Lessons We Can Learn from Shy People
by Merryl Lentz
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They're the quiet ones. The ones who are standing in a corner of a room while everyone else is in the middle. The ones who listen to a conversation, rather than participating in it. The ones who often go largely unnoticed -- which is a shame, because there is much that we can learn from them.
Shy people are often regarded as a tiny minority, but they actually comprise a whopping 40 percent of America's population. They're often stigmatized with negative connotations, including lack of eye contact, feelings of shame and embarrassment, and aloofness from other people. Shyness is regarded by many as a disadvantage, but it can have positive effects, as well. According to Professor C. Barr Taylor of Stanford University, "Shyness shouldn't be seen as a medical problem -- it's a pattern where you feel uncomfortable, but it's very common."
The intriguing thing about shy people is that their behavior can actually offer insight into how others can be more successful. Many of their habits can be cast in a positive light, as behaviors we can emulate to our advantage.
Shy people tend to be deep thinkers who often reflect inwardly. According to Taylor, that abundance of thinking isn't a negative quality. "Shyness shouldn't be thought of as something you can't deal with or get over," he says. "I think it's good for people not to see it as an impairment, but rather as a way you can think actively as you go into a situation."
For this reason, shy people are actually an asset to the workforce, where the creative process is deeply valued, and where people who excel at thinking things through tend to arrive at more well-thought out conclusions. If you're a deep thinker, you possess a precious quality. A well-thought out plan can be an asset because people are then prepared for a variety of outcomes.
However, deep thinking shouldn't be confused with overthinking, especially regarding thoughts pertaining to a specific situation. If a shy person is worried about a challenge or incident, Taylor suggests slowly approaching the feared situation if it spawns anxiety. By facing your insecurities, you'll feel much less worried.
"Our brains are amazing," he says. "They can become well adapted. If you put yourself in a fearful situation, you'll get a sense that you're going to do it. By treating [situations that normally trigger shyness] as a trial and then a success, you can overcome it."
Shy people also tend to be acutely observant of their surroundings, and of other people. This quality can assist them in a finely honed ability to read people's facial expressions and intuit what other people are feeling, resulting in them exercising more tact.
In a study conducted at the Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, researchers discovered a link between college-age individuals who were shy and the inclination to more accurately identify facial expressions of sadness and fear compared with those participants who weren't shy. "We tend to give shy people a bad rap," says researcher Laura Graves O'Haver. "It might be nice to focus on those strengths.
More reserved people also often perceive aspects of conversation or surroundings that others may miss. "Just because you're shy," Taylor says, "doesn't mean you're not attuned to social situations. It can actually become a source of strength as you are the observer in the room." It can also be a source of safety, since they are more likely to keenly assess their surroundings and safeguard themselves when they sense that a situation is off-kilter.
Another outstanding quality that shy people possess is that they're excellent listeners who can effectively digest information and understand it. This is actually an asset in social situations, because speakers love a rapt audience. Many people fail to truly listen to others during a conversation. If they're constantly eyeing the room and disinterested in what you're saying, it can be very irritating. Shy people excel at being highly attuned listeners.
While shyness is typically associated with being an outsider to a conversation, this doesn't always hold true. Shy people may very well be outstanding conversationalists because they're so attuned to what every person in the group has to say. Psychologists Bernardo Carducci and Philip Zimbardo produced an in-depth essay on the cost of shyness. They say that while shyness can be a deterrent, a shy person's ability to grasp a conversation can be their greatest asset:
"If they can get over their self-induced pressures for witty repartee, shy people can be great at conversation because they may actually be paying attention. (The hard part comes when a response is expected.) According to Harvard's Doreen Arcus, shy kids are apt to be especially empathic. Parents of the children she studies tell her that 'even in infancy, the shy child seemed to be sensitive, empathic, and a good listener. They seem to make really good friends and their friends are very loyal to them and value them quite a bit.' Even among children, friendships need someone who will talk and someone who will listen."
Shy people care strongly about what others think of them, and this trait can be used to their advantage to forge social connections. "It's hard to be observant, and it's better to be an actor in our culture -- but being conscious [about what other people think of you] can be seen as a strength," according to Taylor. "Some people even find shyness attractive and appealing -- they like someone who is self-aware.
If a shy person is already self-conscious, they may reach the point where concern about other people's opinions can be detrimental. However, caring about other people's opinions may not merely be a personality trait, but part of being human, since caring about the opinions of others lights up the brain's reward centers, according to research from University College London and Aarhus University of Denmark.
So the next time you're in a group that's talking about something, the shy person may actually be the best conversationalist there.
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