Andrew Watts

Too, too shy-making

Joe Moran’s Shrinking Violets is packed with ironies about reticence

Too, too shy-making
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Shrinking Violets

Joe Moran

Profile, pp. 280, £

You might have thought that the last thing shy people need is a book about shyness: a large part of what makes us shy is our self-preoccupation and awareness of our own shyness. No social situation is more embarrassing — too, too shy-making — than someone pointing out we are shy: as if we didn’t know, as if that would help, as if, somehow, an increased consciousness of our self-consciousness would make us less self-conscious. Moreover, being away from home, I had to read this book in public — I removed the dust cover, of course, so no one could see what I was reading or be tempted to ask a question — in a succession of coffee shops. (I had to leave the first one when a stranger sat at an adjacent seat at the same table.) So far, so ideal reader: save for the fact that, having finished the book, I went to work, performing stand-up comedy to 300 people in a nightclub.

In fact, this sort of paradox is at the heart of Joe Moran’s A Field Guide to Shyness. If shyness were merely cowardice or passivity, there would have been no need for a book (a couple of lines about mute inglorious Miltons would pretty much cover it); and we would not have heard of any of the shy personalities whom he portrays in a series of lively portraits. We might have shy people who inherited vast wealth, and could indulge themselves like the fifth Duke of Portland, who had 600 Irish navvies build a 15-mile maze of tunnels under his house so he never had to meet another soul, and is possibly the least interesting person in the book. (Shyness is all very well, but there’s no need to be a show-off about it.) But we would not have L.S. Lowry, the novelist Elizabeth Taylor or Morrissey. They became public figures despite their shyness — or perhaps, as this book hints, because of it.

Moran is a shy person himself — even if he did not tell us so explicitly, it would be obvious from his beautiful descriptions of the anguish of the shy — but his book never quite defines shyness. At first he contrasts being shy with boldness, reflecting the ‘shy-bold continuum’ of animal behaviourists. (Hermit crabs in Devon are, peer-reviewed studies have shown, shyer than those in Cornwall.) But this distinction won’t do: where do you place Siegfried Sassoon (known as ‘the hermit of Heytesbury’ but recommended for the Victoria Cross) on the scale? Or General Archibald Wavell, whose bold gambles in North Africa overran the Italian Tenth Army, but whom George VI called ‘the oyster’ because he was so difficult to prise open? (The late king could talk. Eventually.) In later passages, the book contrasts shyness with confidence or arrogance or ‘bullshitting’, like that of Wavell’s successor Montgomery, whose eclipse of Wavell in the popular imagination Moran ascribes, in one of the most quietly angry passages in the book, to his relentless and un-shy capacity for self-promotion.

Ultimately for Moran, shyness is ‘a kind of social deafness, a tin ear for non-verbal cues, a sense that you have failed to grasp some invisible thread that holds communal life together’. But, at the same time, being in some sense outside the social world is not necessarily a burden: shyness turns us into closer readers of the social world, and gives us a sensitivity we would not otherwise have. ‘It is less a shrinking away from the world than a displacement or redirection of our energies, prodding us into doing what we might not have done if we had found our everyday encounters more congenial.’ For those of us who do not find talking to 300 people in a nightclub any more frightening than talking to a stranger in a coffee shop, speaking in public is probably easier than it is for the socially confident; and Moran masterfully and sympathetically unravels these paradoxes of shyness. But he is not afraid to put the opposite point of view, the one we fear because it might be true: he quotes V.S. Naipaul on the shyness ‘that wasn’t so much a wish not to be seen as a wish to be applauded on sight’.

It seems an overstatement to call this the central argument of the book: Moran is not an argumentative person, and his position creeps out, little by little, without any fuss — shyly, you might say — over the course of the book. He leaves the reader to make any connections that there might be. He might, for example, suggest, in a discussion of Erving Goffman’s anthropological fieldwork, that shyness is endemic among Nordic people because of the impossibility of long conversations al fresco in, say, Finland, or elsewhere observe that the Finnish word for shyness, ujo, carries positive associations, of humility or reasonableness. So when, in another chapter, he notes that texting (‘essentially a time-consuming and energy-inefficient substitute for talking’) was introduced by a Finnish company, Nokia, you think — of course it was, of course.

It’s not a polemic; but, given Moran’s belief that there is no remedy for shyness other than Zen acceptance, it’s not really a self-help book either. Except in one respect. Shy people often fear that we are boring others, and that fear becomes self-fulfilling, as we fight the consciousness of our own shyness. If nothing else, this book shows that shyness can be positively interesting.

Andrew Watts is a stand-up comedian.