Shy New World: America Withdrawing into a High-Tech Shell

His head ducked, his cheeks flushed pink, Bashful was by far the most endearing of the seven dwarves. But what if he sat home all day playing Nintendo? Or zapped off amorous e-mail to strangers, or left messages on Snow White's answering machine in the middle of the night?The second picture's more dysfunctional. And that, warns Linda Strick, is where America's heading. Founder of the Center for Shyness in Maplewood, which to the best of her knowledge is one of only two such centers in the nation, Strick got 48 Hours to film her crowded support groups by pointing out that computer nerds aren't the oddballs anymore. They are us.Smooth social interaction requires ease, confidence, skill and practice. But despite all our talk of "face time" and "eyeball-to-eyeball" negotiation, we keep inventing machines that let us interact remotely, huddled in our global-village huts. We can ID and screen our calls, bank by mail or modem, telecommute to work. What we can't do is chat about the weather with our neighbor.Is that such a disaster? Well, yeah. Small-talk lubricates interactions between strangers, paves the way for deeper conversations, eases social tensions, teaches us to pick up nonverbal cues that attune us to someone else's feelings. The less we communicate directly with each other, the less able we are to solve problems jointly, brainstorm creatively, avoid or explain misunderstandings.Those most hurt by high-tech innovations are the shy folk who use them most avidly, Strick points out. Her clients speak of aching loneliness, depression, constant exhortations to "get a life," the desire to ease the tension with alcohol or drugs, the temptation to have sex rather than get to know somebody. Yet many deliberately chose careers working with computers rather than people, and they seize on e-mail and answering machines as if they're life preservers. The result? Fewer chances to learn and practice the complex skills of social interaction -- starting a conversation, monitoring who's doing the most talking, steering or changing the subject, joking without offending, etc.The rest of us aren't far behind, according to the nation's leading authority on shyness, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, co-director of Stanford University's groundbreaking Shyness Clinic. Researchers chart a 1 percent increase in the shyness of U.S. adults every year for the past decade, and Zimbardo lays much of the blame at the electronic revolution's cyberfeet. "Technology works to make interactions more efficient," he explains, "and people are not efficient." E-mail's one example: Its structure reduces communication to an exchange of information so simple "most people don't even use salutations like, Dear Phil.'" Such formalities once served to individuate us, he says; by showing respect and appreciation, they cemented social bonds."Shyness has always been seen as a personal pathology -- and it can be," Zimbardo continues. "In the extreme, you get the Unabomber. But now shyness may be seen as an index of social pathology, of what's wrong with the society." The computer is shaping us to be its auxiliary, he maintains, and the more accustomed we become to efficiency, control and isolation, the less willing we'll be to bother with complicated, nuanced social interactions we can't instantly exit if they turn unpleasant. "People are going to have the sense that they don't need other people as much," Zimbardo concludes. "Life is going to be more stressful, and less pleasant."(BREAK)Shyness has plagued humankind since Adam and Eve ran for cover. Why are centers just now forming, researchers just beginning to accumulate insight? Because until recently, we dismissed shyness as a permanent, if unfortunate, personality trait. Now we're starting to see it as a cumulative pattern of experiences, caused by any of a cluster of factors and changeable over time.In evolutionary terms, shyness is a coat of arms protecting our bodies from impingement. Today, however, a shy person's brain overreacts, pronouncing danger where it does not exist. Anxiety floods in, increasing muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure, and making it even harder to adjust to a new or challenging situation.So is it genetic? According to Zimbardo, 20 percent of us are born shy, but 40 - 50 percent are shy as adults. "Days after birth, children can be identified who are inhibited, startle easily, have a more active nervous system," he says. "Most of those end up being shy." Environment cowers the other half, which includes "shy extroverts" -- Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Carol Burnett, even Strick herself, whose personality spills outward to hide any awkwardness. "I have a client who's a defense attorney and he can't go to Thanksgiving dinner," she remarks, "but no one thinks he's shy, either."It's possible to be shy in one area -- say, romance -- and have high self-esteem across the rest of the board. But most learned shyness traces to a lack of confidence, Strick points out. We can pick it up from a shy parent, an unpredictable childhood, family problems during adolescence, substance abuse that withdraws us from the world. Birth order can affect shyness; so can the amount of touching and affection a child receives.So can culture. Zimbardo has done research in nine countries. He says that, although shyness is universal, its degree hinges on attitudes toward success and failure. He found the highest rate of shyness (60 percent of adults) in Japan, where the individual ego is suppressed. "When a child succeeds," he notes, "the credit is displaced to the teacher, the parents, the grandparents, Buddha. When a child fails, he or she bears the full brunt. In Israel (where shyness falls to 30 percent), it's exactly the opposite: Children get rewarded for trying, and any failure is externalized. You learn to always take a chance, because you can't lose. With the other orientation, you can't win."Strick, who's Jewish, confirms the theory with a grin: "If you make a kite and it doesn't fly, they say, Well, it's the wind.'" That kind of support may defy logic, but it's a helpful buffer in a society that praises assertion and achievement, and steamrolls over shrinking violets. Strick's clients often describe blunders or traumas that triggered shyness simply because they were so humiliated. "The underlying issue is the fear of disapproval, of rejection, of criticism," she explains. Shy clients are often perfectionists, convinced that if they make a mistake in front of others the world will end. In Listening to Prozac, Peter Kramer reports new research on the biochemistry of "rejection-sensitivity," which can magnify an accidental slight into crippling pain.Shy people can misinterpret their triumphs as failures and other people's indifference as hatred. They, in turn, are often misinterpreted as arrogant or uninterested, and shyness itself is misinterpreted as introversion. But introverts simply prefer their own company (unfathomable!) to ours. They like being alone, whereas shy people would choose to be with others, if they weren't scared stiff of what might happen."I used to think, If only I'd learned the rules you follow in social situations' -- but a lot of it is this nebulous attitude, self-confidence," notes Jim Dryden, one of Strick's clients. "You are not willing to chance things that may impact your self-confidence, and then it's kind of cyclical: You don't get any more confidence." "Social skills" -- an obnoxious phrase popularized by the overconfident -- are still part of the equation, though. "As a shy person you feel like you have missed something," says Dryden. "How do these people know how to do this and I don't? It looks easy for people who aren't shy, so a lot of intellectual people think, Well, it must be something I can learn.' And a lot of it is, you simply do it. But shy people avoid that."And technology makes the avoiding easy.(BREAK)You get over shyness the same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. Strick uses role play, positive self-talk and visualizing, but first she offers breathing exercises. "The physiological symptoms are very intense," she explains. "Sweaty palms, blushing, rapid heartbeat -- people can go into a panic attack. You've got to get your body in order first." Then come pointers on listening actively, getting involved, exposing yourself gradually to what you fear."Shyness is about avoiding, that's number one," she says. "The first question I ask is, What are you avoiding?' Facing it little by little is crucial, because it's overwhelming. The self-consciousness, the fear of disapproval is so extreme. They think the whole room is looking at them."Shyness is extremely egocentric," Strick remarks suddenly. "The truth is, other people are much more concerned with themselves than with them. But shy people are obsessed with their own negative thoughts. They start thinking, He's looking at me, he thinks I'm stupid,' and it's a vicious cycle. They assume the other person doesn't like them. What I do is give them a reality check and tell them flat out, What you are experiencing right now is very self-centered: The truth is, everybody isn't thinking about you. These are your own perceptions; they are based in fear and past negative experiences.'"Strick says when she walks into one of her group sessions, she looks around and her first thought is, " They are all mad at me!' But shy people don't talk a lot, they don't smile a lot or make eye contact because they want to fade into the woodwork." They're terrified of having to make conversation, but they're equally terrified of being misperceived, she adds.Would it help to say, "Sorry, I'm shy?""I would not encourage that," Strick replies. "A lot of shyness is just their own self-consciousness. If they can do everything I teach them to do, they can fool people. When they begin to notice it's working, they love it, and it flows."(BREAK)She makes it all sound so simple. But if you call her newer clients, you're likely to get endless ringing or an answering machine (one woman invites callers to send a fax). When you do make contact, some don't sound shy at all, while others speak in an awkward, soft staccato, like a blade held at the wrong angle skipping and skidding across a surface.Tom Jackson is a 28-year-old graphic designer: "The reason I chose to work on computers is because I don't have to really talk with people," he volunteers rapidly. "But I think doing that made me even more nervous."It's getting so much easier to avoid social situations," he remarks, "and there are more and more job opportunities where you don't have to socialize." Even at home, he'd infinitely prefer to leave a message on an answering machine than talk directly to someone he doesn't know. "I know it can be really quick," he explains, "and I don't have to feel like I have to make conversation. It's a great invention, it makes life a lot easier for the average person. But going those routes just makes shy people more reclusive."For Jackson, the upshot is staying home alone on Saturday nights. "When it comes to me to ask girls out, I tend not to do it, so I don't go on many dates. Whereas when I was younger, I could ask girls out, no problem." What happened? "I had a couple experiences where I got really nervous in group situations," he says, "and I started thinking about it a lot more and avoiding those situations a lot more, and it just slowly built up and got worse."Many of Zimbardo's clients are 30ish computer nerds who've never been out on a date. After years of undressing women in virtual reality, he reports, "They decide it might be nice to have sex. But women are very difficult to deal with -- you can't program them." Another of Strick's computer-whiz clients, Dryden believes technology, like shyness itself, can be "kind of an escape." He suspects that "TV is the biggest culprit," but because its effects are "kind of insidious, it's easier to focus on technology that's only been here 10 years or so. And the sense of social isolation feels new."Zimbardo says TV's passive, vicarious isolation is compounded by video games. "You don't see kids playing together in the street anymore, it's not safe. So they're inside playing with an illusory partner, aiming only for mastery. There's no need to make up rules, negotiate power differences, settle arguments, overcome obstacles" -- like the cars that chug down the alley and interrupt the stickball game -- "or be creative."Parents often tell Zimbardo that their kids would rather be in a chat room on the Web than with their friend in person. It's less awkward. Families are getting smaller, with more single parents, fewer relatives within reach, none of the lively, chaotic family life that once functioned as "a primary means of creating and transmitting social life," Zimbardo remarks. As a result, "young people aren't learning the basic skills necessary to feel comfortable in the presence of others." No wonder.The same is true for adults. Sally Merton, a divorced 53-year-old artist, deliberately chose computer-based work. "I have always isolated myself," she confesses. "I find myself wanting more contact, but shyness holds me back. Also, I feel like I didn't go far in my career because I withheld information -- I'm not as talkative, and you have to put yourself out there."For me, the most painful thing is when I have a gut feeling and I don't act on it," Merton continues. "It's horrible. Even with men -- if there's a man I'm really attracted to, I just freeze, I don't know why." Is there anything good about being shy? "Well, everyone thinks I'm just a nice person," she says reluctantly, "which is OK but not great. I don't share my opinions as much, so I don't get ridiculed as much, if you want to call that good. But I don't think it is in the long run."Dryden still can't figure out why co-workers assume he's "either overconfident or stuck up. Shyness has held me back from making more than a small number of friends," he admits. "And those are things you can't go back and change." Reflecting, he adds that, overall, "shyness lends an anxiety or a sadness to your life. It's hard to tell what it would have been like otherwise. I assume I would have been happier."Strick is writing a book, Shadows of Shyness, about the deeper spiritual aspects of overcoming shyness. "This is a transformation on a much deeper level than learning how to make small talk," she observes. "People say they have felt like they were in prison." One of her clients hadn't dated in 10 years: "Her goal was to talk to a co-worker, and now she's living with him! What our life is, when it's all said and done, is the people we have loved and the relationships we have had."Client names are pseudonyms. For more information, call the Center for Shyness at 790-1982. Tom Polster (not a pseudonym), an architectural designer who moved to the States from Germany.

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