My ten-year-old son is a classic shy guy. Poor kid really had no hope of being anything else. Shyness is, after all, a heritable trait, and he is the offspring of two shy people.
I’ve always totally rolled with his shyness but a few months ago a behavior he’d been doing since babyhood started bugging me. When he is talking to someone, he never looks at that person’s face. He looks at his shoes or beyond them at the horizon. Sometimes he even turns so his shoulder is to them and he talks into the empty space beside them.
When he was two, a family friend scolded him for this behavior, calling it bad manners. At the time, I thought, Geez, just let the kid gain confidence at his own pace! I had memories of my own extroverted mom (I’m adopted, okay!!!) chiding me for being a quiet kid, nudging me to interact more. Her attempts to shape me into a more outgoing child were embarrassing and demoralizing. And did not work!
So, of course, I didn’t want to harass my son with attempts to change him. I didn’t want to say anything that would make him ashamed to feel shy. But I did hope that my son would learn good social skills from observing my behavior in public. I may be shy, but I can—for limited periods of time—“pass” for an extrovert.
Then, in the middle of a conversation with some random stranger, I realized that I was staring at the sky instead of my new acquaintance. Over the next few days, I observed myself talking to people’s chins, people’s arms and my own shoes. The chilling realization hit me that my son has been mimicking me all along. Yeah, he’s shy but he’s also following my example of how to interact with people. And my example kinda sucks!
So, lately I’ve been coaching myself to look at people more, which leads to some really ridiculous interior monologues (like, Do not watch the ant by her shoe. Look up at her face. Now, smile. Goooood!)
It’s not that I don’t embrace being a shy introvert. It’s just that I now understand how certain side effects of my shyness prevent me from connecting with people. I’ve discovered that eye contact creates a pleasant bond and makes a conversation more fun. It might not come naturally for me, or for my son, but we’ve both done just fine mastering other good social skills like saying, “Thank you,” and holding doors open for people, so I know we can master this one, too.
Re-evaluating my own behavior makes me think that all the people I’ve met over the years who’ve seemed stand-offish or stuck up were probably just stupid shy like me.
Or, maybe, they were extroverts, preferring to hang out with people who are engaged and actually look at them.
What about you? Has shyness—or an outgoing nature—given you any bad social habits?