Thoughts about this Culture and Shyness

So I was just doing some research on Western and Eastern ideas on “shyness”. Although the terms “Western” and “Eastern” might be a bit reductive, as no doubt individual countries and even regions have slightly different ideas about things, the impression I’m getting is that in Western cultures we usually see shyness as anti-social or rude, whereas Eastern cultures tend to see it as thoughtful and respectful (again that might be over-generalizing).

Just as an aside, I’m uncertain as to whether what I’m reading on the internet may or may not be conflating the terms “shyness” and “quietness”. To me quietness it just that, quietness, while shyness is a timid type of quietness, usually being a wariness of, often unfamiliar, people. But I think from my personal observations people call anyone who isn’t saying much, “shy”, without giving it much though, and it seems like it’s usually said with a negative idea of their supposed “shyness”.

So moving on from this, I was thinking about how in our culture (my own experience of “Western” culture is specifically England by the way) maybe we kind of instill cultural ideas in people early without realising we’re doing it and without realising that we’re doing it because people once instilled those ideas in us, to unwittingly teach us what’s expected of us (maybe this is a stretch, idk).

Then I was thinking about something that happened in this charity shop I was volunteering in I, when a grandma came in with her grandson, who was probably about 4 or 5. The other volunteers in the shop had a policy of giving sweets to all the kids who came in, because it was Christmas I guess, so they gave a sweet to this kid and the grandma started talking to us. Then the ladies I was working with started trying to get this little boy chatting about what he wanted for Christmas etc, but he acted very shy and he was clearly taking great displeasure in the fact these unfamiliar people were talking to him. He tried to not respond, but his grandma wasn’t ok with that, saying he was being “rude” and insisting “answer the lady’s question” several times but I guess that was fair dos because ignoring people isn’t really polite. The ladies were nice about it but then they kept bombarding him with questions even though he was trying to dodge eye contact and fidgeting with discomfort… and his gran kept telling him off for it. I felt like, these people are the grown ups who should be able to take a hint. This kid’s too young to rationalize why he’s feeling shy, so more care to prevent him feeling overwhelmed, guilty, or misunderstood etc.. wouldn’t go amiss.

So I’m using this as an example of a cultural idea we have (and probably taking it way too seriously, whoops). In defence of people who might see “shyness” as “rudeness,” if a grown person ignores you or tries to brush you off when you’re making friendly conversation, it’s probably fair to feel let down. It seems fair to expect the other person to at least try, even if the attempt they make is awkward. And I guess it’s not bad to teach people before they grow up that when somebody tries to make conversation, ignoring them isn’t really the thing to do. But I think using negative labels like “rude” and generally being harsh runs a risk of them just becoming more shy, because it’s showing you don’t understand/won’t acknowledge the feeling of cautiousness and even fear underlying their shyness (and that’s probably not age-specific). With kids they’re probably too young to suss out why they feel how they feel let alone articulate it to make you understand, but you hopefully have gained enough basic life experience to understand how human emotion works and how it seems to be working for them at this moment in time.

So what I’m saying is, a more compassionate, gradual way of teaching people what’s expected in social interaction, and a bit more allowance for shyness generally, would be more ideal. If a shy person is at least trying to engage with you and be friendly, it’s a bit of a leap to interpret their behaviour as rude or impolite (granted, it’s always a possibility). There’s a chance they just need some time to get used to you. If they get this chance, there’s no knowing how strong your relationship with them could become.

And maybe what you see as “shyness” isn’t even shyness. Maybe they’re just quiet because they’re an introspective person, or they don’t know much about the topic that’s being talked about, or they’re tired etc… (I’d really recommend a book called Quiet by Susan Cain for more about quietness [you don’t say…] and introversion btw)

I really hope that doesn’t sound self-righteous or preachy…

Thoughts welcome!


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