Social anxiety: Author Sian Prior examines the condition of shyness, Photo: Simon Schluter
Shyness is not the first quality that comes to mind when we think of people in the media. Sian Prior, though, who once hosted a radio show and has addressed 20,000-strong rallies at the Myer Music Bowl, is also someone who, as an adult, has walked out of parties after being overwhelmed with social anxiety. This book is a memoir and, as befits a journalist whose mother was a psychologist, an account of her inquiries into the whole condition.
It is not a quality much favoured in a time that demands everyone put themselves forward: in turn, the shy can become defensive. Prior discovered this when she wrote an article questioning whether it was politically wise for Julia Gillard to confess to shyness, and the piece was read as if she were attacking Gillard’s personality.
Shy, by Sian Prior.
Prior reads and interviews psychologists, though the answers turn out to be unsurprising: there is a difference between shyness and introversion, and shyness is based on a fear of being negatively assessed. Prior wonders if her own shyness is related to the loss of her father in a swimming accident when she was a child: could her mother’s anxiety after his death have communicated itself to her? It’s an unanswerable question: nature also seems to play a part, as she learns that her father was also shy, as is one of her brothers.
Perhaps the mystery is a product of the distinctions between what and why and how. Science can tell us what shyness is and why it may have come about, but it can’t articulate how it feels to be, not a generic shy person, but this one, you.
One technique Prior has employed throughout her life is to befriend a more outgoing person: it’s a way of not being a wallflower, of getting into the thick of it, without having to put yourself forward too much. There is something of this dynamic in her relationship with her ex-boyfriend Tom, (not his real name) however, even though he was also shy, as he was also a famous musician and always the centre of attention.
She resents the fact the people they meet are more interested in Tom than in her: it’s possible for a shy person to need the attention they also fear, and perhaps all the more so when it is a matter of competing with someone else. But Prior also comes to depend on him as social protection and the latter part of the book deals with how the stress of the break-up exacerbates the shyness.
Paradoxically, Prior describes herself as a shy extrovert, and while her struggle is real and draining, it’s also true that, a few missed sexual opportunities aside, her temperament doesn’t seem to have held her back that much. She doesn’t seem to be in the range of some of the case studies she recounts, where shyness has serious effects on a person’s prospects in life. One is about a woman who chooses a dull job in accounts because it doesn’t require having to talk to many people. Yet, when boredom provokes her to enrol in a law degree she is too shy to turn up to the lectures. That is shyness as a real limitation.
The book is lively and not full of self pity, and Prior has too much taste to present her story simple-mindedly as a triumph over adversity. However, she makes it obvious that if shyness is not too extreme it can be overcome by other motivations – conscientiousness, or its cousins politeness and altruism, or the will to succeed.