Answer: They might reject you, think less of you, or ridicule you. You might show nervousness or in some way embarrass yourself. It is the same fear (greatly magnified) that we have meeting a stranger. What will they think of me? Will they notice I'm nervous? What if they don't like me?
Social anxiety disorder — an extreme version of shyness — is the third largest mental health problem in the U.S., behind depression and alcoholism. And yet, most people don't know anything about it. We've heard of depression. We know more than we want to know about alcoholism. Why don't we know anything about social anxiety? Because the nature of the problem keeps it hidden. "Can you see a movie-of-the-week," says psychologist Thomas Richards, "about a very shy person who rarely leaves the house except to go to work, who has no friends, and is afraid of answering the door at times?" Who would watch a movie like that?
The authors of Painfully Shy: How to Overcome Social Anxiety and Reclaim Your Life said that after their first book was published — Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety and Phobia — a television talk show called them and said, "We want you on our show if you can bring several articulate, outgoing social phobics with you." What the heck were they thinking? Social anxiety disorder doesn't get much coverage because anyone with the problem is trying to avoid the public eye.
Although a lot of people are socially phobic, even more are simply shy. Philip Zimbardo, author of Shyness: What It Is, What to Do About It, says that there may be as many as eighty-four million shy people in the U.S. Shyness may seem in some ways a rather mild problem, but shyness makes it more difficult to make friendships and date, it can prevent a promotion if a person is unwilling to speak to groups, it causes physical discomfort and mental anguish, and shyness is associated with other problems: alcohol abuse and depression, for example. And besides all that, being shy is no fun.
I was told since I was a kid that I was shy and I believed it. But I didn't want to be shy. I didn't like feeling insecure around people. I didn't want to be afraid. I wanted to be free.
So when I was twenty years old, I decided to get over it. I joined a program to train me to give group presentations (to sell audiences on a seminar program). It was an intensive six-month program. At the same time, I got a job selling disability insurance door-to-door to business owners. I was in dead earnest; I was going to get over my shyness as quickly as possible.
I had a miserable, adrenaline-filled three and a half months. I went too far too fast with too few tools. I got in over my head. My anxiety was getting worse, not better, and I failed to make money with insurance sales.
The pressure to make money intensified, and so did my level of anxiety. It was extraordinarily difficult to make myself get out of the car and walk into another store to talk to a business owner who was already tired of dealing with salespeople.
One of my most vivid memories is sitting in my parked car, crying like a baby. I was twenty-one years old. I was five minutes late for an appointment, even though I had been parked there for twenty minutes. I just couldn't seem to make myself get out of the car and go in. And I hated myself for it. I felt like such a weakling, such a pathetic loser.
I was talking to a friend of mine about it one evening after another miserable day and she tried to talk me into quitting. "You're not cut out for it," she said.
"But damn it," I said, "I'm doing this to get over it! That was the whole point! If I backed out now, I would have gone through all this misery for nothing!"
My friend was also shy and she handled her social anxiety by simply avoiding situations that made her feel anxious. I didn't want to take that route. I didn't want to live my life imprisoned like that.
I eventually had to quit the sales job and get a job where I could make some money before I went completely belly up, so I found a job as a waiter. It wasn't as difficult as leading a seminar or selling insurance, but at least I was standing in front of strangers talking and making money. Later I took the Dale Carnegie Course in Public Speaking and Human Relations. Then I joined a Toastmasters Club (a club for people who want to learn how to give public speeches).
It turns out I am not really shy. In fact I'm not shy at all. But I do have a pair of adrenal glands that react very strongly and one of the most common things they react to in my everyday life is people.
My feelings of insecurity were the result of the feedback loop created by my own adrenaline. Here's how it worked: Start out with a world-class, fast-firing adrenal system. Meet a stranger. Adrenal glands kick into gear. Feel afraid and then start worrying that your fear will show and they'll think less of you because of it. Result: More adrenaline. The whole thing cycles in a self-feeding loop.
Public speaking was merely an exaggerated example of the same thing. What I was so worried about was that I would be too afraid. I was concerned I might appear so nervous that I'd forget what I was going to say or my hands would shake or my voice would quaver. They'd be able to see and hear that I was afraid and think I'm a weakling, a chicken, an irrational person. I was afraid of my own fear.
The self-feeding loop is one of the two main sources of shyness. The other is a lack of know-how. People skills.
the science of charisma
Ronald Riggio, the author of The Charisma Quotient: What It Is, How To Get It, How To Use It, conducted experiments to discover what charisma is and whether or not it could be learned. He found that charisma is not a mysterious, indefinable character trait, but a set of six skills. Some people learn these skills because they've had a good example. They got lucky. If you weren't that lucky, you can learn the skills on your own.
One of the six charisma skills is what Riggio calls "emotional sensitivity." That means being capable of seeing and hearing emotion in other people. Some people don't do this very well. If you are shy, you are probably very good at it. You know what people are feeling. You can see it and hear it. You're "sensitive" to it. You're more aware of it than the average person. Riggio found that when emotional sensitivity isn't complemented by the other charisma skills, it produces shyness.
Here's how it works: Bill meets a stranger, which is naturally a little tension-producing for anybody. Bill can see and correctly interpret the slight tension on the stranger's face and body movements, body posture, etc. If Bill had the skill to put the other person at ease, everything would be fine. If Bill hasn't developed that skill, the stranger's awkwardness makes Bill feel awkward. He makes less eye contact, he pulls back, and he doesn't reveal too much about himself. Perhaps he appears nervous or standoffish. The stranger's awareness of Bill's tension makes the stranger feel even more awkward. And round and round goes another feedback loop.
Bill walks away wanting to avoid social interactions with strangers. They are too uncomfortable. And of course, by avoiding those situations, Bill is creating another feedback loop: If he kept putting himself in those situations, he might eventually learn the skill of drawing out the other person, carrying on an interesting and relaxing conversation, helping the other person feel at ease, and so on. Since Bill avoids all those opportunities to practice, he doesn't develop the skill. In fact, his situation may well get worse, because his anxiety level may increase with each new encounter since he has so actively avoided those circumstances. Starting off more anxious makes the encounter even more awkward, which makes Bill even more determined to avoid that kind of discomfort in the future, etc. What a mess!
If you're in a bind like this, what can you do about it? Simple. Step one: Stop thinking of yourself as shy. In many ways, you are what you think you are, and labeling yourself as shy only makes you more nervous and withdrawn. Think of yourself as simply lacking know-how.
Second, gain the skill you need: Social competence. People-skills. Says Riggio:
…the higher a person's charisma potential, the less likely he or she is to be shy. Surprisingly, a great many of our famous charismatic people at one time (usually in their childhood and adolescence) considered themselves to be shy. Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Kennedy, and Gandhi were all once shy individuals who forced themselves to overcome this handicap by developing their social skills.
Right now I'm reading How I Overcame Shyness : 100 Celebrities Share Their Secrets, which is a little book of famous people who wrote to the author about how they overcame their shyness. There are letters from actors, politicians and well-known people — Charlton Heston, Michael Jordan, Ed McMahon, Monty Hall, Buddy Hackett, Merle Haggard, and the list goes on and on — all of whom were shy or still consider themselves to be shy, and some of whom consider their shyness to be an asset, just like Ronald Riggio thinks social sensitivity is an important factor in charisma.
Without the development of several of the other factors, social sensitivity just makes you extra nervous around people and leads to self-criticism. That hits the nail on the head as far as I'm concerned. Developing my skill in the other factors has made a big difference in my life. I have gone from feeling very shy to being comfortable in most social situations.
Riggio has broken charisma down into six skills. I broke one of his skills into two, giving us seven skills altogether. All of them can be practiced and improved. The more skill you have in these seven areas, the less shy (and the more confident) you will feel. In this case confidence is directly related to competence, as it should be.
The seven skills (and ways to develop them) are:
1. Reading emotion: You are probably already quite an accomplished maestro at this skill. People who aren't can acquire this skill by observing people, trying to guess what emotion they are feeling, and then find out if the guess is correct. Over time, the ability to guess will improve.
2. Transmitting emotion: This is the ability to communicate your own emotion nonverbally with the tone of your voice, your face, and your body language. Studies have shown that most people are not nearly as good at this as they think they are. The best way to improve your emotional expression is to try to convey more feeling when you're conversing with people. If you want to improve quickly, practice in front of a mirror or videotape yourself.
3. Hiding emotion selectively: This is the ability to not show emotion, or show it, as you decide. Some people are not very good at hiding their emotions from others. These people have less charisma because sometimes an expressed emotion is inappropriate. Showing the wrong emotion at the wrong time can cause discomfort in others or make people lose respect for you (having no emotional control is a sign of immaturity and lack of self-discipline). Emotions are contagious, and some are unwise to spread, particularly anger and awkwardness.
4. Noticing social subtleties: This requires you to pay attention to others, to interactions, to subtle clues. People-watching, and generally taking your attention off yourself are good aids in training.
5. Knowing social rules: This is knowledge of things like who goes through the door first, how to introduce yourself to others, etc. — things you might find in a basic manual on etiquette or manners. These will be different for different cultures and subcultures. Pay attention, study, and ask questions. A good person to ask is a socially competent older person.
6. Role flexibility: This is the ability to play different roles with different people and knowing what works best with different people. This requires that you notice social subtleties, pay attention to social rules, and gain flexibility in the way you express yourself.
7. Verbal expression: This is the ability to use words to express yourself clearly and interestingly. You can improve your skill by paying attention to what makes some people interesting and others boring, and by practicing what you learn. Increasing your vocabulary also helps. Reading and writing help too. Spending more time expressing yourself verbally is very important — conversing, giving speeches — simply try to improve your ability to express yourself with words.
Notice which ones you do well. But then notice your weaknesses. The best way to use this list is to ask: Which one of these skills are you weakest in? And then work on that one. Make it a strength of yours.
After you have developed some degree of competence at that skill, work on another. I did this very thing and I'm quite comfortable now meeting strangers, putting them at ease, and carrying on conversations. It's fun. The last thing people would think about me now is that I'm shy.
I haven't changed much. I've just gained some know-how and practiced it. I have enough basic know-how (because of books and tapes) that I have a certain amount of competence. I see opportunities to improve, to practice, to learn in every encounter. It's like a game I enjoy playing. I don't mean "manipulation." I mean the challenge you get when you play a computer game or a good tennis game — using your skill to reach a goal you want. In this case, I want the other person to feel comfortable, I want to feel comfortable myself, I want us to have a good time together, I want to learn something valuable, and maybe even teach something valuable. I want this encounter to make a difference to both of us. I want it to be a memorable meeting. I want us to make an emotional connection.
I know these may seem like big goals to you and an awful lot to try to accomplish in one conversation, but if you want the fun of a challenge, you have to keep increasing your goals as your skill increases. At first you may have the goal to simply put the other person at ease. Start where you are and build skill. All you really need is the motivation to do it.
Motivation is a fundamental key to any accomplishment. If you want to develop greater people-skills, it is only your ability to stay motivated that will keep you trying week after week. And one important thing that'll keep you motivated is becoming sensitive to the benefits of social competence.
Richard Lucas and Ed Diener, the lead authors of a study involving six thousand college students from forty countries, found that when people are extroverts, it's not because they are more sociable than introverts, it's because they are more sensitive to the rewards of social interactions.
Introverts and shy people get just as much enjoyment from social interactions, but they aren't attuned to it. They don't recognize all the rewards they get from it, so they aren't as motivated to try to be social. Conversing with people is really one of the most fun things there is on this planet, but if you don't realize that, you won't seek out social interactions or try to get better at interacting with your fellow humans.
Start now paying attention to the tremendous personal rewards of conversing with people, and work to improve your people skills.
Shyness is officially passé. We have renamed it emotional sensitivity — a key component to the development of charisma.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.