Some 15 to 20 percent of humans are born shy, which roughly parallels the incidence of shyness within different species of animals. Shyness is an evolutionary tactic.
I don’t particularly like being shy. I don’t think it benefits me in any way, whether in terms of regular ol’ evolutionary selection or in terms of post-nature meta-survival (broad-spectrum human fulfillment, say). Shyness in humans is undesirable to the point of pathology — you may be prescribed a medication to overcome social-anxiety, which might be (only somewhat incorrectly) considered shyness at a clinical, disabling level. I’ve never actually been prescribed a medication for my own extreme shyness/social-anxiety situation, and that’s probably only because social-anxiety is covered pretty well by medications I consume for other things, one of which being the sort of anxiety that happens alone watching television or while walking on a nice day in the woods. Which is to say anxiety that happens anytime and anywhere for no reason, a more or less lifelong condition previewed by an ‘80s childhood of being the sort of shy that may cause one to fail at a great many normal childhood things.
“Being shy” is a term that has been absolutely robbed away by drug companies via intense direct marketing of social-anxiety/social phobia as a thing you are currently, certainly suffering from — you do not “suffer” from shyness, you “are” shy. Meanwhile, you have social-anxiety — you are afflicted by it. And you can’t be treated for something you are, only for something that is inflicted on you, even if the source of that infliction is your own genes (you are not cancerous after all, you have cancer).
Pfizer got approval to market the SSRI paroxetine (Paxil) for social-anxiety treatment in 1999, the first such drug with the green light to ease the pain of a new condition afflicting untold numbers of humans. Sertraline (Zoloft) followed in 2003, receivingFDA approval for short-term treatment of “social phobia.” The makers of such drugs preceded to pour tens of millions of dollars into pushing SSRIs on a much wider base of potential customers than they ever could have imagined and, quite suddenly, the word “shy” made an abrupt exit from the vocabulary of suffering.
So, by the year 2012, shyness has gone from being this bad thing that might hold back a kid in school to an entry in the DSM and a powerful sales vehicle for a large industry. (Let’s also acknowledge real quick the social-anxiety disorder acronym, “SAD.”) Meanwhile, society has done well in establishing the gregarious extrovert, the team player, the ace communicator, as its idyll. Susan Cain, author of this year’sQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, wrote in a The New York Times essay in March:
Children’s classroom desks are now often arranged in pods, because group participation supposedly leads to better learning; in one school I visited, a sign announcing “Rules for Group Work” included, “You can’t ask a teacher for help unless everyone in your group has the same question.” Many adults work for organizations that now assign work in teams, in offices without walls, for supervisors who value “people skills” above all. As a society, we prefer action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. Studies show that we rank fast and frequent talkers as more competent, likable and even smarter than slow ones. As the psychologists William Hart and Dolores Albarracin point out, phrases like “get active,” “get moving,” “do something” and similar calls to action surface repeatedly in recent books.
In America particularly, we find a lot of weight being put on a kind of brash individuality, a caricature that survives pretty well IRL, as we’ll see in levels leagues beyond bearability in the next two months before U.S. national elections. Though brash individuality, at least within the modern American caricature, is never anything more than a means to group success. That’s the selection mechanism that American group culture uses: victory to the loudest. I submit as evidence every group I’ve ever participated in or witnessed, save for a newspaper I used to work for that was once but no longer is led by a brilliant and quiet editor rent ineffective by the pushing and shoving of the loud and dull, who eventually won, as they have at most newspapers.
The inventors and theorists are the ones that actually practice individuality, at least insofar as that means independent thinking and doing and disinterest in conformity and approval. And these are the people that don’t succeed in groups, either because they’re not interested in group structure or group structure isn’t interested in them. Cain quotes in her essay a choice line from science writer Winifred Gallagher: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”
Is it glory with which we regard them though? Or pity? Milton was friendly with kings, but wouldn’t have anything to do with the group. Wasn’t Paradise Lost about exile and alienation? And if you Google Image Search “mad scientist” right now, the first result returned that isn’t a cartoon of an Einstein-looking scientist is an actual photo of Albert Einstein. We enjoy the idea of successful introverts a great deal more than we enjoy the idea of promoting them through our social structures. The shy, the introverted, the SAD don’t actually get much glory, though the tech economy has arguably allowed a short-circuit of sorts between glory and the messy office full of half-finished sketches. Though, of course, for every “innovation leader” doubling as a walking media event (Steve Jobs, Larry Page), there’s a great many people you will never hear of unless your hobby is patent law.