Friday, April 29, 2011

Shy vs. Timid


SavvyD writes:

Somewhere along the line, philosophies sprouted up that made church people think you had to want to marry someone to be able to even approach. Well, that's a lot to ask someone to figure out without having spent any time with someone.

This brought to mind a young lady, E, with whom I was acquainted back when I lived in South America. 

First, some background:  as a teenager, I spent eight or so months of the year at an English-speaking boarding school in a different city than where my parents worked.  When I was at home, we went to church obviously, which was pretty much the extent of my contact with the native population, and my lack of fluency in the language had a bi-causal relationship with my introversion.

Anyway, last summer, out of the blue, I received a Facebook message from J:

Você mudou tanto na aparencia, que fico imaginando aquele adolescente tímido que passou por nossa igreja em [City-State-Country] um dia..... um grande abraço.*



My Mom had to remind me who this girl was, and in the process reminded me who E was:

Well, J of course is from [City] and a friend of E, and that's who originally found me on Facebook and then probably alerted J. Do you remember E, one of my piano students (I think) who was more obvious about her crush on you? She would come over to see you and then the two of you would sit in near silence, you from lack of interest and she from awkwardness. She would come to see me as well sometimes and I got tired of having to carry the conversation.

She also clarified the translation:

"Timido" means shy, which would have been accurate, don't you think? If you answer J, she'll tell E, who I bet will then contact you via Facebook. Girls never grow up.

As an aside, it occurred to me how the words “shy” and “timid” carry positive and negative connotations of what is essentially the same behavior or state of mind.  There is probably a philosophical point to make somewhere about how guys (and I mean me, specifically) often use the positive connotations of “shy” as a crutch for our own lack of courage in the face of attractive women.

But that’s a point for another day.  Let me share my own recollection of E.  She was a girl around my age or so, very tall (but not as tall as me) and slender.  In retrospect, she was quite attractive, and I can’t remember why this wasn’t obvious to me at the time.

No, that’s not quite right.  I do know why it wasn’t obvious.  I spent high school crushing on a girl at school, the prettiest alpha girl of the bunch and one who kept tantalizingly free of any declared romantic attachments.  And E wasn’t her.

Yeah, I know:  beta.

But there were other obstacles.  As my mom indicates, E was very reserved, more so than I was, in fact.  I strain to remember her ever saying anything, or even smiling.

But I do remember this:  one evening after church, as everyone milled around, I came to be standing by an open window looking out at the darkness.  I don’t remember if I was already standing there, or if E called me over, or if she had a friend call me over.  But anyway, I was there, and E was there, and E indicated she wanted to hold hands with me.

Um . . .

So we held hands.  It may have been the first time I held hands with a girl.  It felt really . . . weird.

I received a letter from my Mom at school that next semester.  (Kids, this was back before the internet, and nobody ever called long distance except in emergencies.  So we wrote words on actual paper called “letters” which had to be physically carried from one city to the next.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?)  Mom relayed an inquiry from E asking if we had a relationship, or words to that effect.

My reasoning at the time was as follows:  I was going to graduate high school that year or the next and then return to the U.S. for college.  Since there was no prospect of taking her with me, and I in any case wouldn’t be established financially for five or six years, what were we supposed to do in the mean time?  Have her “wait” for me that long on the slim chance that we would still be interested in each other six years later?

It was with me exactly as Savvy described:  I couldn’t resolve a path to marriage and family with E, and I was unwilling to start a romantic relationship on any other basis.

I candidly explained all this in my reply to my Mom, saying finally (and I remember the exact words), “We are not in each others’ futures.”  Mom conveyed the message.  I can’t recall ever seeing E again after that.

Question:  would my present self counsel a different course of action to my past self?

Sadly, yes.  I say sadly, because I still think my reasoning then was conscientious (or at least, that variety of conscientious that mothers tend to approve of).  But I now know the alternative sucks too.

So my present self would say to my past self:  go for it!  Be honest with her about what your plans are, but if she’s still game for a date-stamped relationship, well then:  she’s cute, and she’s making it easy!  And face facts:  alpha girl isn’t available, especially to your nerdy ass. 

And believe me, you really, really don’t want to get to be 23 without having had a girlfriend, without having been kissed, on the grounds that you weren’t ready to get married the next day.  Because when you’re 23, the girls, even (or especially) the girls at church, will expect you to have already done those things, and they’ll hold your lack of experience against you.  A lot.

I hate that my experience in life has led me to give that kind of advice.  But there it is.

* Yes, I get that you figured out what country this is.  That doesn’t mean I want you commenting about it on my blog.  Respect the pseudonyms.


Anonymous said...

Because when you’re 23, the girls, even (or especially) the girls at church, will expect you to have already done those things, and they’ll hold your lack of experience against you. A lot.

Really? In spite of all the conventional wisdom of the maniverse, I'm still not convinced this is true. 23 is actually not that old, even if it sounds like quite a claim to say so.

Elusive Wapiti said...

"And believe me, you really, really don’t want to get to be 23 without having had a girlfriend, without having been kissed, on the grounds that you weren’t ready to get married the next day. Because when you’re 23, the girls, even (or especially) the girls at church, will expect you to have already done those things, and they’ll hold your lack of experience against you. A lot."

I have to admit I'm ambivalent about this advice.

On one hand, I urge people to date with intentionality, and if marriage isn't their / your goal, then don't waste the time. Viewed through this lens, your actions back then were proper.

On the other hand, how many opportunities were lost by following such admittedly self-limiting guidelines? Had you done as you suggest today, how much "training yourself to form/break relationships" is too much and you harm your ability to stay in a marriage?

I agree with you that even Churchy women will hold your relative lack of experience against you. Such pre-qualification is made, even unconsciously. And even if she doesn't pre-qualify you based on your previous experience, lack of experience with the opposite sex is bound to manifest itself in other ways, like awkwardness and the like.

Such is the double-bind that men find themselves in.

Default User said...

I have been thinking about a post on advice to a younger beta (self), probably for this weekend. This is a nice post and an interesting coincidence.

I think it is important to distinguish between shyness (fear of social situations) and introversion (a preference for less socialization/not so loud gatherings).

Understanding that an introverted preference does not make you weird is a good start; you can learn to organize your social around that preference without the shame that such attitudes can engender (in this extravert assumed world).

Most will grow out of shyness, but can probably speed up the process with more conscious practice (again absent the shame that may accompany such feelings).

As you pointed out shyness and lack of experience can be painful for a young man; it can lead to a self-fulfilling loop of disappointment and shame. At least the Internet may allow some shy, or introverted, young men lose the shame and get a grip on their challenge.

Anonymous said...

Coincidentally, I had a dream last night about a really shy classmate that I met at the high school reunion several years back who seem to recall there being something of an "us" that I am absolutely sure I would remember if it were at all true. My take-away is that she might have had a crush on me. I sorta had a crush on her. The dream was not about any of this, really, but it did get me thinking about that even before reading this.

Anyhow, I could write a post on your actual point. Maybe I will. In short: your new advice is better. And no less honorable. Experience matters, and not just in superficial ways.

Dr. Φ said...

EW: Hopefully, the post communicated my own ambivalence, and for exactly the reason you give.

DU: You make a potentially useful distinction between "shy" and "introverted". The trick is to assess one trait independent of the other. I'm not sure our present metrics (e.g. Myers-Briggs) actually do that.

Dr. Φ said...

Since writing the original post, I remembered another of my interactions with E during one of those visits she made to our house, when my Mom came and said, "E's here to see you," and I replied, "but I'm busy reading this book on complex matrices" and my Mom said, "Go out and be with her RIGHT NOW!" so I went out and sat on the front porch and we stared wordlessly at each other until I asked her, "so would you like to go do X?" I've forgotten what X was. It was something innocuous like play ping-pong. But I remember her very specifically turning me down. And I don't remember it being a nice rejection like the way Mrs. Φ turned me down the first few times that seemed to leave the door open for further invitations (which is ironic considering that Mrs Φ told me later that at that point she wasn't really interested in me). Now keep in mind that to me it was a really big step for me to actually ask her if she wanted to do something with me, and my self-esteem with respect to girls didn't have a huge reservoir to draw on that might have helped me not take something like that personally.

I realize that this doesn't make much sense considering that she had gone to the trouble of coming over to my front porch for, apparently, the sole purpose of spending time with me. But the point of this story is that there may have been obstacles other than just my shyness to . . . however you want to characterize E's ambitions for "us".

Anonymous said...

You make a potentially useful distinction between "shy" and "introverted".

Potentially useful? It's a hugely useful distinction!

As some of us may or may not know, introversion, properly understood, means that a person is drained by social interaction and rejuvenated by "alone time". That is much different than being "shy".

A couple of years ago, I guess, I was looking at a few MBTI sites, reading about my personality type, which is ISTJ. Forer effect notwithstanding, I found the descriptions to be accurate, and one site (I can't remember where it was, but I'll look for it) described a phenomenon that rang very true to me. Essentially it said that ISTJs are the most "closed" of all the personality types, but sometimes you wouldn't know it because we can ironically be very social when we put our minds to it - it's just that doing so drains us and we need time to recover. That is certainly true for me - I can actually be quite socially savvy and popular if/when I put the effort in. I just can't keep it up for more than an hour or so at a party; it is very much an “act” for me (which is also not to say that I don't enjoy doing it, either).

As I say, I'll see if I can dig that site up.

Anonymous said...

Here we are:

Perhaps no type is more driven by a sense of responsibility and "bottom-line" behavior than Introverted-Sensing-Thinking-Judging types. In the name of responsibility, these Introverts have acquired social grace, ease with words, and all of the appropriate interpersonal social skills demanded at any given moment. They can be so outgoing under clearly defined circumstances that they are sometimes mistaken for Extraverts. But make no mistake: as the most private of the sixteen types, these Introverts can don Extraverted clothing when the occasion warrants it without changing their essentially Introverted inner nature.

That's me to a 'T'.

Dr. Φ said...

They can be so outgoing under clearly defined circumstances that they are sometimes mistaken for Extraverts.

I tested as an INTJ with a very weak N. For me one of those "clearly defined circumstances" was being a platform academic instructor. I loved it: lecturing, answering questions, interacting with students. In that environment, I had a specific set of learning objectives and a well-defined role with which to accomplish them. It gave me a way in which I could "play" at being more extraverted than I really am.

Campion said...

in a different city than where my parents worked

S/B " a city different from where my parents worked.."

Sorry, but I have grown so very weary of the loss of correct locutions even among those who are otherwise intelligent and educated.