The Care and Feeding of Shy People
This was originally a Usenet post, posted to a large SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, medieval hobbyists) newsgroup back in the spring of 1998. The newsgroup was called the Rialto.
This was before the explosion of Internet articles and blogs about how introverts need respect, too, for the way they socialize (or not) and the way their brains work.
I expected a lot of criticism for going against what I kept hearing from the extroverts all around me. Instead, I got an amazing response from all sorts of other shy people who agreed with me, and suggestions such as carrying around M&Ms to offer to people as icebreakers.
I also got a helpful critique from someone who was not shy, which helped me revise it into a better form.
The chronicler (newsletter writer, guy named Folo) for one shire (SCA group belonging to a city/region) saw it and asked to publish it in his shire newsletter. So this has actually been published before.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened to my copy of the newsletter, so can’t reference it. But I do have an e-mail with the updated version which I agreed to have published. It was specifically addressed to SCA readers, but applies to everyone. Here it is:
Sometimes comments are made to shy people, especially to scared newbies or recent newbies who still don’t know many people very well, that are thought to be helpful but are really not. For example, “Well, if you’re bored / If you don’t know many people, then you should talk to people.” Or, “Do you talk?” Or greeting a person not with a hello, but with a, “Don’t talk so much today!”
Such comments may be well-intentioned, even considered humor. To the speaker, they may seem reasonable and easy to act upon.
But they sound rude to the recipient, and can actually be counter-productive. Instead of talking or smiling more or starting conversations, the shy person may grow increasingly resentful, talk less, and, instead of doing the things he naturally does to start friendships, ends up not even doing that.
He grows more uncomfortable and self-conscious than he would have been. In effect, an outgoing person telling a shy person to talk more is like a well person telling a sick person to get better, or a cat telling a dog to be a cat.
Instead, be more understanding of the shy person’s natural manner of making friends. Some are not sure how to make friends, but some have already developed strategies that work for them.
Maybe a particular person is quiet at first, but more talkative after getting to know you. I have found myself going from quiet to talkative in a matter of minutes with a person I’ve only just met, because we seemed to “click.”
But often, the thought of talking with a complete stranger can make a shy person freeze up. Let him ask for help, and don’t just assume he needs it.
Another thing to do is, if he appears bored or uncomfortable, you could invite him to join your group at a meal or whatever your group is doing. Then don’t persecute him if he doesn’t open up right away.
(Our reasons for keeping quiet in a group discussion are varied: we don’t know the subject at all, we don’t have anything to say, all our points are already made by others, or we just can’t get a word in edgewise until the subject has already changed!)
If he thinks he would like to get to know you better, he might, after this icebreaker, seek you out. Or need to be invited once or twice more. That would help a lot. Ask him for his opinions on conversation topics, too–make him a part of discussion. Remember, you have the power here, in the shy person’s eyes.
Crowds can also be intimidating. A relaxed setting (meaning, no one’s pressured to talk), such as a game of pente or watching TV, with a handful of people is an excellent way to get a shy person to “open up.”
Those are my observations after years (inside and outside the SCA) of seeing what works and what doesn’t. What works is to accept the shy person as shy and/or quiet; what doesn’t work is to try to change this without being asked.
Nyssa of Iona