S is for Shy: The Semantics of Shyness


This week, as part of my exploration of cultural attitudes towards shyness, I’ve been delving into the world of psychology and psychiatry to get a sense of how mental health specialists today talk about this particular form of social difficulty. Although I’m only just beginning the work, it’s clear that language lies at the heart of several of the differences of opinion emerging from the literature. First, and perhaps unsurprisingly, we have the thorny question of what is actually meant by ‘shyness’. Beyond some consensus amongst psychologists of it being a ‘complex pattern of reactions to social situations’ which involves cognition, behaviour, and physiology (W. Ray Crozier, ‘Individual Differences in Childhood Shyness’, 1999, p. 15), definitions vary depending on the theoretical standpoint and agenda of the researcher. For the American developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan, for example, ultimately more interested in childhood inhibition, shyness can be seen as a ‘reaction to unfamiliar [people] encompassing initial avoidance, subdued affect, and distress’ (‘The Concept of Behavioral Inhibition’, 1999, p. 4). For Philip Zimbardo – most famous for his Stanford prison experiment in 1971, but a major researcher into shyness too – shyness is a ‘mental attitude that predisposes people to be extremely concerned about the social evaluation of them by others’ (The Shy Child, 1999, p. 9). The Dutch psychologist, Henk T. Van der Molen, promoting a model of cognitive social learning, proposes that ‘we say that someone suffers from shyness when it is frequently the case that he or she does not know how to cope with social situations’ (‘A Definition of Shyness and its Implications for Clinical Practice’, 1990, p.  255). We already see that shyness can be aligned with fear of unfamiliarity, heightened self-consciousness, or lack of knowledge, amongst many other possible positions (in the late nineteenth century, for example, it was common to talk about shyness or timidity as a disorder of the will).

Shy or socially anxious?

But language also becomes an issue when considering the diagnostic value of the term shyness, and how it relates to what Christopher Lane has called the ‘overwrought’ labels which doctors have begun using in recent years to define their patients: ‘avoidant personality disorder’, ‘social phobia’, and – coming to dominate discussions – ‘social anxiety disorder’ (Shyness. How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, 2006, p. 1). Are these psychiatric conditions simply more severe and debilitating forms of what we understand by the lay term shyness? Or are they entirely different ‘disorders’, with different causes, symptoms, and treatments? [1] Should mental health professionals be using an ordinary language term like shyness in their work, or not?








Some psychologists appear happy to preserve natural language categories (Zimbardo and W. Ray Crozier, for example), but psychiatrists across the globe are turning to the diagnostic categories legitimised by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders: that is, social anxiety disorder, or social phobia (the fact that the fifth edition of the DSM includes ‘social phobia’ in brackets after referring to ‘social anxiety disorder’ betrays the confused relationship of possible, but not certain, synonymy surrounding these conditions). This tendency suggests that, in the realm of psychiatry, there is a desire to streamline and standardise the vocabulary of mental health, perhaps in an effort to achieve consensus and objectivity (if possible) over the way people feel, why this might be, and, crucially, how to make them feel differently.

Unreliable guides

Now, from the point of view of the medical health professions, this may well make sense. But as a literary scholar and a linguist, the way these disciplines deal with language strikes me as curious. Very few of the studies I have looked at make any reference to dictionary definitions of shyness, and there is no mention of the etymology or the history of the words being routinely used. In fact, many psychiatrists and psychologists seem decidedly ambivalent about language in general – their work conveys a sense of words as rather frustrating tools which need to be employed to understand the experience of patients, but are not of any intrinsic value or interest in themselves (the frequent drive to re-name conditions in psychiatry does suggest an awareness of language’s power to change public perceptions, however). This is presumably because what psychologists and psychiatrists really want to get at is what is ‘behind’ language: the patterns of thought, feeling, and behaviour, perhaps the affect or brain state, associated with a given experience. In The Cognitive Structure of Emotions (1988), for example, the psychologists Andrew Ortony, Gerald Clore, and Allan Collins make a clear distinction between ‘emotion words’ and the emotions themselves. Claiming that emotional vocabulary is an unreliable guide to the real structure of emotions, they claim they are not investigating emotion words (like shyness), but rather the mental processes that we have conventionally come to associate with these terms – and which, in reality, may not correspond with our lay person’s understanding of them at all.

What emotion words can tell us

Language can be unreliable, of course, but when talking about the history of emotions (which psychologists rarely do), it is one of the main things we have to go on, for lack of living, breathing bodies. But also – and more positively – vocabulary is an invaluable guide to the ways in which different linguistic communities have made, and still make, sense of emotions.[2] The ‘emotion words’ people use are not random: rather, they reflect the way a given culture has conceptualised particular kinds of physiological and psychological experience over time, and indicate which experiences have been thought necessary to define, distinguish, and debate. By tracing the etymology of emotion words we see how they have come to us and changed, and what this tells us about engrained cultural attitudes towards particular feelings and behaviours. The frequency with which certain emotion words are used reflects the varying preoccupations of, and pressures on, cultures themselves.

Image result for dictionaries








Words don’t just reflect, however: they also shape the way we understand and so experience emotions themselves. Emotions are charged experiences, but words further charge them, nuancing how we respond to and evaluate them. The historian of emotions Jan Plamper argues that ‘conceptions of emotion have an impact upon the way an emotion is experienced in the self-perception of the feeling subject’ (History and Emotions, 2015, p. 32). For example, the feelings triggered by the terms ‘shyness’ (‘I am shy’) and ‘social phobia’ (‘I am a social phobic’, or ‘I have social phobia’) in a subject are likely to be very different, the latter casting an emotional state in modern medical terms which might be reassuring for some, but stigmatising for others. Such connotations and concomitant feelings are heavily dependent on national, historical, and cultural contexts.[3]

Animal emotions

While psychiatrists might need to put a cap on ‘emotion words’, literary and cultural historians need to deepen their knowledge of the emotional vocabulary of the time and place with which they are concerned. In contemporary English, for example, we have numerous words to talk about social difficulties. ‘Shyness’ and ‘timidity’ are two of the most frequently used lay terms at present, according to the OED. While both words derive from the concept of fear, ‘shy’ comes from the Old English scéoh, corresponding to the Middle High German schiech, while ‘timid’ comes from the Latin timidus and French timide. ‘Shy’, interestingly, was frequently used to talk about the behaviour and character of animals in the medieval period (‘easily frightened or startled’), and was only gradually applied to humans. Nowadays, timidity is a fairly broad term (somebody can be timid in a range of contexts) while shyness refers more specifically, but not exclusively, to social situations. English also has words like ‘timorousness’, ‘diffidence’, or ‘bashfulness’ – less frequently used, admittedly. ‘Bashfulness’ comes from the Middle French esbaïr (to amaze, to trouble, or to be amazed or troubled when used reflexively). The derived English verb ‘abash’ can be used reflexively too: to be abashed, or to ‘lose one’s self-possession’ (OED). From this we get to the more specific definition for ‘bashful’: ‘of persons, shrinking from publicity, shamefaced […] “sheepish”’ (OED), suggesting that the bashful person feels undone, dehumanised, by the public gaze. This etymological trajectory from bang (amazement) to whimper (shrinking, sheepish) could be seen to enact something of the dichotomy which lies at the heart of the experience of shyness: a feeling of intense inner turmoil presented to the public as stuttering or silence.








What about other languages? In French, timidité is the lay term most widely in use, today defined by the Petit Robert as the ‘lack of poise and self-confidence in society’. Related terms include gêne (discomfort, embarrassment), and gaucherie (awkwardness). These are words which, like Van der Molen’s working definition, cast shyness in terms not of feeling, but rather lack of knowledge or ‘know-how’, suggesting a possible (perceived) correlation between shyness and social success and status. We also come across the intriguing farouche, which means either wild and ferocious or timid and distrustful. These apparently opposing meanings can be seen to have common ground if we think – as nineteenth-century writers certainly did – of the shy individual as being ‘savage’ or ‘uncivilised’: yet to learn the rules of society. We come back, interestingly, to shyness as an animal emotion.








Shyness is not just a verbal phenomenon, of course, and it is important to think about the role the body plays in experiences and representations of it. But literary and cultural history needs to pay careful attention to the words people have used, and still use, to describe their feelings. Our emotional experiences may be biologically based and thus in part universal, but the way these experiences have been put into language varies from place to place and era to era. It is the difference in words, attitudes, and evaluations that historians of emotions are interested in because they to help pinpoint social, cultural, and sentimental change, and cause us to rethink some of our contemporary assumptions about how we should feel and behave, and why.


[1] See e.g. discussion in Denise A. Chavira et al, ‘Scrutinizing the Relationship between Shyness and Social Phobia’ (2002), and Nancy A. Heiser et al, ‘Shyness: Relationship to Social Phobia and other Psychiatric Disorders’ (2003).

[2] Joanna Bourke writes in her history of fear: ‘The only access we have to fearful people from the past is through the things they left behind […] Analysis of these “texts” allows historians to pursue fluctuations in the nature of fear as the emotion is rendered visible in language and symbols’ (Fear. A Cultural History, 2005, p. 7).

[3] Support groups in France, for example, have been fighting for wider institutional acceptance of the term ‘social phobia’ in the country, explaining that it is a label and diagnosis they find helpful; see Stephanie Lloyd, ‘The Clinical Clash over Social Phobia: The Americanization of French Experiences?’ (2006).


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