Dealing with shyness

When I was a child (before some post-40 bloggers were born) there was an attitude left over from earlier times that children should be heard and not seen and only speak when they were spoken to.  For a quiet child it was easier to stare out of the window, lost in thought than to join in with conversation.  In company, for example a family meal at which another family was present, I could not get a word in edgeways.  I just listened – and sometimes remembered.

I was shy.  To go an errand was an ordeal.  In those days it involved going to the shop and waiting in a queue, before asking for the items required.  Going with a message to a neighbour was no better.  Shy people are not likely to knock hard on doors and few people had doorbells then.  Whether an interruption was welcome or not was something I considered, while waiting for a reply.  If the door wasn’t opened quickly, how long did I need to wait before trying to make more noise with the door-knocker?

There were times, when my shyness did not really show.  One teacher in particular used to ask one of the best readers to stand at the front and read to the class from a book, of which we each had been lent a copy.  My turn came round very frequently and I enjoyed doing this.  Looking back, I probably read accurately, but without a great deal of expression – it was definitely not a dramatic interpretation.  I can’t remember which books we read.

If I really wanted to do something, which needed the permission of an adult, I used to talk to Mum about it first as a way of plucking up the courage to do it.  An example was the time I realised that I could play the recorder (having been taught by a member of my family) well enough to join the group of older children playing in the morning assembly.  I needed to ask the music teacher.  One day I left the line of children and stood by her side as she played a march on the piano for us to leave the hall.  She indicated that I might speak and gave me permission to join the group.  No-one seemed to notice that I was slightly behind my classmates arriving back in the classroom, so plucking up courage had been a positive experience.

There were ways in which I did not really change for a long time.  I was always happiest with one other person, rather than in a larger group.  To speak my own words to a group of people was nerve-wracking.  The persistence necessary to complete what I was trying to say with more than one person to interrupt (and put me off) was perhaps a reason I have always found it easier to write than to speak.

I can remember the first telephone being installed at home.  Sometimes I was told to phone someone – perhaps the person, who taught me to play the recorder or a family friend, who had kindly remembered my birthday.  I was worried I wouldn’t know what to say if they asked me questions.  Using the phone was problematic if more than one person might answer it.  A form of words was required to deal with this eventuality.  There are good ones and worse ones.  For example, “Is so-and-so there, please?” might result in the answer “Yes!” or “No!”  If the former, there would be an anxious pause while the person came to the phone.  Otherwise, an explanation and request for a good time to phone might be needed.  Embarrassingly, the phone was in the living/dining room so that anyone in the family might be listening and preparing helpful comments about where I had gone wrong!  Nowadays, I prefer to ask whether I may speak to a person.  Sometimes I even say who I am.  I am also fairly good at recognising voices, when I answer the phone, although my brothers-in-law sound rather alike.

The first time I phoned a new friend from my secondary school her mother answered.  I asked to speak to the daughter.  However, I must have sounded a bit like a niece, who phoned from time to time.  The mother, whom I had not met, began a long conversation with me, which I found it hard to extricate myself from.  Everyone has to learn these sorts of social skills, but it is more difficult for an introvert faced with a very talkative adult on the other end of the phone!

I used to talk to Mum a lot as she liked to know what had been going on at school.  She always seemed outgoing, never at a loss for words and has been a good friend to many people during her long life.  Dad was very quiet, with a soft voice.

A teacher pushed me into taking two examinations with the English Speaking Board.  The idea was that it would improve examinees’ confidence and ability in situations in adult life, where it would be necessary to speak in public.  (I have told this story before.) The first time I entered I prepared a speech about my hobby of collecting, growing and propagating cacti and succulents.  I took a container with some growing in it as a visual aid.  Reading a prepared passage from a book and answering questions from the audience of other entrants and the examiner also featured.

The first exam resulted in a pass at a particular level.  Subsequent entries were for the next grade.  The following year I really did not want to take the exam, which required more preparation and another ordeal.  I couldn’t think of a subject to talk about.  In the end I opted for holidays, but didn’t prepare properly and failed the exam.  It would have been better not to have entered!  On the whole I was not a rebellious teenager, but I did rebel against learning how to project my voice.  It was only in 2013 that I decided it was about time I did something about this!

Nowadays people do not regard me as shy.  In fact I habitually talk to strangers on railway stations and trains.  At coffee mornings, I circulate and talk to a variety of people rather than sitting in one seat and only talking to those nearby.  If there are people I have not met before, I try to speak to them.  I have met some really interesting visitors to this village.  A retired Cambridge academic and his wife and the parents of a lady, who used to sing in a choir with me, spring to mind among others.

My shyness reduced slowly over time.  I was a Brownie, then a Girl Guide and a member of a youth group.  These all involved mixing with people.  Aged sixteen I spent four weeks in France conversing almost exclusively in French, although my accent was very English due to self-consciousness about practising pronunciation.

I left home at eighteen for student life about two hundred miles away.  At the interview for a female hall of residence, I was shown round with another young lady.  We were both shy and did not make conversation with each other and not much with the person showing us around.  First year students had to share a study/bedroom.  On arrival at the beginning of term we found that we were near neighbours, but not in the same room.  Some more outgoing girls had been placed with someone they met at their interview.

At university I became involved in the Christian Union and found that I was able to converse with people from all over the world, possibly because I had developed good listening skills through being quiet.

By the end of the time I was a student I had gained a reputation for being able to talk to anyone!  I regarded it as a compliment.

Sometimes I talk too much!  I hope I am seen as a friendly person.  If you are shy, try thinking about the people around you and what they might like to talk about.  It only takes one person to “break the ice”; it could be the quietest person in the room.

This was written in response to a writing prompt from post40bloggers.

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2 thoughts on “Dealing with shyness

  1. This was really interesting Susan 🙂 It helped me to understand my daughter as she is very shy whereas I think I am more like your mother. I have often found it hard to understand how she feels but have also noticed her shyness changing as she gets older. She is now 18 and off to university later this year. Thank you for your story which really encouraged me. 🙂

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