As a small child, I used to march up and down the beach on Fire Island, near New York City, and ask strangers questions. People were kind to me and I became a journalist. I’m not a party-person, though. I’d say I’m a medium-extravert.
If you’re shy, you may think it’s so hard-wired you can’t change and shouldn’t try. But the current science suggests that only about 30 percent of shyness comes from genetics (Keating, 2019; Smith et al., 2012). In other words, you do have a tendency but much of your behavior is learned.
If you define yourself as shy, you may feel justified, believing that others – especially strangers – will find you awkward or boring.
But psychological research here is encouraging: You’re probably a much better conversationalist, even with a stranger, than you think.
We’re hard on ourselves
Our social worries are an exception to what psychologists call the “self-enhancement effect.” As I wrote in October (See “How To Be A Better Thinker”) research mostly demonstrates that we tend to overestimate ourselves, thinking we’re better than average (May, 2017), but not when it comes to new conversations.
Social acceptance is so important to most of us that we become stern self-critics.
Unless you’re not shy at all, research suggests, you emerge from conversations with a new person giving yourself lower scores than you deserve, underestimating how much your partner enjoyed your exchange. It’s standard, not just your quirk, to focus on perceived mistakes or worry that you were boring.
We think people like us less than they do.
This “liking gap” applies to both long and short conversations. It also can take months to shrink. In one study, researchers asked first-year students at Yale how much their suite-mates liked them, in September and on four other occasions. It took the entire school year, until May, for students to judge correctly.
One reason for this is that most people expect not to enjoy new conversations, and then we surprise them. While we’re feeling self-critical and self-conscious, most of us actually demonstrate a considerable amount of social skill. As the researchers write, we know “how to gaze, and laugh, and smile, and pause, and gesture, and speak, and take turns in ways that sync” with others (Boothby et al., 2018). After all, our survival depends upon fitting into the pack, and we’ve had years of training.
But if I’m shy, why try to change?
There’s a lot of science backing the idea that extraverts are happier and they may also be more motivated. In my own experience, when I generate positive feedback by reaching out, I tend to do more. Recent science suggests that you’ll be happier if you act more outgoing than your norm (Reynolds, 2021; Kuijpers et al., 2021).
What extraversion did for me
It helped me survive, and I mean that literally. I fell ill with COVID-19 in New York City at the beginning of the city’s outbreak. I had pneumonia. The hospitals were overflowing and my doctor thought I was better off staying home. I live alone and there was no one to come take care of me.
My medium-level extraversion gave me the oomph while ill to organize a platoon of friends and neighbors to help me, bringing food and medicine; and our interactions, on text and on the telephone, cheered me up.
Another example: This past summer, I traveled to Wyoming, just before the Delta variant hit the news. By my return flight, my phone was filled with statistics about Delta contagion. I sat reading them in Laramie, a small town, where my flight was delayed for hours, keeping me stuck in a window-less space filled with people… breathing out Delta, I imagined.
Unmasked people sat under the signs announcing that under federal law you must wear a mask in an airport, and security people walked right by them.
I also knew that being angry at “Wyoming” would make my plight worse.
So, I started a conversation with the woman sitting next to me, who was wearing a mask. “Have you been to Laramie before?” I asked her.
“I’ve never been on a plane in my life.”
“Oh wow, it must have been something big.”
“My son’s engagement.” Now this was strange—a mother traveled for an engagement, not a wedding?
“You must really like his bride!”
“She’s the most beautiful person.” Suffused with pride, she told her story. Back home in Tennessee, her son, who had some experience with horses, met a woman who owned a stable nearby, a Wyoming ranch and a business in Florida and was battling over inheritance rights with several evil sisters.
“He got a rich woman. That’s a TV show,” I said. My style is to say what I think.
“Oh, but she’s not stuck up, she takes care of the horses and she’s such a good mother to my granddaughter.” A photo appeared on her phone of two tall strong young people in jeans, workshirts and boots standing by a picturesque lake. Between them beamed a small girl wearing a T-shirt that said, “Will you be my Bonus-Mom?”
In the son’s plan for popping the question, he gave his daughter a starring role. She hid her T-shirt until the big moment.
Over the next hour, she told me about her life, including more gems like the story above, and the time flew by. I’m pretty sure she enjoyed the conversation—she could have stopped at any time.
I think she did. I know I did.
So, the solution to silent, shy self-editing? Listen to the science. We are all more interesting, and interested, than we imagine we will be.
Boothby EJ, Cooney G, Sandstrom GM, Clark MS. The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People Like Us More Than We Think?. Psychol Sci. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30183512/ Published November, 2018.
Keating S. The science behind why some of us are shy. BBC Future. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190604-the-science-behind-why-some-of-us-are-shy. Published June 2019.
Kuijpers E, Pickett J, Wille B, Hofmans J. Do You Feel Better When You Behave More Extraverted Than You Are? The Relationship Between Cumulative Counterdispositional Extraversion and Po sitive Feelings Pers Soc Psychol Bull. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34056978/ Published May 30, 2021.
May C. Most people consider themselves to be morally superior. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/most-people-consider-themselves-to-be-morally-superior/. Published January 31, 2017.
Reynolds E. We feel happier when behaving more extraverted than normal. Research Digest. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2021/06/29/we-feel-happier-when-behaving-more-extraverted-than-normal/. Published June 29, 2021.
Smith AK, Rhee SH, Corley RP, Friedman NP, Hewitt JK, Robinson JL. The magnitude of genetic and environmental influences on parental and observational measures of behavioral inhibition and shyness in toddlerhood. Behav Genet. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3443291/#R12 Published July, 2012.