Why shyness should be embraced as a natural part of being a man
"Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you, from doing all the things in life you'
d like to." - The Smiths
It isn't easy being shy, and it's even less easy to talk about it. So, when asked to interview Joe Moran about Shrinking Violets, his book on shyness, I immediately envisaged two men sitting uncomfortably at either end of the phone, all sweaty palms and incoherent mumbling.
Yet, while Moran is refreshingly honest about his own shyness in his book, it is not about him. In fact, it throws startling light upon the shyness of many famous and brilliant people throughout history. From Charles Darwin to Sir Bobby Charlton, Charles de Gaulle to Morrissey, the stories of shyness told in these pages offer comfort and inspiration to the shy and introverted (although Moran insists he never intended to be a cheerleader for the meek).
On Saturday, November 26, Moran will be talking about shyness at the Being a Man festival at the Southbank Centre. I asked him why he chose such challenging subject matter.
"I obviously had a personal interest," he says, in the softly-spoken tones you'd expect from a self-proclaimed introvert. "As someone who is shy, I wanted to write about it as it hasn't really been articulated very much - shyness is quite a difficult thing to talk about. You can define what introversion is, what shame is, what embarrassment is, because they have a physiological manifestation. Shyness is more subtle, more chronic, more mundane.
"It would be nice for the book to be read by people who aren't shy as well, because I think they can sometimes be puzzled, or perhaps a little impatient, about shy people - it can seem like self-absorption."
Personally, I always felt, growing up, that I'd one day grow out of my shyness. But it never happened. It seems the same is true of my fellow wallflower.
"I haven't grown out of it, though I know people who have. I've heard of people deciding not to be shy. There are moments - going to university, leaving home - when you can sort of take on a new identity. And I suppose identity is partly performative anyway.
"My feeling is that, even if people grow out of it, there's always the sense you might be found out. The people I wrote about in Shrinking Violets were as shy at the end of their lives as at the beginning.
"Shyness is just part of the jigsaw of human diversity. It's neither good nor bad, it's just there. It might be something that sometimes makes us unhappy, but lots of things do that and it would be a boring world if everyone was cheerful and extrovert all the time."
In this day and age, when we're constantly being told that it's good to talk, Moran suggests that "we can sometimes overshare" and, occasionally, "silence, or choosing your words carefully, can be a good thing."
"Technology allows you to say anything, any time, and lay bare your private life. It can sometimes feel like a huge amount of noise.
"You can concretise something that might be just a passing mood and bring each other down by moaning to one another," Moran says, though he follows this with "although I probably don't moan enough."
According to Moran, shy people often make good listeners and are, if not immune, certainly not prone to 'groupthink,' where "social groups get hold of an idea and it can become what everybody thinks just by being stated all the time." It sounds very familiar.
I spoke to Moran a few hours after Donald Trump was elected America's President-Elect, and asked him whether he felt that men feel an added pressure to not be shy in a world where the most successful, powerful men in society seem so confident.
"I always get annoyed when people compare that kind of alpha-male to silverback gorillas, when silverback gorillas are actually rather shy and gentle creatures," Moran says, with the same air of disappointment you notice when he describes other lazy comparisons between humans and animals in his book.
"I think, historically, shyness came to be more valued in women," he continues. "Not always. There's a whole tradition of English reserve and male taciturnity, particularly in working class cultures, that values masculine silence and stoicism.
"I think a lot of that has gone. I certainly don't think shyness is peculiar to gender. It's just something very human - part of who we are."
I was intrigued by a passage in Shrinking Violets about how texting, a 'primitive,' 'inefficient' form of communication, took off amongst teenage boys when first introduced in Finland. What was it about this laborious means of communication - that has become so widespread with the rise of Twitter and Facebook - that made it so attractive, first to teenage Finnish boys, and then the rest of the world? And is it a help or a hindrance to the shy amongst us?
"I think it cuts both ways," says Moran. "There probably is something in the use of technology as a sort of barrier. People are nicer because they have more time to frame what they're saying. But I suppose the other side of it is what Facebook calls 'radical transparency,' which is the idea that, on social networks, you're expected to splurge out all your private thoughts. The danger, I suppose, is that you can feel like you're communicating with someone when you're not.
"I actually think," he goes on, "shy people are quite aware of the value of actual conversation, with proper voices, face to face, partly because we find it so difficult, therefore we know how valuable it is."
Books are personal things and we all take different messages from them. The message I took from Shrinking Violets is that, actually, it's okay to be shy, and it's okay to talk about it. So many men struggle in silence with something that's common to so many of us and, far from being a problem, is just another stitch in the rich tapestry of being human.
"I think you need to live with shyness, and struggle against it a bit," says Moran. "Don't wallow in it or think it makes you more sensitive, or a better person. But don't be ashamed of it either. I think, if you have that balance, it makes you less shy because you don't obsess about it or think of it as something that defines you. It's just something you are."
It still isn't easy being shy, and it probably never will be. But, reading Moran's enlightening book, and listening to his eloquent thoughts, I feel more at ease with my shyness than I did before.
"The shy just have to carry on being shy," writes Moran. And, just maybe, that's okay.
Many thanks to Paul Gunning for coming out of his shell to author this piece.
Being A Man runs between Friday, November 25 and Sunday, November 27. The talk entitled 'Shy Guys' takes place between 2pm-3pm, on Saturday, November 26.
'Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness' by Joe Moran is available in all good bookshops, including here.