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Annie Ridout is the author of Shy: How Being Quiet Can Lead to Success

When I was about six years old, I overheard my mother’s friend describe me as a “dark horse.” She’d come over to our house with her daughter and, as she watched us play, she must have found my quietness uncomfortable. Her own daughter was loud and loquacious, whereas I was shy and chose my words more carefully. Rather than accept this as part of my personality, she framed it as a negative: Annie is going to be a dark horse, she told my mom.

Incidentally, the etymology of “shy” is linked to horses, derived from the Old English word sceoh, referring to an easily frightened horse. A “dark horse,” however, is someone “of whom nothing is generally known,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. So to describe a shy child in this way feels rather unfair. It felt as if that woman was suggesting I’d never be fully accepted or understood, because of my shyness.

And she was wrong. I made friends, was always part of a social group at school and, because of the support I had from my parents, I felt very much accepted by everyone around me. However, there were many more occasions – through my childhood, teens and early adulthood – when people made incorrect assumptions about me, because of my shyness.

In my 20s, I moved to live with my sister in Brighton, on the south coast of England. We had three flatmates. One evening, I was out and they told my sister that they felt intimidated by me. I’d spent most of my time with them listening, observing and not sharing much about myself. Rather amusingly, they had interpreted this as an inner confidence. Actually, I was just shy.

Later, as I moved into the workplace and began training to be a journalist, I noticed that I was occasionally missing out on opportunities because I wasn’t speaking up.

There was an internship at Britain’s ITN productions, working on a news show, when I was invited to lunch with a group of renowned journalists. As we were sat around a table, eating our lunch, the current affairs conversations excited me. But I couldn’t contribute, as I felt too shy to say my piece. The internship didn’t lead anywhere.

Another lost opportunity was when I was working at a regional newspaper in Somerset, England, and writing up daily news articles. It was my dream job, but when a paid opportunity arose, I wasn’t considered. Instead of confronting the editor, I ducked away quietly. A senior journalist said he couldn’t believe I hadn’t been offered the job as I was already doing it (just unpaid).

But I continued as I always had done: getting on with it, head down, working my hardest, always handing in assignments on time and just hoping they would judge me on my work ethic, not on how much I contributed – or didn’t – in meetings.

After more than 35 years of experiencing my own shyness, and around five years studying the subject – interviewing psychologists and psychiatrists and devouring all the research papers I could get my hands on – here’s what I’ve come to learn:

First, that my shyness hadn’t held me back, but had helped me to get ahead. When I wasn’t offered jobs, because they were given to more outgoing candidates, I set up my own business – a parenting platform called The Early Hour. And it took off. I discovered that I am able to lead, and to have a voice and a public persona. My quiet determination and desire to succeed pushed me on through any barriers I encountered.

Second, and most importantly, I discovered that there is nothing wrong with shyness. This personality trait – that we tend to associate more with children, although it affects more than 50 per cent of the adult population – is not a mental-health issue. It refers to a “wariness” of the world, which means we may prefer to hang back and observe a social dynamic before joining in. It’s different to introversion, which is more about favouring time alone or in small groups, although the two personality types can exist together.

Shyness is simply part of who we are, and it stems from a combination of genetics and the environment we grow up in. All the psychologists I spoke to said that unless the shy person feels it is a problem, it shouldn’t be. And that the shy person shouldn’t be forced to change but, instead, the environment around them should be adapted to make them feel more comfortable. For instance, a shy child starting school shouldn’t be forced to speak out in front of the class before they’re ready. In the workplace, shy employees could be given an opportunity to contribute in written form before or after the meeting rather than having to perform on the spot.

I have occasionally encountered people who think they can somehow exorcise my shyness by making me do things I don’t want to do, otherwise known as “pushing me out of my comfort zone.” There was one time when I was eight years old and I’d just moved schools, so was feeling understandably nervous. A few weeks in, I started having singing lessons with the school’s piano player. One day, with no prior warning, the headteacher told the class that I would be singing for them today. She made me go to the front of the hall and sing in front of the entire school, around 300 children. My voice was quiet and squeaky, and she stood at the side, shouting: Louder, louder! It didn’t help, it made me struggle even more. And this episode did nothing to abolish my stage fright – in fact it probably instilled it.

We’re moving into an age of understanding various differences in children and adults, and yet shyness is still hugely misunderstood. Children are told to snap out of it; “don’t be shy,” grown-ups say. But why not? Why can’t a child be shy? And why, indeed, can’t an adult be shy?

Well, it’s because society favours outgoing behaviours and extroversion. When someone speaks less, we assume there is something wrong with them. We don’t create space for people to think before they speak, we’re expected to answer quickly and immediately. And we don’t allow people to observe before joining in, everyone – children and adults – is expected to participate immediately, with no time to warm up.

But what people often don’t realize is that a shy person who is living within their comfort zone is showing great confidence. Let’s take a child who arrives at the playground and spends time hanging out with a parent, watching the other children and deciding when they feel ready to join in. The expectation is that they will arrive and immediately play with other children. But they have decided to do what feels safe and right for them. They are honouring their own boundaries, rather than altering their behaviour to suit others – and this takes courage and confidence.

The more I research shyness and talk to shy people, the more confident I become that shyness can be a rather beautiful personality trait. The quietness can be alluring, and attractively mysterious. A shy person’s inner world can be fascinating, if you create the time and space to explore it with them. So my mother’s friend was wrong; shyness doesn’t turn you into a dark horse. It might make you quieter and a little more cautious, but push beyond the shy exterior and you’ll see the beauty that lies beneath.

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