casual friends. That really makes you feel special because they can make friends with everyone, but they chose you. If a shy person with 2 friends opens up to you, that’s nice, but they typically don’t have very many options. Shy people are definitely at a disadvantage at forming relationships.

    For me the positive of being shy is that I don’t need or crave much time socializing. That frees up tons of my time to actually accomplish things, which then raises my status to the point where people are willing to put in some effort to get to know me. I find that many people who are good at socializing rely way too much on their ability to network to get through life and don’t actually take the time to develop new skills or actually get things done.

    • andrew kieran

      the charming extrovert only appears to single you out for intimacy (generally speaking, from my experience), but they tend to do that with everyone, it doesn’t mean anything.

      i’d rather have one good friend than 100 casual flakey aquaintances in the pub.

      of course, being shy myself, i could just be rationalizing my way to acceptance of current life conditions

      i wonder if mr Hanson is shy, and what bearing this has on his opinions and logic as regards this topic

      • I agree with you, and believe it or not, many extroverts yearn for close friends as well.  They accept that they are never going to be truly intimate with the 8,000 people they know or hang out with and cycle through on a weekly basis (I’m exaggerating).  How do I know?  I am an extrovert magnet.  I’m currently married to an extrovert.

  • Sgilmore

    My main problem with being shy is that people so often mistake shyness for being stand-offish / rude / superior etc.

    This is worse for people who are tall and broad. People seem to assume that big people who are quiet when meeting new individuals or groups are stand-offish / rude / superior etc. as opposed to just desperately uncomfortable and nervous.

  • Anonymoussss

    Many people [in the world] aren’t English speakers and reserve all the conversation subjects from being comprehensible to the author of Overcoming Bias. They must be bonded very well against him. ;> I would rather ask why you bring such topics to their minds when in your company. ;>>> There are so many factors and so many ways of relating to others, so shyness is pretty irrelevant or unimportant. How can you say that bonding is good and ignoring billions of people every day by resisting to chat them up for example on Skype to figure new ways of global cooperation and empathy is worse?

  • ravi hegde

    ah, the shy people .. shy people usually hold an unjustifiably high opinion of themselves that is not shared by others ..they think they are better than you .. times when they dole out their “intimacy” is around people who are like themselves or are worse than them in a given endeavor .. whence the shy person gets to feel better ..

    this is counter-intuitive .. similiar to a person being depressed because the world doesn;t hold up their arbitrary standards ..

    all of these come across from a person;’s way of coping with their own smallness…

    • bongo

      But shy people usually say they regret that people think they’re snobs, and that they’re really not. Just read the comments so far. Are they wrong about themselves? How do you know?

    • Shy people are far from snobs. In fact, some have inferiority complexes which is why they have anxiety about being more social. To more outgoing people, social, extroverted, normal – how ever you choose to discribe the non shy or non introverted – quietness seems like arrogance because when they don’t want to relate to others they are quiet.

      Extroverts are always on output mode, they are engaged with the outer world and that’s how they experience their reality. It’s inconceivable to them that not everyone operates this way. This attitude that quiet individuals think they are better than everyone else because they choose not to engage with every human being that crosses their path is relfective of the attitude that quiet is strange.

      Lastly, I just want to say that on the dark side of extroversion collecting acquaintances can have little to do with liking people for who they are and everything to do with using them for what they can offer whether that’s simply social stimulation or something more tangible. I learned this lesson in junior high school when a girl hung around me simply to get close to my popular best friend.

  • andrew kieran

    subjectivity central right here

  • tyrytr

    if you don’t want to get laid, be shy.

    • Amy

      If you want intimate lovemaking, rather than getting laid, go to a shy person.

  • Jonas

    It’s much easier for a naturally out-going person to convincingly fake natural shyness than for a naturally shy person to convincingly fake a naturally out-going personality. Naturally out-going people have a choice, they can choose to appear shy or they can choose not to, depending on the circumstances. Naturally shy people don’t have a choice (at least so they feel). This may seem to suggest that being naturally shy cannot be an advantage. Naturally shy people simply seem to have less of a freedom of choice.

    However, lesser freedom of choice can sometimes be a good thing. Being naturally shy may be an advantage in that it tends to prevent you from “wasting your time in clubs” and such. Shyness can thus make you “do the right thing for the wrong reason” (which is said to be the highest form of treason).

    Those out-going persons, who have never experienced as deep a bonding with another person as most naturally shy persons have at least once experienced (I’m sure at least some such out-going persons exist), miss out on something, but since they don’t think they do, they’ll go on being only out-going and never try out the behavior of acting shy. This is the most clear way in which I can see “inevitable” shyness being an advantage to “inevitably shy” people (given that some naturally shy people are indeed inevitably shy). Yet, it seems to me the “inevitability” of these people’s shyness is, by itself, not only an illusion, but also mainly a bad thing. A naturally out-going person can be out-going when his wife or girlfriend isn’t around, and act shy in her presence, and thereby “reap maximum benefits” from both behaviors. It seems the ideal is to have the knowledge and ability to display shyness whenever this is more advantageous and be out-going whenever this is more advantageous. Perhaps in some areas of life, maximum freedom of choice is worse than lesser ditto, but is this really one of those areas? I would suggest not.

  • It’s refreshing to read something positive about shyness!

    But you know some of us are so shy that we can’t have a relationship in the first place!

    I had to go to Social Anxiety Anonymous support groups to get to where I could start dating.

    • Social Anxiety is different from shyness and shyness is different from introversion. Shyness is a personality trait, like boldness. Introversion is a temperament. You can be a bold introvert or a shy one, a bold extrovert or a shy one. Social Anxiety can also affect introverted or extroverted persons.

      I am a shy introvert. I do not like to be the center of attention, and would shrink back if I had to give a toast at a wedding or speak off the cuff even in a room of friends. I would be anxious and embarrassed. Another introvert might not be shy about doing either of those things, but just not want to because introverts don’t perform well without proper preparation. If I had social anxiety I might have a panic attack if someone asked me to speak off the cuff – I would have a tight chest and possible difficulty breathing or even pass out.

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  • confusegrass

    There are a lot of claims on this thread saying that people ‘defined’ as shy are this or that or some god-damned hiccup in the genetic line. This is wholy unjustified. You cannot take a three letter word, which we can’t even agree upon the definition, and apply it to everyone coined as such.

    Shyness exists, some people may be shy all their life, others maybe not the entire life, an still others not at all. A shy person can be an asshole while another is a saint. They can be great speakers and outspoken or refuse speak or see public at all.

    When a person is shy, that shyness is not the only thing that defines them.

  • Mark

    I’m a 21 yr old depressed, shy introvert with social anxiety, unemployed and little prospects. What would you care to label me?