Body language: Shyness

One of the kindly people who has donated to my Not Being Homeless Fund has requested more articles on reading body language. As Moggie is currently crushing hard on young Peter Davison, and he is an excellent example of one of the many things people tend to call "shyness", I thought I'd give it a go.

(Moggie has a thing for intelligent blonds. You should have seen what happened when I showed her what Ducky used to do on TV. Another piece of pop culture that is rather dear to my heart.)

Davison was pretty brutally shy on camera when he was young, especially when caught unawares. He was somewhat less so when he wasn't the only one being interviewed, as when he was booked with then-wife Sandra Dickinson, or with previous Doctors Job Pertwee and Patrick Troughton, both of whom were apparently quite gracious and friendly to their successors. He's still fairly quiet, but engaged and not trying to hide in his chair. Stick him in a seat by himself, and give him the full attention of a single host, and he progressively turtles up, pulling in his hands, his elbows, and even tucking his crossed ankles back underneath the chair. He even does it on Blue Peter, which is just about the friendliest possible place you could conceivably be interviewed for an audience of 8- to 12-year-olds who are interested in learning how to make Dalek cupcakes.

Shyness is often equated with terror. There is sometimes a correlation, but the causation, if it exists, is a bit roundabout. Western cultures often see shyness as a negative attribute; if you ended every social interaction feeling like you're doing it wrong, you'd start getting scared of trying, too. It's particularly pernicious, as shyness is at least partially an inborn personality trait. (Davison has mentioned a time or two that he was very shy as a kid, and all of his children have turned out to be so as well -- including the one who's been on TV a fair amount, sometimes even with Dad.) They are not the same, however. If shyness isn't a part of your brain-matrix, you might just as easily respond to being afraid of things by being aggressive and lashing out to try and chase them away. The response we call shy is specifically the one that involves pulling back, edging away from whatever is prompting it.

I mention this because, while young Davison can be hella bashful at being the focus of attention, one thing I do not read off of him is fear. He's certainly very, very alert, possibly to the point of being anxious, but he doesn't actually seem to be afraid. He seems more overloaded. He can stop himself from curling up; when he fails or chooses not to seems mostly to be when he's not in a position to use his substitute gestures, i.e., when he's sitting down and can't jam his hands into his pockets. My impression is more that he's trying to moderate the amount of stuff he has to keep track of more than run away from it -- he doesn't seem to have issues with breaking eye contact to stare at his shoes, f'r ex, which is the traditional sign that someone desperately wants to melt into the floor so they won't be having this conversation anymore.

Everyone's different, of course, but it's been my experience that often the shy response is just a symptom of being overwhelmed. Some people perceive others first as big bright swaths of personality-color and fill the details in later, and some perceive them first as a collection of small but significant i-dottings and t-crossings. The latter sort can find that dealing with new people involves taking in a great deal of data all at once, and especially if they have to do it in an environment that's sensorily or socially very busy already -- like a party, or a TV studio -- the influx starts overflowing into other stuff, like 'monitoring what my hands are doing' and 'figuring out what to say in response to small talk'. No one ever really gives you any good information on how to handle this, so unless you've accidentally figured it out for yourself, ack stop no more talking I have to go is a perfectly understandable default reaction. The cultural narrative that paints shy people as being terrified lambs who need help to interact with others makes it rather worse, because then people who mean well but execute poorly will chase you down, shouting encouragement at the back of your head as you leave.

The best way I've ever found to cope with it is to start sorting. Certain patterns of personality traits recur over and over again in the population. It's not a particularly good idea to interact with people like they're two-dimensional stereotypes all the time, but once you've got enough preliminary data to guess what kind of person they probably are, you have a much better sieve for sorting through the rest of the stuff that comes your way. It takes a lot less processing power to pick up on data points and go does this fit? and answer either yes, good, fine or no, fix the model than it does to try to juggle everything individually, as if it all has the same priority level. You do have to alter your working hypothesis as you get more information, or you'll come off as a clueless self-centered jerk, but customizing a generalized pattern is much easier than building one entirely from scratch every time.

Davison has not likely gotten less whatever-you-call-it over the years, so much as he's gotten a lot more experience and has a much better idea how TV audiences and con crowds are likely to react. When you only have to look out for odd occurrences rather than every goddamn thing that happens it gets much less data-intensive, and therefore much more comfortable, to cope with being watched by large groups of people.

He also, like a lot of quiet/shy people, pretty clearly has an 'off'' and an 'on'. I don't know exactly what 'off' looks like, because whenever I see him he's in front of a camera and therefore in 'on'-mode, but he does refer to having to figure out how bring up that public face for out-of-character appearances. He makes the same disclaimer that I do, which is that it's not an act or pretending to be something he isn't, but it is a behavior that he had to consciously learn to access when his career took off and people started asking for it. Anecdotally, it seems to be an ability that introverts can only acquire by a lot of self-analysis and trial-and-error, and only if sufficiently motivated. Trying to force someone to learn it only ends in failure and tears.

I did it personally because I was sick of feeling stymied whenever I tried to socialize. It seemed like a skill that would be useful and even fun to have, but not necessarily something I wanted to feel like I had to have on constantly, as a reflex. Hence the toggle switch. It requires a not-insignificant amount of activation energy, like an incandescent light bulb. Once 'on' I can stay on for about a day before I run out of patience and start getting itchy and cranky, but I cannot turn it on at all if I'm already exhausted, not even for a little while -- the notional bulb goes 'pop!' and burns out instantly.

An advantage that doesn't occur to most people is that if you've learned your socialization explicitly, you can fine-tune it explicitly as well. It is much easier to change your own behavior -- such as, for example, when you are in character, on stage -- if you're aware of what you're doing in the first place. Davison also makes note that a lot of very good actors are shy-and-watchy sort of people by nature, and this is why. To do in-person work like stage/screen or voice acting specifically, you also have to have the ability to mimic the stuff you pick up on, but even if you don't, it can translate quite well into writing or academic work instead.

Comments