In Praise of Shyness

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Unsplash

The other day I stumbled across the Facebook page of someone I knew back in high school. It stopped me in my tracks for two reasons.

The first was that Mike had put on 50 pounds and grown a beard. The second was that a guy once known for his shyness now seemed eager to air his dirty laundry in public.

His latest Facebook post said simply: “Just finished trimming my nose hair.”

This grooming update got me thinking. What ever happened to modesty? What happened to keeping our personal thoughts, rituals and affairs to ourselves? If video killed the radio star, what does the information technology revolution mean for things like privacy, reticence and shyness?

In this wired, always-on world, we’re all under pressure to be bold, open and fast: to respond instantly to messages, to share our secrets on social media, to talk on smartphones within earshot of strangers.

You could argue that this is progress, that we should welcome this brave new world of full disclosure and leaning in.

I disagree.

I’m all for openness, but our tech-driven, let-it-all-hang-out culture has gone too far. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Luddite. I love technology. I love the way it shrinks the world, brings people together and supplies a bottomless reservoir of information on tap.

But the information revolution is also causing collateral damage. We are losing the ability to switch off, to think deeply about things, to give ourselves over completely to the moment.

The assumption that every detail of our private lives is worth broadcasting to a global audience is fuelling a new kind of narcissism. Even the mystery that is often the lifeblood of human relationships is under threat.

Just look at dating.

Today, the first thing you do after meeting someone you fancy is hop on your phone and start googling. Before you even reach the first dinner à deux, you already know the other person’s job history, hobbies, romantic track-record, politics, taste in travel, friends.

Maybe you even know how they cope with nasal hair.

Shyness is an antidote to all of the above. It’s about holding back, weighing up the options before taking action. It’s about listening to other people instead of blowing your own trumpet. It’s about preserving human dignity by keeping some things quiet.

It seems to me that what we need now is to strike a balance between the thrilling possibilities of information technology and the basic human need for privacy. We need to bring a little bit of shyness back to the party.

How do we do that? Well, perhaps we could start by turning Facebook into a nose-hair-free zone.