Shyness is the ordinary language term most often used to label the emotional state of feeling anxious and inhibited in social situations. As would be expected from a social psychological perspective, situations differ in their power to elicit reactions of social anxiety. Ratings of shyness-eliciting events reveal that interactions with strangers, especially those of the opposite sex or in positions of authority; encounters requiring assertive behavior; and explicitly evaluative settings such as job interviews provoke the strongest feelings of social anxiety. Quietness, gaze aversion, and awkward body language are the most common behavioral signs of shyness.
Shyness as Emotional State and Personality Trait
Viewed as an emotional state, shyness is an almost universal experience, with less than 10% of respondents to cross-cultural surveys reporting that they had never felt shy. The ubiquity of shyness raises the question of its possible adaptive value. Contemporary psychologists who take an evolutionary perspective on emotional development point out that a moderate amount of wariness regarding strangers and unfamiliar or unpredictable situations may have considerable adaptive value. Social anxiety is functional when it motivates preparation and rehearsal for important interpersonal events, and shyness helps facilitate cooperative group living by inhibiting individual behavior that is socially unacceptable. Moreover, the complete absence of susceptibility to feeling shy has been recognized as an antisocial characteristic since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. Situational shyness as a transitory emotional state thus appears to be a normal and functional aspect of human development and everyday adult life.
For some people, however, shyness is more than a temporary situational response; it occurs with sufficient frequency and intensity to be considered a personality trait. About 30% to 40% of adults in the United States label themselves as dispositionally shy persons. Three quarters of the shy respondents said that they did not like being so shy, and two thirds of them considered their shyness to be a personal problem. Although shyness does have some positive connotations, such as modesty or gentleness, it is generally rated as an undesirable characteristic, especially for men. Recent research supports this negative image of the trait by documenting how shyness can be a barrier to personal well-being, social adjustment, and occupational fulfillment.
Some people prefer to spend time alone rather than with others but also feel comfortable when they are in social settings. Such people are nonanxious introverts, who may be unsociable but are not shy. The opposite of shyness is social self-confidence, not extraversion. The problem for truly shy people is that their anxiety prevents them from participating in social life when they want to or need to.
Individual Differences in Shyness
One way to approach the distinction between shy people and those who are not shy is simply quantitative: Dispositionally shy people experience physical tension, worry, and behavioral inhibition more frequently, more intensely, and in a wider range of situations than do people who do not label themselves as being shy. There are also qualitative differences in psychological processes. For example, shy people perceive various situations as being inherently less intimate and more evaluative, and they perceive the same interpersonal feedback as being more evaluatively negative, compared with those who are not shy. When they encounter social difficulties, shy people also tend to make more self-blaming causal attributions and to remember more negative details than do people who are not shy.
Research studies of identical and fraternal twins indicate that the temperamental predisposition for shyness has a substantial genetic component. Infants with this highly reactive temperament in the first year of life are more likely to be wary or fearful of strangers at the end of the second year, and they are also more likely to be described as shy by their kindergarten teachers than are children with an opposite, behaviorally uninhibited temperament. Temperamental inhibition in infancy does not lead invariably to childhood shyness. Parents who are sensitive to the nature of their inhibited child’s temperament, who take an active role in helping the child to develop relationships with playmates, and who facilitate involvement in school activities appear to ameliorate the impact of shyness on the child’s subsequent social adjustment. Childhood shyness is a joint product of temperament and socialization experiences within and outside the family. Retrospective reports indicate that 75% of young adults who say they were shy in early childhood continue to identify themselves as shy persons. Equally significant, however, is that about half of shy adults report that they did not become troubled by shyness until they were between the ages of 8 and 14.
Most of the children who first become shy in later childhood and early adolescence do not have the temperamental predisposition for shyness. Instead, late-developing shyness is usually caused by adjustment problems in adolescent social development. The bodily changes of puberty, the newly acquired cognitive ability to think abstractly about the self and the environment, and the new demands and opportunities resulting from changing social roles combine to make adolescents feel intensely self-conscious and socially awkward. Adolescent self-consciousness gradually declines after age 14, and less than 50% of individuals who first became shy during later childhood and early adolescence still consider themselves to be shy by age 21.
Cultural Differences in Shyness
Sex role socialization puts different pressures on adolescent girls and boys. In the United States, teenage girls experience more symptoms of self-conscious shyness, such as doubts about their attractiveness and worries about what others think of them, whereas teenage boys tend to be more troubled by behavioral symptoms of shyness because the traditional male role requires initiative and assertiveness in social life. Cultural differences in the prevalence of shyness also may reflect the impact of socialization practices. In Israel, children tend to be praised for being self-confident and often are included in adult conversations, two factors that may account for the low level of shyness reported by Israelis. In Japan, on the other hand, the incidence of shyness is much higher than in the United States. Japanese culture values harmony and tends to encourage dependency and quiet loyalty to one’s superiors. Talkative or assertive individuals risk being considered immature or insincere, and there is a high level of concern about avoiding the shame of failure. All these values may promote shyness yet also make it a somewhat less socially undesirable personality trait. In contrast, American cultural values that emphasize competition, individual achievement, and material success appear to create an environment in which it is particularly difficult for the shy person to feel secure and worthwhile.
- Cheek, J. M., & Krasnoperova, E. N. (1999). Varieties of shyness in adolescence and adulthood. In L. A. Schmidt & J. Schulkin (Eds.), Extreme fear, shyness, and social phobia: Origins, biological mechanisms, and clinical outcomes (pp. 224-250). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Crozier, W. R. (Ed.). (2001). Shyness: Development, consolidation, and change. London: Routledge.
- Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1995). Social anxiety. New York: Guilford Press.