By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN May 18 2010
Most people who know me believe I'm really outgoing. I've held hands with strangers who were nervous on planes, made a friend while shopping for ties at Saks and once called a wrong number and chatted away—for 10 minutes.
Cocktail parties? Interviewing someone important for work? Speaking in public? Not (typically) a problem for me. As my best friend helpfully pointed out recently, "You could talk anyone under the table."
So why do I get tongue-tied, back up into a file cabinet or blurt out something inappropriate every time I run into one particularly talented colleague? Why do I dread simply walking across a restaurant or room full of people? Why did I dribble wine down my chin at a party recently when I noticed a man checking me out?
Here's a hint: I was voted Most Shy in high school. And while I've successfully exorcised much of my bashfulness—partly with determination, partly by simply racking up more life experiences over time—I still suffer from what psychologists call "situational shyness." In other words, certain circumstances, or people, can make me unexpectedly, uncontrollably shy.
While about 40% of Americans actually consider themselves shy, a whopping 95% of people say they experience temporary timidity from time to time, according to studies from the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, Ind. In other words, almost everyone—even the people you think are most confident—experiences shyness sometimes, and this can negatively impact their interactions with others. (As for the other 5% who say they have never, even once, felt shy? The researchers think they're lying.)
In general, shyness is a personality trait that is partly biological (experts can't say how much) and partly environmental. We become shy when we are excessively self-conscious, self preoccupied or self-critical.
"Think about being in front of a mirror. You don't typically think about how fantastic you look. You find the fault and primp and tweak," says Bernardo J. Carducci, a psychologist and director of the Shyness Research Institute. "Shyness is people walking around as if they are in front of a mirror all the time."
And there's the crux: Shyness can hold people back. Unlike introverts, who prefer to be socially withdrawn, shy people want to be social. Making matters worse, shy people are often misunderstood—thought to be snobby or aloof.
There's an additional problem with situational shyness: It can pop up at the most inopportune times. Just ask Jim Dailakis. He's a comedian and actor from New York who says he is never nervous getting up in front of an audience. "I've even been involved in love scenes, and thanks to the writing on the page I'm a total stud," he says.
But recently while renting a car, Mr. Dailakis struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. He flirted. She flirted back. Then, before he could stop himself, he started to mumble and blush—and fled out the door and straight into the bushes. "I felt like a little boy hiding behind his mother's skirt," says Mr. Dailakis, 41 years old.
Overall, the biggest causes of situational shyness, according to Dr. Carducci, include strangers, people in authority and people we find attractive. But there are plenty of others: transitions to a new job, parties and famous people, to name a few. (Surprisingly, he says, many people who find themselves sometimes-shy have no trouble speaking in public or acting, in large part because those activities are scripted and practiced.)
Funny, when I asked people what makes them temporarily shy, almost every straight man I talked to mentioned women: "Loud parties, boisterous laughter and beautiful women," "very tall girls who are very pretty," "Colombian women." (The exception? My sportswriter friend, who said that meeting the New Yorker writer Roger Angell literally made him shake.)
Yet few women said men brought out their shyness. Instead, women said that other women often left them tongue-tied. "I get shy if I think people are much more attractive, well-dressed, thin, etc., than I am, and the combination is deadly," said one female friend. (Other triggers for women? Parties, loudmouths, unexpected gifts.)
What else makes us shy? For Cosgrove Norstadt, 46, it's talking to younger people, which can make him feel uncool. ("I express my excitement over my new cellphone only to find out that I am already outdated," says the actor from San Francisco. For Leigh Shulman, 38, a social media consultant who lives in Salta, Argentina, it's running into other parents while dropping her 6-year-old off at school. ("The idea of being judged in my job doesn't bother me as much as being judged as being a bad parent," she says.)
And Arnold Schwarzenegger did it for Judy Sable. She met the California governor very briefly 20 years ago when he was an actor and she was trying on a ski jacket at a shop in her hometown of Fremont, Calif. "A man's voice said, 'Thaaat looks raaally cool,'" says the 61-year-old retired human resources manager. "I can still remember exactly what went through my mind: He's so big, he has orange spiky hair and he's married to a Kennedy. All I wanted was to get out of there before I said anything dumb."
So how do we cope with situational shyness? Well, I tend to react by babbling and sharing too much. Some people whip out their BlackBerrys or iPhones and start reading or typing furiously. One friend sometimes excuses himself to use the restroom at cocktail parties, then flees without saying good-bye.
Alice Cunningham, who says she has a hard time approaching strangers at parties or work events, wears Italian leather shoes with famous works of art reproduced on them. "I had a psychiatrist once who said shy people need great clothes so they can walk into a room and let the clothes do the talking at first," says the 69-year-old, who owns a hot tub company in Seattle. "My shoes act as a publicist and bring people to me. Then I am OK."
—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her column at www.Facebook.com/EBernsteinWSJ.