Radio Silence: Sounding Out Social Anxiety

What does shyness sound like? What would an aural history of shyness sound like? I started musing about this after listening to a programme on social anxiety on Radio 4:

The 30-minute programme, ‘Hell is Other People: A Self-Help Guide to Social Anxiety’, part of the Seriously… series, follows the writer and performer Byron Vincent as he tackles what he calls his ‘paralysing’ fear of social situations (a fear he has despite being able to perform to large audiences in a professional context). Psychologists arguing for clearly demarcated differences between shyness, social anxiety, social phobia, and introversion might be irritated by the programme’s frequent conflation of these terms. But, that aside, the programme is an engaging, imaginative, and (darkly) comic evocation of what it feels like to be one of life’s ‘shoegazers’, as Byron puts it. It is also – as this is radio, after all – an intriguing exploration of the sounds of shyness.


Performer Byron Vincent, photo by Charles Emerson <>

To start with, there are the voices. In particular, the voices of the many experts summoned to advise Byron on how best to beat his social fears. We hear the smooth, soothing tones of a self-help guru; the measured cadence of a psychology lecturer; a cheerful Californian therapist who merrily compares the mind to a Lamborghini sports car. Their authoritative advice, calmly delivered, contrasts nicely with the panicky, stuttering staccato of Byron’s inner voice, complete with frantic percussion accompaniment, as it torments him with fear and self-doubt (will that work? what should I say now? what do they think of me?). Of course, this internal voice has to be externalised for the benefit of the listeners, a device which simultaneously points to one of shyness’s most marked manifestations: muteness. Byron admits that shyness often prevents him from initiating conversation, or in fact from saying anything at all, but too much silence tends to make bad radio: the inner monologue nicely points up and plays with this contradiction. Lack of speech can signify shyness, but this lack is only experienced as such by ‘objective’ onlookers: the mind of the shy, silent sufferer is filled, paradoxically, with almost overwhelming noise.

Byron may be on a mission to ‘kill’ his anxiety, and to quieten this internal racket, but the other sounds we hear during the programme suggest that shyness can be a source of inspiration for some. By playing tracks like The Smiths’ ‘Ask’ (‘Shyness is nice…’) and Jeffrey Lewis’s more recent ‘Anxiety Attack’ (see videos below), the programme provides a soundscape of some of the musical creations connected to shyness.

These (modern) musical representations of anxiety make me think. The nineteenth-century studies of shyness I’m currently looking at for my research draw heavily on literary representations of shyness (by Rousseau, Stendhal, George Eliot, and many more). But they only make references to sound or music when discussing how shyness or stage-fright might affect the voice of a singer or the fingers of a violinist. Otherwise, they are themselves silent on the subject. Does that mean that nineteenth-century musical evocations of shyness or timidity didn’t exist? No – a quick search of some library catalogues reveals that a cluster of dances, songs, and scores have, since at least the eighteenth century, been composed on the subject, placing the experience of shyness in a more positive and facilitating, rather than necessarily inhibiting, light. In France, for example, we see the 1744 ‘La Timidité, cantatille avec simphonie’ [Timidity, cantatille with symphony] by Claude Cordelet, and then a number of scores in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, situating the tracks used in ‘Hell is Other People’ within a somewhat surprising continuum.

La Timidité, cantatille avec simphonie.... Gravée par Labassée  Timidité chanson-diction. Poésie et musique. Chant et piano  Ma timidité. Paroles de E. Bousquat et E. Buscarlet. Chant et piano

The interplay between sound and silence is a significant element of shyness as a physiological, psychological, and indeed cultural-historical experience. Different art forms will enact this relationship differently, but music can convey it with a particular immediacy and intensity. I’m not a musicologist, but it is clear that a cultural history of shyness – like the one I’m attempting to write at the moment – will need to take musical evocations and performances of this social emotion into account.


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