It is said of Jawaharlal Nehru that as an undergraduate at Cambridge, he suffered from acute shyness, so much so that he could hardly muster courage enough to get up and speak before a group of boys. He was a member of the debating society at the Trinity College, “The Magpie and Stump” which had a rule that a member not speaking for a whole term had to pay a fine. According to one of Nehru’s biographers, the fine paid by the future Prime Minister of India regularly replenished the society’s funds. There was another great Indian leader, viz., Mahatma Gandhi who, in his childhood, was afflicted by a similar shyness. Writing of his school-days in “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”, he has said, “J used to be very shy and avoided all company. My books and my lessons were my sole companions. To be at school at the stroke of the hour and to run back home as soon as the school closed— that was my daily habit. I literally ran back, because I could not bear to talk to anybody. I was even afraid lest anyone should poke fun at me.”

From these two instances it would not, however, be right to conclude that all those who are shy in their childhood have the promise of greatness in them. But for all we know, there may be some truth in it because shyness very often conceals unsuspected depths in the unraveling of which the world can help as well as hinder.

It is generally the sensitive child who is shy. He is lonely and retiring because he is too much engrossed in his own feelings and thoughts and is afraid of sharing them lest others should laugh at him. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that he is more intensely alive than the trim little chatterbox who has more chances of growing up into a bore rather than of making any useful contribution to human thought and endeavor.

Shyness may thus be considered as a gift rather than an affliction. It is child’s natural defence against imbibing blind subservience and implicit obedience, qualities so highly prized by unthinking parents, but so harmful to its own personality. A child’s shyness is his castle, wherein he lives in a world peopled by his own innocent thoughts and imagination, unmolested by adults with their artificial mannerisms and worldly wisdom.

It is this self-consciousness which is at the root of all shyness, whether physical or mental, and it is this which makes those who suffer from it feel uncomfortable in the presence of other people, and, therefore, disposed to shrinking from notice or approach. And the way the discomfort they experience is expressed shows whether the shyness a person feels is merely physical or goes deeper.

One who is physically shy is generally awkward in his movements. He is shy about his limbs and generally does not know what to do with his hands. It is, however, no more than a passing phase for him, and in course of time, he gets over it.

But is a more difficult period for one who is mentally shy. Such a one feels embarrassed in the presence of strangers because he is not sure what to say and where to look. Either he appears ashamed of his very existence, secretly wishing he were hiding in a cupboard, or he is unduly forward in talking to his elders or superiors. In case he is wise enough to adopt the former course and keeps mum, he is most likely to gain an unsolicited advantage in that people would be inclined to believe that he is modest by nature; and this is sure to make him popular. Besides this, there are other advantages he secures by keeping mum. He acquires the habit of listening, which is any day more to be valued than a preference for talking.

Or, even if he does not care to listen to what is being said, he can remain busy with his own thoughts while the others are busy in meaningless talk, without arousing anybody’s suspicions.

Of young ladies, shyness is a natural attribute. In fact there are many who think that it is an entirely feminine virtue. We may well differ from such people but there can be no doubt that it is women’s most precious possession. It invests them with modesty, which gives an extra dimension to their personality and enhances their charm. It teaches them discretion, the lack of which in youth can be the cause of much unhappiness in later life. It makes them all the more attractive for men. The latter may exhort them to cast off this supreme womanly virtue; and yet they would cherish them above all for their feminine modesty and restraint born out of their natural shyness.

Shyness is very much a part of a woman’s nature, but as we have said earlier, it is by no means a strictly feminine virtue. Besides manifesting itself among young persons of both sexes, the quality is very often a part of the nature of really gifted people. As has been rightly said, “Ever with the best desert goes diffidence.” Such people are usually shy because while others applaud their talent, they are more conscious of their real or supposed failings, or even do not consider their output worthy of themselves at all. Such a one was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the celebrated author of Alice in Wonderland. He was actually ashamed of the book which was later to make Lewis Carrol a household word all over the globe, and which has since been translated into almost all world languages. Yet he has such a modest estimate of his work that he did not like even to give his name to it.

Similarly, there have been, in almost all spheres, highly successful people who have deliberately avoided the public gaze. Their bashfulness in mingling with the crowd partly arose from the fear of embarrassment they were sure to feel at being praised to their faces. And they were themselves too modest to claim any exceptional merit.

Shyness is thus an attribute of noble souls. It betokens a heightened awareness of one’s own limitations and weaknesses and an understanding and indulgent attitude towards others’ shortcomings. It helps those who possess it to develop on the whole a balanced outlook on life and its problems, and an understanding and tolerant attitude towards men and their foibles.

It is the antithesis of arrogant self-assurance, which in the young, betrays a certain lack of sensibility, and leads to an artificiality of manners and seeming precocity bordering on impertinence. Such people may grow up to be competent but not imaginative, wise but not understanding. They go through life more or less like trained circus animals so that by the time they are middle-aged, all finer feelings they might have got are atrophied. They may excel in the art of moneymaking and may even become social celebrities on the strength of their riches, but theirs is the bliss of ignorance, which they very often try to conceal behind a certain arrogance of bearing and loudness of manner and speech very much akin to exhibitionism.

On the other hand, those who seemingly suffer from shyness in their childhood usually escape this fate because early in life, they are obliged to abjure the desire to shine socially or intellectually Because they willingly accept, or rather crave, to be relegated to a position of no importance, they safely go on improving their understanding of themselves in relation to the world without exciting the envy of others. They do not allow even their most ardent patrons to perceive how they secretly loathe the latter impertinence. And they deign to appear intelligent and impressive only
after they have consolidated their popularity by remaining confined for long years, whether by choice or chance, in the protective cocoon of shyness, their best defence against undue interference in the natural development of their personalities.