Rating: 4 stars
Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness is what it says: a guide to what makes people shy and why shyness causes certain behaviours. It’s part sociology, part social history, part psychology.
I came to this book via a review on The Guardian, which name checks a whole bunch of people whose work I admire.
I discovered plenty of insights reading the book, mainly because the author, Joe Moran, is shy and writes eloquently on the subject. One insight came from Moran explaining why shy people don’t engage in small talk. I’m not a fan of small talk, finding it slightly void shaped, but I’ll do it in order to survive social situations. The truly shy are less willing to engage with small talk. This passage explained why:
I suspect that what sustains the shyness of many people is that conceited part of us that finds much social conversation to be an empty ritual, a mere filling in of awkward silence. The socially confident can seem to us not to be listening to each other at all, but playing a game of conversational catch, exchanging words like a ball thrown through the air. The shy are not just bad at small talk; we are against it on principle. We feel we have some special flair for avoiding the platitudinous, what Cyril Connolly called that ‘ceremony of self-wastage’ that takes place whenever fluent conversers assemble and dispense their energies in ‘noises upon the air’.
Despite not thinking of myself as shy, I recognised myself in the traits of some of the people mentioned in the book. That surprised me. I know that, face to face with new people and in large groups of people whom I don’t know well, I’m reserved but I’m not tongue-tied. I can’t always start a conversation from cold, but I don’t clam up if someone else instigates a dialogue. I’m sometimes thought of as aloof, because sometimes I can’t make the required effort to keep a conversation going. I share the author’s fear of boring people, so am reluctant to make the first move. I still don’t think I’m shy, but it fascinates me that I share characteristics with the truly shy.
I laughed within the first four pages of the book as Moran confesses to having to write out his planned conversation before making a phone call. I laughed because talking on the phone is my least favourite thing to do. I lack visual cues, can’t tell what the other person is thinking, and become more self-conscious about what I’m saying until I dry up. I hadn’t thought of that as being shyness. I just thought it was me being a bit inept.
Moran begins his study with a summarisation of animal behaviour research into the shy-bold spectrum observed in a number of animal species. From this, it seems that shyness acts as a balance to boldness that helps a species to bond and survive. My favourites were the elks of Banff, some of whom were so bold that they could lead the shyer elks astray.
The main bulk of the book is arranged into chapters on particular themes and takes the form of a series of case studies, looking at shy people through history and shyness’ relationship to notions such as British Reserve.
Moran’s reflections on the over-sharing nature of modern life, particularly through social media, and the suspicion this engenders when faced with someone shy, bringing round an assumption that they are posturing somehow, were thought provoking. It’s something that puzzles me about myself. I struggle to be erudite and engaging in person until I have got to know people and built up a level of trust in them. This is more to do with having been bullied as a child for being clever and quick to learn, and with the pervading modern culture of anti-intellectualism. I don’t trust people to understand me for the things I’m interested in, basically, so I keep quiet for as long as possible until I’ve sussed whether someone is friend or foe. And yet I’m willing to share more about myself in the relative anonymity of the internet. Sometimes too much. It’s as though I think nobody is looking.
What Moran says in the book about having different personas for different things interested me. I am rarely ever fully myself except for when I am completely alone. I am always finding the person I need to be for whoever I perceive my audience to be. I am on three forms of social media regularly (WordPress, Instagram and Twitter), one less regularly (Facebook) and one hardly ever (Tumblr). I have a different persona for each. They’re all me, but a slice of me. I’m even different people on each of my WordPress blogs. And I’m different again in person. Aren’t we all?
Moran puts it this way:
Every self contains multitudes: we are all an amalgam of public and private versions of ourselves. A public self is also, in its way, real. Perhaps it is even more real than a private self, given the enormous effort we invest in its successful realisation. What a suffocatingly earnest world it would be if we all had to be an open book to everyone.
I was surprised at how many of the writers and musicians that I love are included in the book. All shy, all dealing with their shyness through creativity. Five of my favourite writers are in the book, the cartoonist Charles Schultz, the novelist Garrison Keillor, the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie, the artist and writer Tove Jansson, and my personal god of fiction Haruki Murakami.
Peanuts was the first cartoon I really got. I loved Snoopy, I loved Linus, I loved Schroeder. It was interesting to know that Schultz channelled his own shyness into Charlie Brown.
My first encounter with Garrison Keillor was when my mum brought Lake Woebegone Days home from the library and I fell in love with the world Keillor created to process his strange childhood in a Minnesotan town of largely Norwegian descent. I’ve never listened to the radio show Keillor wrote and performed, but it was fascinating to think that someone shy could be liberated from shyness by broadcasting on radio. Moran’s book has made me want to pick up some Keillor again.
Christie was the first writer of adult fiction that I loved, working my way through Miss Marple books from around the age of 11, liberating them from my sister’s bookshelf. I was aware Christie was a recluse, but Moran brought additional information about the nature of her shyness and how it related to her writing.
Jansson, meanwhile, gave me a reading haven as a child in the world of Moomin Valley. I am still in love with the place and its inhabitants, but now I’m an adult, I also have the joy of Jansson’s other fiction and its insights into wanting to live apart from others while living among them. Jansson’s writing often expresses how I feel about the world and my relationship to it.
Murakami I’ve covered elsewhere on this blog. He’s not outed as shy in this book, but his exploration of shy people in his novels is discussed.
Musicians whom I admire also put in an appearance. I knew that Glenn Gould was an eccentric performer, humming along as he played, sometimes louder than the piano. I hadn’t realised that he gave up public performance at a relatively young age and withdrew into a nocturnal existence, experimenting with recording equipment to avoid all risk of personal contact with his audience. I enjoyed reading about his liking for going on really long drives in the Canadian wilderness so that he could listen to music without anyone else around.
Nick Drake is in there, too, and I learned about his time spent in Aix-en-Provence studying the French chanson tradition which informed his own songwriting style. I hadn’t realised Drake’s connection to one of my favourite chanteuses, Françoise Hardy, either.
Morrissey is in there. As for many teenagers in the 80s, The Smiths came along at the right time for me, making it okay to be weird and sarcastic. Moran is good on the relevance of The Smiths within the context of run down, shitty 80s Manchester. Moran’s exploration of Indie labels of the time also made me laugh as I realised that my favourite label (4AD) was run by and home to the excessively shy.
As well as the pop culture case studies, there’s a lot in the book about theories of human behaviour and the psychology of shyness. I learnt plenty about the diagnosis and treatment of shyness as a mental disorder. There are interesting points made about Human Relations Management Theory, too. Particularly the way it is used to try to homogenise people, and especially the obsession with talking about things in order to make people feel part of some spurious whole.
John Durham Peters’ idea about a dialogic ideal being a fool’s errand caught my attention. The dialogic ideal holds that humans can attain a pure meeting of minds through better communication. Peters asserts that much of what has meaning for us is beyond the reach of language. We can’t express everything we think or feel in words, and we can’t ever truly know anyone else. Nor should we wish to. Mystery is good. The things that are unknown make us who we are: individuals, not an indistinct mass of people. If we won’t accept the otherness of others, then we lose the ability to feel pity, generosity and love.
Moran says this, generally, in response to our culture valuing talk as an end in itself:
in small doses, awkward silences might be useful. In a world of constant babble, such discomfiting hiatuses might inspire a thoughtfulness about how much we can ever really know each other.
All in all, this is a wide ranging book, but it’s engagingly written and structured in a way that pulls all of Moran’s disparate thoughts on shyness into a coherent study of the condition. Even if you’re not interested in shyness as a topic, there are lots of intriguing snippets about the famous and celebrated to make this an entertaining read.