Because shyness can grip us in such powerful ways, it’s tempting to think of it as an immutable part of our emotional make-up with roots that extend far into our personalities and perhaps biology, and that we would be incapable of ever extirpating. But in truth, shyness is based on a set of ideas about the world that are eminently amiable to change through a process of reason, because they are founded on some touchingly malleable errors of thought. Shyness is rooted in a distinctive way of interpreting strangers. The shy aren’t awkward around everyone– they’re tongue-tied around those who seem most unlike them on the basis of a range of surface markets: age, class, tastes, habits, beliefs, backgrounds, or religions. With no unkindness meant, we could define shyness as a form of provincialism of the mind and over-attachment to the incidentals of one’s own life and experience that unfairly casts others into the role of daunting, unfathomable, unknowable foreigners. On contact with a person from another world or province, the shy allow their minds to be dominated by a forbidding aura of difference. They may silently and awkwardly say to themselves that there’s nothing to be said or done because the other is famous while they belong to the province of the obscure, or because the other is very old while their province is firmly that of 20-somethings, or because the other is very clever while their province is that as a non-intellectual, or because the other is from the land of very beautiful girls while they hail from the province of average-looking boys. This is why there can be no grounds to laugh, hazard a playful remark, or feel at ease. The shy person doesn’t intend to be unpleasant or unfriendly; they simply experience all otherness as an insurmountable barrier to making their own goodwill and personality apparent. We can imagine that in the history of humanity, shyness was always the first response. The people over the hill would have triggered the feeling because they were farmers while you were fishermen, or they spoke with a lilt in their vowels while your diction was monotone and flat. Yet gradually, there emerged a more worldly, less exclusive way of relating to strangers– what we might call a psychological cosmopolitanism. In the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, prompted by ever increasing encounters between peoples who lived very different and mutually unfamiliar lives, thanks the developments in trade and shipping an alternative to shyness developed. Greek travelers who worshiped human-like divinities learnt that Egyptians revered cats and certain birds. Romans who shaved their chins met barbarians who did not. Senators who lived in colonnaded houses with underfloor heating encountered chieftains who lived in drafty wooden huts. And among certain thinkers, an approach developed that proposed that all these humans, whatever their surface variations, shared a common call… and that it was to this that the mature mind should turn in contact with apparent otherness. It was to this cosmopolitan mindset that the Roman playwright and poet, Terrence, gave voice when he wrote, “I am human so nothing human is foreign to me.” And that Christianity made use of, in rendering universal sympathy, a cornerstone of its view of existence. Someone becomes a cosmopolitan not on the basis of having a buoyant or gregarious nature, but because they are in touch with a fundamental truth about humanity… because they know that irrespective of appearance, we are the same species beneath– an insight that the tongue-tied guests at the party or awkward seducer in the restaurant are guilty of implicitly refusing. Traditionally, rank or status have been major sources of shy provincialism. The peasant felt he couldn’t approach the lord, the young milkmaid stammered when the earl’s son visited the stable. Today, in an echo of such inhibitions, the boy of average looks feels he could never hang out with a beautiful girl, or the modestly off will lose any ability to talk to the very wealthy. The mind just fixates on the gulfs. My nose looks like a child modeled it out of plasticine… yours is as if it had been carved out by Michelangelo. I fear losing my job while you fear that the expansion of your business into Mexico won’t be as profitable as you’d forecast. The cosmopolitan is well aware of differences. They just refuse to be cowed or dominated by them. They look beyond them to perceive, or in practical terms, simply to guess at a collective species’ unity. Shyness does have its insightful dimensions. It’s infused with an awareness that we might be bothering someone with our presence. It’s based upon an acute sense that a stranger could be dissatisfied or discomforted by us. The shy person is touchingly alive to the dangers of being a nuisance, yet in most cases, we simply pay an unnecessarily heavy price for our reserve around people who might well have opened their hearts to us if only we’d known how to manifest our own benevolence. We cling too jealously to our province. The pimply boy doesn’t discover that he and the high school beauty share a taste in humor and a similarly painful relationship with their father. Races and ages continue not to mingle to their collective detriments. Shyness is a touching, yet ultimately excessive and unwarranted way of feeling special.