The Art of Shyness

“It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Mark Twain


On a bench at the top left corner of an island called Djurgarden in Stockholm earlier this week, I watched a child talking to herself with panic in her eyes: intent and discontent in her little bobble hat and matching mittens against the skyline of Stockholm. Perhaps she was lost, or mad, or both (too many Swedish thrillers in my head). Or a ghost. A sea monster?! Or, also quite conceivably: a school kid practicing a speech while her mother watched sullenly from a nearby bench.


They had probably been practicing for hours and imagined a change of scenery might help, but the kid was still no mini-Churchill, no aspiring Emmeline Pankhurst. She spoke too quickly, fidgeting from foot to foot, and looked occasionally at her mother with an expression of abject hope and horror.

I’ve always thought it must be exhausting to be an extrovert: an inexplicable urge to attend parties on weeknights, go on holiday in eager groups and enjoy open plan offices. On the other hand, being an extrovert would help with the odd speech. I’m going to the Essex Books Festival and a Diogenes Sales conference at the end of this month. I enjoy talking about writing, but it’s a slightly masochistic pleasure. Not terror like the Swedish kid was feeling as she gripped index cards in her mittens, but not yet effortless either.  I was fascinated by Susan Cain’s article on introversion and shyness in The Guardianthis week. She defines introversion as “a preference for environments that are not over stimulating” while shyness is a more crippling, insidious thing, a “the fear of social disapproval or humiliation.”

I’d never given much thought to the difference, but it’s crucial. Shyness hurts. It makes you blush at inconvenient moments and panic while practicing speeches to your mother on darkening Swedish islands. Shyness is something that you can battle against over time, even if it takes hours and hours of practicing speeches as the sun goes down. (“Shyness can stop you/From doing all the things in life/You’d like to,” as The Smiths point out).

A preference for sitting on your own for long periods of time, though? That’s just good sense. It’s not something worth fighting. A card in a Stockholm bookshop made this point nicely: “No one is able to enjoy such feast than the one who throws a party in his own mind.” Selma Lagerlof, Swedish children’s author and Nobel laureate.