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Home -> Jerome K. Jerome -> Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow -> On Being Shy

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow - On Being Shy

1. Preface

2. On Being Idle

3. On Being in Love

4. On Being in the Blues

5. On Being Hard Up

6. On Vanity and Vanities

7. On Getting on in the World

8. On the Weather

9. On Cats and Dogs

10. On Being Shy

11. On Babies

12. On Eating and Drinking

13. On Furnished Apartments

14. On Dress and Deportment

15. On Memory


All great literary men are shy. I am myself, though I am told it is
hardly noticeable.

I am glad it is not. It used to be extremely prominent at one time,
and was the cause of much misery to myself and discomfort to every one
about me--my lady friends especially complained most bitterly about

A shy man's lot is not a happy one. The men dislike him, the women
despise him, and he dislikes and despises himself. Use brings him no
relief, and there is no cure for him except time; though I once came
across a delicious recipe for overcoming the misfortune. It appeared
among the "answers to correspondents" in a small weekly journal and
ran as follows--I have never forgotten it: "Adopt an easy and
pleasing manner, especially toward ladies."

Poor wretch! I can imagine the grin with which he must have read that
advice. "Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially toward
ladies," forsooth! Don't you adopt anything of the kind, my dear
young shy friend. Your attempt to put on any other disposition than
your own will infallibly result in your becoming ridiculously gushing
and offensively familiar. Be your own natural self, and then you will
only be thought to be surly and stupid.

The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture
it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate
his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him.
He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits
become in his presence depressed and nervous.

This is a good deal brought about by misunderstanding. Many people
mistake the shy man's timidity for overbearing arrogance and are awed
and insulted by it. His awkwardness is resented as insolent
carelessness, and when, terror-stricken at the first word addressed to
him, the blood rushes to his head and the power of speech completely
fails him, he is regarded as an awful example of the evil effects of
giving way to passion.

But, indeed, to be misunderstood is the shy man's fate on every
occasion; and whatever impression he endeavors to create, he is sure
to convey its opposite. When he makes a joke, it is looked upon as a
pretended relation of fact and his want of veracity much condemned.
His sarcasm is accepted as his literal opinion and gains for him the
reputation of being an ass, while if, on the other hand, wishing to
ingratiate himself, he ventures upon a little bit of flattery, it is
taken for satire and he is hated ever afterward.

These and the rest of a shy man's troubles are always very amusing to
other people, and have afforded material for comic writing from time
immemorial. But if we look a little deeper we shall find there is a
pathetic, one might almost say a tragic, side to the picture. A shy
man means a lonely man--a man cut off from all companionship, all
sociability. He moves about the world, but does not mix with it.
Between him and his fellow-men there runs ever an impassable
barrier--a strong, invisible wall that, trying in vain to scale, he
but bruises himself against. He sees the pleasant faces and hears the
pleasant voices on the other side, but he cannot stretch his hand
across to grasp another hand. He stands watching the merry groups,
and he longs to speak and to claim kindred with them. But they pass
him by, chatting gayly to one another, and he cannot stay them. He
tries to reach them, but his prison walls move with him and hem him in
on every side. In the busy street, in the crowded room, in the grind
of work, in the whirl of pleasure, amid the many or amid the
few--wherever men congregate together, wherever the music of human
speech is heard and human thought is flashed from human eyes, there,
shunned and solitary, the shy man, like a leper, stands apart. His
soul is full of love and longing, but the world knows it not. The
iron mask of shyness is riveted before his face, and the man beneath
is never seen. Genial words and hearty greetings are ever rising to
his lips, but they die away in unheard whispers behind the steel
clamps. His heart aches for the weary brother, but his sympathy is
dumb. Contempt and indignation against wrong choke up his throat, and
finding no safety-valve whence in passionate utterance they may burst
forth, they only turn in again and harm him. All the hate and scorn
and love of a deep nature such as the shy man is ever cursed by fester
and corrupt within, instead of spending themselves abroad, and sour
him into a misanthrope and cynic.

Yes, shy men, like ugly women, have a bad time of it in this world, to
go through which with any comfort needs the hide of a rhinoceros.
Thick skin is, indeed, our moral clothes, and without it we are not
fit to be seen about in civilized society. A poor gasping, blushing
creature, with trembling knees and twitching hands, is a painful sight
to every one, and if it cannot cure itself, the sooner it goes and
hangs itself the better.

The disease can be cured. For the comfort of the shy, I can assure
them of that from personal experience. I do not like speaking about
myself, as may have been noticed, but in the cause of humanity I on
this occasion will do so, and will confess that at one time I was, as
the young man in the Bab Ballad says, "the shyest of the shy," and
"whenever I was introduced to any pretty maid, my knees they knocked
together just as if I was afraid." Now, I would--nay, have--on this
very day before yesterday I did the deed. Alone and entirely by
myself (as the school-boy said in translating the "Bellum Gallicum")
did I beard a railway refreshment-room young lady in her own lair. I
rebuked her in terms of mingled bitterness and sorrow for her
callousness and want of condescension. I insisted, courteously but
firmly, on being accorded that deference and attention that was the
right of the traveling Briton, and at the end I looked her full in the
face. Need I say more?

True, immediately after doing so I left the room with what may
possibly have appeared to be precipitation and without waiting for any
refreshment. But that was because I had changed my mind, not because
I was frightened, you understand.

One consolation that shy folk can take unto themselves is that shyness
is certainly no sign of stupidity. It is easy enough for bull-headed
clowns to sneer at nerves, but the highest natures are not necessarily
those containing the greatest amount of moral brass. The horse is not
an inferior animal to the cock-sparrow, nor the deer of the forest to
the pig. Shyness simply means extreme sensibility, and has nothing
whatever to do with self-consciousness or with conceit, though its
relationship to both is continually insisted upon by the poll-parrot
school of philosophy.

Conceit, indeed, is the quickest cure for it. When it once begins to
dawn upon you that you are a good deal cleverer than any one else in
this world, bashfulness becomes shocked and leaves you. When you
can look round a roomful of people and think that each one is a mere
child in intellect compared with yourself you feel no more shy of them
than you would of a select company of magpies or orang-outangs.

Conceit is the finest armor that a man can wear. Upon its smooth,
impenetrable surface the puny dagger-thrusts of spite and envy glance
harmlessly aside. Without that breast-plate the sword of talent
cannot force its way through the battle of life, for blows have to be
borne as well as dealt. I do not, of course, speak of the conceit
that displays itself in an elevated nose and a falsetto voice. That
is not real conceit--that is only playing at being conceited; like
children play at being kings and queens and go strutting about with
feathers and long trains. Genuine conceit does not make a man
objectionable. On the contrary, it tends to make him genial,
kind-hearted, and simple. He has no need of affectation--he is far
too well satisfied with his own character; and his pride is too
deep-seated to appear at all on the outside. Careless alike of praise
or blame, he can afford to be truthful. Too far, in fancy, above the
rest of mankind to trouble about their petty distinctions, he is
equally at home with duke or costermonger. And valuing no one's
standard but his own, he is never tempted to practice that miserable
pretense that less self-reliant people offer up as an hourly sacrifice
to the god of their neighbor's opinion.

The shy man, on the other hand, is humble--modest of his own judgment
and over-anxious concerning that of others. But this in the case of a
young man is surely right enough. His character is unformed. It is
slowly evolving itself out of a chaos of doubt and disbelief. Before
the growing insight and experience the diffidence recedes. A man
rarely carries his shyness past the hobbledehoy period. Even if his
own inward strength does not throw it off, the rubbings of the world
generally smooth it down. You scarcely ever meet a really shy
man--except in novels or on the stage, where, by the bye, he is much
admired, especially by the women.

There, in that supernatural land, he appears as a fair-haired and
saintlike young man--fair hair and goodness always go together on the
stage. No respectable audience would believe in one without the
other. I knew an actor who mislaid his wig once and had to rush on to
play the hero in his own hair, which was jet-black, and the gallery
howled at all his noble sentiments under the impression that he was
the villain. He--the shy young man--loves the heroine, oh so
devotedly (but only in asides, for he dare not tell her of it), and he
is so noble and unselfish, and speaks in such a low voice, and is so
good to his mother; and the bad people in the play, they laugh at him
and jeer at him, but he takes it all so gently, and in the end it
transpires that he is such a clever man, though nobody knew it, and
then the heroine tells him she loves him, and he is so surprised, and
oh, so happy! and everybody loves him and asks him to forgive them,
which he does in a few well-chosen and sarcastic words, and blesses
them; and he seems to have generally such a good time of it that all
the young fellows who are not shy long to be shy. But the really shy
man knows better. He knows that it is not quite so pleasant in
reality. He is not quite so interesting there as in the fiction. He
is a little more clumsy and stupid and a little less devoted and
gentle, and his hair is much darker, which, taken altogether,
considerably alters the aspect of the case.

The point where he does resemble his ideal is in his faithfulness. I
am fully prepared to allow the shy young man that virtue: he is
constant in his love. But the reason is not far to seek. The fact is
it exhausts all his stock of courage to look one woman in the face,
and it would be simply impossible for him to go through the ordeal
with a second. He stands in far too much dread of the whole female
sex to want to go gadding about with many of them. One is quite
enough for him.

Now, it is different with the young man who is not shy. He has
temptations which his bashful brother never encounters. He looks
around and everywhere sees roguish eyes and laughing lips. What more
natural than that amid so many roguish ayes and laughing lips he
should become confused and, forgetting for the moment which particular
pair of roguish ayes and laughing lips it is that he belongs to, go
off making love to the wrong set. The shy man, who never looks at
anything but his own boots, sees not and is not tempted. Happy shy

Not but what the shy man himself would much rather not be happy in
that way. He longs to "go it" with the others, and curses himself
every day for not being able to. He will now and again, screwing up
his courage by a tremendous effort, plunge into roguishness. But it
is always a terrible _fiasco_, and after one or two feeble flounders
he crawls out again, limp and pitiable.

I say "pitiable," though I am afraid he never is pitied. There are
certain misfortunes which, while inflicting a vast amount of suffering
upon their victims, gain for them no sympathy. Losing an umbrella,
falling in love, toothache, black eyes, and having your hat sat upon
may be mentioned as a few examples, but the chief of them all is
shyness. The shy man is regarded as an animate joke. His tortures
are the sport of the drawing-room arena and are pointed out and
discussed with much gusto.

"Look," cry his tittering audience to each other; "he's blushing!"

"Just watch his legs," says one.

"Do you notice how he is sitting?" adds another: "right on the edge
of the chair."

"Seems to have plenty of color," sneers a military-looking gentleman.

"Pity he's got so many hands," murmurs an elderly lady, with her own
calmly folded on her lap. "They quite confuse him."

"A yard or two off his feet wouldn't be a disadvantage," chimes in the
comic man, "especially as he seems so anxious to hide them."

And then another suggests that with such a voice he ought to have been
a sea-captain. Some draw attention to the desperate way in which he
is grasping his hat. Some comment upon his limited powers of
conversation. Others remark upon the troublesome nature of his cough.
And so on, until his peculiarities and the company are both thoroughly

His friends and relations make matters still more unpleasant for the
poor boy (friends and relations are privileged to be more disagreeable
than other people). Not content with making fun of him among
themselves, they insist on his seeing the joke. They mimic and
caricature him for his own edification. One, pretending to imitate
him, goes outside and comes in again in a ludicrously nervous manner,
explaining to him afterward that that is the way he--meaning the shy
fellow--walks into a room; or, turning to him with "This is the way
you shake hands," proceeds to go through a comic pantomime with the
rest of the room, taking hold of every one's hand as if it were a hot
plate and flabbily dropping it again. And then they ask him why he
blushes, and why he stammers, and why he always speaks in an almost
inaudible tone, as if they thought he did it on purpose. Then one of
them, sticking out his chest and strutting about the room like a
pouter-pigeon, suggests quite seriously that that is the style he
should adopt. The old man slaps him on the back and says: "Be bold,
my boy. Don't be afraid of any one." The mother says, "Never do
anything that you need be ashamed of, Algernon, and then you never
need be ashamed of anything you do," and, beaming mildly at him, seems
surprised at the clearness of her own logic. The boys tell him that
he's "worse than a girl," and the girls repudiate the implied slur
upon their sex by indignantly exclaiming that they are sure no girl
would be half as bad.

They are quite right; no girl would be. There is no such thing as a
shy woman, or, at all events, I have never come across one, and until
I do I shall not believe in them. I know that the generally accepted
belief is quite the reverse. All women are supposed to be like timid,
startled fawns, blushing and casting down their gentle eyes when
looked at and running away when spoken to; while we man are supposed
to be a bold and rollicky lot, and the poor dear little women admire
us for it, but are terribly afraid of us. It is a pretty theory, but,
like most generally accepted theories, mere nonsense. The girl of
twelve is self-contained and as cool as the proverbial cucumber, while
her brother of twenty stammers and stutters by her side. A woman will
enter a concert-room late, interrupt the performance, and disturb the
whole audience without moving a hair, while her husband follows her, a
crushed heap of apologizing misery.

The superior nerve of women in all matters connected with love, from
the casting of the first sheep's-eye down to the end of the honeymoon,
is too well acknowledged to need comment. Nor is the example a fair
one to cite in the present instance, the positions not being equally
balanced. Love is woman's business, and in "business" we all lay
aside our natural weaknesses--the shyest man I ever knew was a
photographic tout.

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