Navigating My Shyness with the Help of Joe Moran’s SHRINKING VIOLETS
A few months ago, I was sitting across from a dear friend at a quaint coffee shop nestled in the hum of the busy East Village. I expressed how troubling my shyness can be and how more often than not it feels like a disadvantage in a world that seems to reward the extroverted in social situations. Reflecting on the previous week’s academic instance that marked the end of my undergraduate studies, my senior thesis presentation, where I felt my cheeks redden and my heart beat at 180 bpm for the nth time, I expressed how this crippling fear of speaking in front of a group of people has been following me since I first became aware of my voice in a silent third grade classroom. Since then, comments from teachers and professors about my participation in class have ended with a compliment followed by “but you should participate more during class discussions.”
As I grew older, I began to use other adjectives like awkward, introverted, and reserved to describe myself since “shy,” according to my friends, no longer seemed to encapsulate my personality. Now, I’m just reserved when I’m in the presence of strangers. I can be myself in front of eyes and minds I have spent enough time with to understand and trust, but I close in and dread small talk with friends of friends at house parties and neighbors I run into in the elevator. Nevertheless, whether it’s shyness, timidity, reservation, introversion, or social anxiety it’s still something that has set me apart in social settings to the point where I sometimes feel like an outsider looking in, or an imposter when I apply for a job knowing very well that my oral communication skills are not “strong” all the time, and for the longest time I’ve wanted to fix it… to just get over it.
A few days after we talked, he recommended that I read Joe Moran’s “field guide” to shyness, Shrinking Violets: The Secret Life of Shyness. Unlike personal growth books where one is either encouraged to improve or is reminded of the fact that his or her personal struggle is actually a boon, Joe Moran’s exploration of shyness in all its shades and complexities aims to remind his fellow afflicted violets that shyness is neither a burden nor an advantage, but a necessary part of “the delicately balanced ecosystem of human behavior” (233) that should be accepted as an “unyielding reality” that no one needs to, or will ever completely get over or fix (229). Moran comes to this conclusion by spending relatively little time asking what causes shyness, and more time exploring the various ways in which shy individuals amongst the famous and creative have dealt with or used it to propel their careers. To not give away spoilers to this empathetic 235-page long field guide that I highly recommend to anyone who slightly or completely relates to my personal relationship with shyness mentioned above and throughout this blog, I will focus on one of the stories that I related to and found to be helpful in answering one of the questions I have asked myself regarding my waves of shyness (i.e. Why do I have an easier time participating in discussions with strangers that require me to speak French? Why do I practice future conversations in the comfort of my bedroom? Why do I tend to scan the room for other shrinking violets in social situations?)
During my junior year abroad in Paris, I realized that I felt more at ease when presenting or participating in French class discussions, as well as more open to engaging in small talk with the few French people who did venture out of their friend groups to talk to a complete stranger at a bar or social gathering. Despite the possibility of it being liquid courage in the latter (fellow violets, you know what I’m talking about), the fact that my cheeks didn’t blush or that my stomach didn’t turn ten seconds before I planned to raise my hand was something impossible not to notice. I grew up learning English and Spanish at the same time, but unfortunately, I rarely feel at ease when speaking to strangers in either language. Since I left Mexico at a young age and only speak in Spanish to my parents, I am very much aware of my limited vocabulary, constant grammatical errors, and a lacking or wrong usage of slang expressions that would help me feel less like an alien in front of 20-something-year-olds. It might all be in my head, but I feel like a little kid while speaking to adults in Spanish. This change in personality, or preference for another language in a given conversation, was something that I found to have in common with my other bilingual or trilingual friends: we choose different languages to express ourselves depending on the tone of conversations, or the people involved in our conversations.
But why do we feel more confident in one language compared to another? In Chapter Five: Stage Fright, Joe Moran finds the perfect German word to describe this, an antonym to stage fright: Maskenfreiheit, the freedom that comes from wearing masks. Moran recounts the shy life story of Nick Drake who despite his “defensed” nature, expressed what might as well have been personal stories “with hints of missed opportunities” by adopting the French chanson (singing) tradition which typically “allows singers to sing their hearts out while hiding behind different guises” (137). In some way, the French version of myself armours herself up with a lower pitched voice to better enunciate and pronounce different words, and by blowing raspberries and throwing in the interspersed euh (the French version of ummh). It’s a disguised performance that keeps me from feeling completely naked and embarrassed in front of new faces. Since French is my third language, I allow myself to take pauses mid-conversation to gather my thoughts without being consumed by the fear of having left the other person alone in an otherwise daunting silence that occurs when one has said her or his point and is thinking about what to say next. According to Moran, shy people are surprisingly attracted to the idea of performing because “on stage, you are still making up a version of yourself that you feel more comfortable with, real but not real, natural but with a naturalness you have amplified and enlarged” (150). My shy self may have scanned the room to see who else hasn’t spoken to make sure that I speak either right before or right after to avoid being seen as the quiet girl in class, but my French self will simply raise her hand, take a few seconds to gather her thoughts, and start off with an eh bien…
I still get shy, but now I don’t want to fix it. This is not me coming out of my shell, it is breaking the silence around my shyness and accepting it as part of who I am. And when I forget, I have found it helpful to flip through the book to the carefully folded triangles at the bottom of specific pages to remind myself of the many different ways that I can do this. In fact, this blog post, where I have engaged in a conversation with my readers, whether fellow violets or not, is one of them.