Getting Over Your Shyness

Feeling shy? We all do, sometimes. Here's how to drop the disappearing act and become more social.
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An Epidemic?

Newly married at 28, I was looking forward to a cozy first Christmas with my husband when he uttered the dreaded words: "Hey, let's have some friends over for dinner on Christmas Eve!" I started to sweat. For many people the idea might sound fun and festive. Me? I hated, hated, hated dinner parties.

I'd been almost pathologically shy since I was a kid, and dinner parties were a diabolical combination of everything I either feared, loathed, or simply wasn't any good at: cooking, making small talk, and public speaking.

"Public speaking?" my husband asked as I attempted to explain myself. "These are our friends. You love talking to them."

"Sure, one-on-one," I answered. But dinner parties force you to address a group, I told him, even though it's a small one. For me that's enough to morph innocent gabbing into the thing that most Americans list as their number one fear in life: speaking to a crowd.

I was on the extreme end of the shyness spectrum, it's true (I'm a lot better now!), but it turns out I was in good company. Most people are a little shy sometimes. And while a dinner party with close friends may never have fazed anyone but me, I'd bet most of us feel a bit nervous walking alone into a gathering full of laughing strangers dressed up in their holiday best.

"Shyness is a basic human condition," says Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University and codirector of the Shyness Institute, in Palo Alto, California. Throughout the early '70s, Dr. Zimbardo and his colleagues undertook what became the landmark study on shyness. Of 10,000 American adults, 95 percent described themselves as currently shy, as having been shy in the past, or as being shy on occasion. A hefty 40 percent said they were shy with a capital S -- "chronically shy," researchers call it -- and when the Stanford team surveyed other countries, the numbers were similar. "Not to be shy is the exception," Dr. Zimbardo says. "Only 5 percent of the people in the United States believe they are never socially anxious."

In fact, shyness seems to be on the increase, says Bernardo J. Carducci, PhD, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, who attributes this spike to the rise of the virtual world. As more of our lives come to be lived online, we have fewer opportunities for in-person interaction. If you're shy, there's less pressure and less motivation to get out there and get over it.

Continued on page 2:  Why Shyness Is a Problem


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