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Wallflowers: When Is It OK to Be Shy?

That introvert in the corner might be the smartest person in the room. Here’s why a little shyness can be a secret weapon for success.
Wallflowers: When Is It OK to Be Shy?

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“Being shy” isn’t usually the first skill listed on a resume, but studies suggest introverts and the socially timid may make better bosses, learn faster, and even be more emotionally mature than their louder mouthed counterparts. So what’s the difference between being “shy” and being “introverted,” and just how much shyness is a good thing?

Seen and Not Heard — Why It Matters

Photo by Jess Ivy 

Shy people get a bad rap. They're often thought to be socially awkward, afraid of interaction, bad at conversation, and lacking inter-personal skills [1]. Yikes — it’s important, however, to mark the difference between “shyness,” “introversion,” and “social phobias.” A mix of biological, social, and psychological factors often contribute to shyness, especially before puberty [2]. Shy people may avoid social settings out of fear or anxiety. Introverts are a little different — they avoid social settings not because of fear, but because they prefer to be alone (and are energized by it). Social phobias, on the other hand, are impairing psychiatric disorders well beyond normal shyness (and introversion) with many of the same problems exacerbated to extremes, such as a fear of using public restrooms or eating in front of other people [3].

And while there might be some benefits to being shy, there's some bad news, too. One study showed shy people had trouble reading facial expressions related to fear and happiness [4]. Another revealed that shy children had smaller vocabularies than their extroverted classmates [5]. But this doesn’t mean all quiet people are doomed for a lonely life filled with anxiety. In fact, a little bit of introversion is not only “OK” — it may be an advantage.

(Also Check Out: Why It's OK to Be Quiet: Interview with Susan Cain)

Introverts, who have a more reserved leadership style, are different from shy people who often shrink from leadership roles and avoid social settings. Some studies suggest that one third to one half of Americans are introverts [6]. In fact, all people naturally have a balance of introverted and extroverted tendencies, but we could all take some notes from our shyer selves. In several tests measuring productivity and creativity, people were able to come up with more and better ideas when given time to work privately [7]. Maybe those kindergarten "quiet times" weren't such a bad idea after all...

Be Quiet and Listen — The Answer/Debate

Wallflowers rejoice! Shy people are apparently having a much better time than the rest of the world. One study showed people who acted shy, introverted, or neurotic (generally, displaying sensitive, obsessive, or anxious behaviors) reported having rich, complex inner lives, and a better ability to process the world around them [8]. One series of tests even showed these people had better response times and increased brain activation on awareness tests than more extroverted people [8].

Sensitivity may also make introverts better bosses and leaders in certain situations. In one study measuring how quickly a team could fold clothes, introverts performed 28 percent better than extroverted leaders by listening carefully and making their teams feel valued [9]. Extroverts, on the other hand, clashed with their similarly outgoing coworkers, creating conflict (à la elks butting heads in the wild). The researchers acknowledged that even though extroverts often make better bosses, pairing extroverted workers with extroverted leaders can be a recipe for failure [9]. In fact, a study looking at 128 CEOs of major companies showed that while those considered outgoing and “charismatic” earned larger salaries, they scored lower in corporate performance [7].

And while shyness has been linked to social anxiety, inhibition, and generally less fulfilling relationships, Lotharios need not worry; one study showed no correlation between shyness and the ability to hold down a romantic relationship [10]. And staying up late shouldn’t be a problem either — a study of military personnel found that introverts function better than extroverts when sleep deprived [11]. (Score!)

While shyness can lead to some less-than-perfect situations, a little bit of introversion and a preference for private time can be helpful at work and at home. Extroverts may be great leaders and communicators but be sure take some notes from the introverts in the room. Listen to co-workers during meetings instead of talking over them and take notes. Embrace personal introversion and take some alone time, some results are best obtained in privacy.

This article has been approved by Greatist Experts Ellen Langer and Jessica Magidson.

The Takeaway

Extroversion is great, but being quiet and preferring alone time is absolutely OK as well. It can even offer personal and work place advantages, especially for introverts. Just make sure to share those insights with the team!


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Works Cited +

  1. Shyness in self-disclosure mediated by social skill. Matsushima, R., Shiomi, K., Kuhlman, DM. Department of Psychology, Hyago Graduate University of Teacher Education, Japan. Psychological Reports, 2000, Feb;86(1):333-8
  2. Shyness in late childhood: relations with attributional styles and self-esteem. Chan, SM., Wong, AK. Department of Psychological Studies, Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong, China. Child: Care, Health, and Development, 2001, Nov 9.
  3. Shyness versus social phobia in US youth. Burstein, M., Ameli-Grillon, L., Merikangas, KR. Genetic Epidemiology Research Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, USA. Pediatrics, 2011, Nov;128(5):917-25
  4. Shyness and the first 100 ms of emotional face processing. Jetha, MK., Zheng, X., et al. Department of Psychology, Neuroscience and Behavior, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. Social Neuroscience, 2012, Jul;7(1):74-89
  5. Shyness and vocabulary: the roles of executive functioning and home environmental stimulation. Nayena Blankson, A., O’Brien, M., Leerkes, EM., et al. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, USA. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 2011, Apr;57(2):105-128
  6. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain, S. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012;3
  7. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain, S. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012;88
  8. The trait of sensory processing sensitivity and neural responses to changes in visual scenes. Jagiellowicz, J., Xu, X., Aron, A., et al. Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, New York, USA. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2011, Jan;(6)1:38-47
  9. The hidden advantages of quiet bosses. Grant, AM., Gino, F., Hofmann, DA. University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Pennsylvania, USA. Harvard Business Review, 2012, Dec;88(12):28
  10. The effects of shyness on love styles and relationship status. Erwin, PG. Department of Social and Psychological Sciences, Edge Hill University, Lancashire, UK. Psychological Reports, 2007, Oct;101(2):670-2
  11. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain, S. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012;125