Don't Shame Me For Being Shy

Share a table with strangers, or eat on our own? This was a choice my new husband and I needed to make as we planned our romantic honeymoon cruise. Everyone urged me to pick the shared table — “Sit with other couples. Meet new people. Have fun!” To me, however, sitting with other couples that I don’t know is not fun; it’s hard work. Exhausting work, in fact. I'm an introvert, and situations like this are very stressful to me.

Wanting to make my new spouse happy, I opted to sit at a table with two other couples. Meal after meal, conversation ensued amongst the majority of the people I was dining with; stories of how everyone met, tales of wedding day challenges and triumphs, and jokes about all of the hokey, corny shipboard activities went round and round the table. Round and round the table for everyone except for me, that is. As we sat at the table, I was asked a question that I have been asked my whole life — “Why are you so quiet?” This was followed, as it typically is, by, “Is something wrong?”

As far back as I can remember, I have been what I would consider painfully shy. Even when I was a kid, I noticed how other people seemed to be able to jump into the ebb and flow of conversations — something that I've always struggled with. I often hear, “Don’t worry about what you’re going to say… just really listen.” But I am really listening. I’m not just selfishly focusing on my thoughts; I truly have a difficult time coming up with and getting out words when I’m with a group of people.

Our society praises outgoing and bubbly people, and shyness is looked upon as a negative trait. But it's not, and I wish people wouldn’t “shy shame” others.

Most people I’ve gotten to know well would be surprised that I feel this way; one on one, I usually have a lot to say, can be pretty witty, like to talk, and enjoy exchanging ideas. But when I'm in a social situation, it’s really hard for me to speak up.

When I was a teenager, I had one of my first jobs — as a waitress, at a restaurant alongside many people my age. For most of the wait staff, there were instant friendships; people went out a lot after work, romances blossomed, shenanigans and pranks ran amuck, and a lot inside jokes were born. I was asked by my manager to be a trainer, and to attend a “social meeting” with the other trainers to strategize . As we sat around a long rectangular table sharing garlic bread and pizza, I did a lot of head nodding, smiling, and listening — but very little talking. I came home and cried after the meeting. I hated feeling like there was something wrong with me; I thought, “Why is this so difficult for me?”

My shyness has gotten a bit easier as I’ve gotten older. Just like most people, as I've matured, I have learned the niceties of being cordial and polite. The opening small talk is easy; it’s what happens after this part that’s hard.

Underneath all of the shyness, I have a great personality — warm, friendly, amusing, insightful — but people may need to dig deeper, know me for a good period of time, or spend time with me one-on-one or in a small group in order to find out.

I haven’t figured out what makes my so introverted, but I know that I am introverted. This is a part of who I am, and will always be, and I am happy with who I am, just the way that I am.

Our society praises outgoing and bubbly people, and shyness is looked upon as a negative trait. But it's not, and I wish people wouldn’t “shy shame” others. If you are with someone’s who’s quiet, do not assume that they are:

  • dumb
  • not knowledgeable about what you’re talking about
  • stuck-up
  • not interested
  • not interesting
  • -a “dud”
  • not listening
  • having a problem
  • in a bad mood
  • personality deficient

These are all assumptions that have been made about me, when the truth is, I’m just quiet. Making these assumptions and saying things like, “Well, you don’t have a whole lot to say,” or “What’s wrong with you?” are all what I call “shy shaming,” which push the idea is it bad to be quiet. Often, amazing thoughts are going through the heads of introverts, but we may not respond or share as quickly as those considered the life of the party.

It’s embarrassing to be asked, “Are you always this quiet?” Questions like this just make introverts feel self-conscious. And even extroverts don’t want to feel self-conscious — no one wants to feel this way.

So, the next time you’re out with a group of people, and someone in the group is quiet, try to bring them in by asking the person something about him or herself. Don’t point out the “quiet in the room.” Just allow her to listen. Listening is okay, too. Some intelligent, insightful, meaningful, or even silly thoughts may be brewing inside that person’s head, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get the benefit of hearing them. Or maybe you won’t — and that’s just fine, too.