The Rudest Question: “Why are you so shy?”

“Why are you so shy?”

This seemingly innocent question is the most counter-productive and really, deflating, thing someone that struggles with social anxiety* can be asked.

The question implies that there was some sort of deliberate choice in the matter, that people wake up each morning and decide they are going to go about their day timidly while harboring a fear of social judgment, like they were choosing their shirt and tie.

Worse, the question is almost always asked out of pity or contempt and rarely as an attempt to understand or help.

And it makes you feel like something is wrong with you. Something pathological. Like you are defective.

For a long time, I convinced myself I was these things and that I had many other ‘deficiencies’.

Really, I only felt comfortable interacting with those that I had been around for an extended period of time in a ‘safe’ environment, such as a classroom. The lengths at which I would avoid interaction knew no bounds:

  • I used to be too shy to call someone on the phone in junior high school and ask what the homework assignment was. Yes, I would literally rather take a bad grade than talk on the phone with a classmate.
  • I once made up a story about a friend having car trouble to avoid spending a whole evening with a girl I hardly knew and her friend at a baseball game.
  • On more than one occasion I feigned receiving a phone call instead of enduring the torment of standing and waiting with a group of people that I didn’t really know.

And these were all as a teenager (maybe 20 or 21 for the second one). Imagine the stories a grown adult that struggles with a full-blown social phobia could tell.

Being shy sucks. Wanting to be able to participate in the social world around you, wanting more than anything to be able to interact (seemingly) effortlessly like everyone else seems to do, but instead feeling like nothing more than a spectator. Basically, it feels like being a prisoner to your own mind.

So don’t ask people this.

There is really no possible way for the Shy Question to be asked without it sounding accusatory. It automatically puts a shy—somebody already in full-guard—on the defensive even more. The question implies that not speaking is wrong, yet ironically the declination to speak can in part be traced to a fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing. This sub-communicates “you can’t do anything right.”

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I’m not proposing that shys should be handled with kid gloves—I believe in most cases the fastest way to break the shell (like with anything) is immersion and repeated practice—but imagine the limiting beliefs this question can instill in a child.

Even if it’s not from a place of ill-will, it’s all counter-productive to what you are really trying to say, which is “Would you like to join the conversation?”

Of course there is no need to be that deliberate about it. Invite the person in subtly. Ask them their opinion on whatever it is being talked about. Ask what the best part of their day was, or if they have any exciting plans for the weekend. Extroverts make their own invitation; introverts and shys sometimes need an invitation to the conversation if it’s not about something they are super passionate for.

Recognize that this person is not in their ideal social setting, and help ease them into it. Only after doing this and showing them that there is nothing to fear, will you defeat the urge to ask them this question to begin with, because they’ll no longer feel anxious.0d4a84d18f36bbf72f7489def114378e

Again, I’m not advocating social handholding; only social awareness and empathy. Not bothering to interact with someone because they’ve been pegged as shy or as someone who doesn’t talk becomes a self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling prophecy for both parties.

An example of this can be found in a study discussed in the book Influence by Robert B. Cialdini:

“Carlos (a young student) was not very articulate in English, his second language, and because he was often ridiculed when he had spoken up in the past, he had learned over the years to keep quiet in class. We might even say that Carlos and the teacher had entered into a conspiracy of silence. He would become anonymous, buried in the bustle of classroom activity, and not be embarrassed by having to stumble over answers; she, in turn, would not call on him.

Her decision probably came from the purest of motives; she didn’t want to humiliate him, or watch the other kids make fun of him. But by ignoring Carlos, the teacher had, in effect, written him off. She was implying that he was not worth bothering with; at least that was the message the other kids got. If the teacher wasn’t calling on Carlos, it must be because Carlos is stupid. It is likely that Carlos himself came to the same conclusion.”

The chapter goes on to discuss the jigsaw learning method, in which each student in a classroom is given a set of facts that will appear on a test to be given that same day.

To learn everything that is going to be covered on the assessment, the students must ‘interview’ each classmate to learn their respective pieces of information. Not only does this open communication avenues between the outgoing children and those that are a little more reserved, it provides positive reinforcement to all, showing that both the Carloses and everyone else can all contribute value:

“It began to dawn on these kids that the only chance they had to learn about Carlos’s segment was by paying attention to what Carlos had to say. […] Instead of teasing Carlos or ignoring him, they learned to draw him out, to ask the questions that made it easier  for him to explain out loud what was in his head. Carlos, in turn, relaxed more, and this improved his ability to communicate. After a couple of weeks, the children concluded that Carlos wasn’t nearly as dumb at they thought he was. They saw things in him they hadn’t seen before. They began to like him more, and Carlos began to enjoy school more and think of his classmates not as tormentors, but as friends.”

Another solution to encourage socialization at younger ages comes from the research of psychologist Robert O’Connor with socially withdrawn preschool children (can also be read about in Influence):

“We have all seen children of this sort, terribly shy, standing alone at the fringes of the games and groupings of their peers. O’Connor worried that a long-term pattern of isolation was forming, even at an early age, that would create persistent difficulties in social comfort and adjustment through adulthood. In an attempt to reverse the pattern, O’Connor made a film containing eleven different scenes in a nursery-school setting. Each scene began by showing a different solitary child watching some ongoing social activity and then actively joining the activity, to everyone’s enjoyment. O’Connor selected a group of the most severely withdrawn children from four preschools and showed them his film.

2591a88314528f360c865f10c7e2cf04The impact was impressive. The isolates immediately began to interact with their peers at a level equal to that of the normal children in the schools. Even more astonishing was what O’Connor found when he returned to observe six weeks later. While the withdrawn children who had not seen O’Connor’s film remained as isolated as ever, those who had viewed it were now leading their schools in amount of social activity. It seems that this twenty-three-minute movie, viewed just once, was enough to reverse a potential pattern of lifelong maladaptive behavior. Such is the potency of the principle of social proof.”

Solutions do exist.

While certainly not all schoolteachers are extreme extroverts, typically those in leadership positions (even if it’s just schoolchildren they are leading) were, I am speculating, never shy or can no longer relate to the feeling.

Even Isomeone who basically wants to build a professional life around helping people become more social—have found myself guilty of judging children going through the very same things I went through.

For my office job, I was recently working a booth at an event where we were giving away promotional items to children that completed a simple scavenger hunt we were running. Naturally, many kids would approach us wondering if we were just giving out the prizes to anyone who asked. I would then explain as simply as possible how the contest worked.

Several of these children were so…distrusting when I was talking to them that I found myself irritated. They’d make only fleeting instances of eye contact and were basically withdrawing from the interaction the entire time I was explaining. Basically, they seemed petrified a human that wasn’t their parents was talking to them.

Come on, just look at and listen to me, kid. Just talk, what are you so scared of?

I legitimately caught myself thinking this once, then was immediately disgusted with myself. If I could momentarily forget what it was like to feel insufferably shy, then imagine how unrelatable it must be for people who never went through this struggle (and why “Why are you so shy?” might seem like a fair thing to ask).

Even worse, I think many chalk shyness up as nothing more than a phase that kids grow out of. While some certainly do (eventually), if the purpose of education is in part to give children the skills they need to be successful in life, shouldn’t busting them out of their ‘shell’ as soon as possible be a top priority?

As Iand many otherscan attest, social skills are something that can be self-taught. But instead of leaving them as something for people to (hopefully) figure out on their own or diagnosing them with SAD and shoving prescription medications down their throat, isn’t it something we can simply be more conscious of and alter our education environment for?

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“Why are you so shy?’ isn’t the question we should be asking.

Instead we should be asking ourselves why we lack the basic empathy to understand that sometimes the seemingly simplest things—like conversing—can be the hardest for others.

It’s not anything that should just be pitied, but instead identified and worked on, like a child who goes to a speech therapist during normal school hours to work on their L’s and R’s. To me, there is zero difference.

Teach basic social skills. Teach what a ‘normal’ conversation is like, and some ways to start one. Stop just teaching about the proper use and structure of language, and start teaching how to actually use it.

Apparently we teach children how to speak when they come around to feeling like it, but giving them the confidence to speak freely? You’re on your own kid.

Ever been asked this question? How did it make you feel, how did you respond, and what do you think we can do to help children (and people in general) overcome severe shyness?

*in this post I use social anxiety, social phobia, and shyness interchangeably. They have their differences but for the purpose of this post it just made sense to group them all together.

Banner photo credit: nmwilhem728 | https://www.flickr.com/photos/43490126@N07/5676996857

8 Comments

  1. Aidan S Reply

    I remember once when I was 16 during a community event, a girl who I kind of knew said “Do you have any feelings at all?” I mostly just stood around in silence because I had absolutely no idea what to say or how even begin a conversation. I would get pretty regular panic attacks in these types of situations where I went glassy eyed. I must’ve looked like a sociopath haha. It’s funny to me now, but that comment bummed me out for days afterwards.

    • That person sounds lovely. I am guessing you two didn’t grow up to be best friends?

  2. Kathleen Reply

    Hello, you might remember me as a neighbor down the street when you were a very young age. I want to say that you are doing a good thing here. Only as an adult am I figuring out that what I went through in life ( up to 20 yrs old ) DOES have a name to it. I never could answer that question , “Why are you so shy?” I will however always remember how I felt in schools. Thank you for bringing awareness to this .

    • Thanks for the kind words and comment Kathleen! I feel like many ‘give up’ on shy adults (moreso than children) and have no idea how to engage the more reserved, which is a shame.

  3. Stephanie Reply

    Other kids used to ask me questions like “Are you mute?” , “Can you speak?”. I actually find these questions quite amusing. The statement that bother me the most is “I can’t hear you”. I just want to turn and leave after I repeat the same answer twice or more.

    • Ugh, been there Stephanie. It can be frustrating for sure, especially when you feel like you are enunciating.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Rebecca Reply

    Hello! I realize you wrote this post awhile ago, though very glad to have found it. Teaching social skills would be so invaluable. Really wish I had seen O’Connor’s video in childhood to help with overcoming shyness and build social skills (loooong process). Do you by chance have access to that video or perhaps know of others like it that may help shy children? Many thanks!

    • andrewelsass Reply

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for the comment! The book I read about O’Connor’s experiment in was originally published in 1984, so I don’t know if there’s public video of it anywhere (that I’ve found). I’d love to see it, too!

      You might be interested in the work of the 3C Institute (I have no affiliation). They research and implement programs in schools that are aimed at improving children’s social skills. And shameless plug, I recently gave a TEDx Talk that touches on some of these themes too that you might enjoy, which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T72RjTGQ544

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