Shyness or Arrogance: You Decide

So a while back I was reading a discussion in a forum I frequent (a foreign language learning forum no less) and the topic of shyness was being debated.  Now, obviously, when it comes to speaking in a foreign tongue, there is a certain level of confidence one must have before spouting off what you can only hope sounds correct to the listeners.  When I was in high school (my first encounter with Spanish) I was incredibly shy, but I found foreign language classes weren’t so overwhelming as only the teacher was fluent and the rest of us were just trying to spit out the right conjugations.  If we were wrong, half the time the other students didn’t notice and the teacher would often prod us along by repeating the phrase with the proper form of the verb we were trying to use.  Not exactly real life application here.  Now that I am studying on my own and the only practice I get is with a native speaker, I want to be 100% sure what I am saying is right before it leaves my mouth.

This is what leads me into the shyness debate.  Now, I am no expert in the field, so I can only state what I know to be true for me.  From the time I was a child, as far back as I can recall, I was incredibly shy.  It wasn’t that I didn’t make eye contact with others or I mumbled when I spoke, no it was worse.  I did not speak at all.  At home, obviously I was a normal child, running around the house and making all sorts of commotion, but as soon as a stranger arrived or I was brought out of my comfortable environment, I closed up.  You could not get me to speak under any circumstances, and believe me, people tried.  When I entered kindergarten, I cried.  I was terrified to be among strangers and my big sister, who was all of 10 at the time, had to come stand with me until they led us into the classroom.  Once inside the class, I spoke to no one.  For the first half of the year, I said not a word to another student or the teacher.  In some regards, they were impressed with my obstinance.  Nothing could provoke me to talk.  I can’t explain it, nor can I tell you what was going through my head at the time.  I simply was terrified to open my mouth.  Eventually, I felt comfortable enough around the teacher to start speaking to her.  I think the first thing I said to her was that I needed to use the bathroom, which could have had disasterous consequences had I not opened my mouth.  I guess if they had figured that out in September things would have been different.

Anyway, I began speaking more with each consecutive year, as I was with all the same students over the years and I gradually formed friendships and was more comfortable talking around them.  I was still terrified to stand up in front of a crowd, which few people could understand.  I mean sure, we all get nervous talking to a group, but it made me panic to the point I backed out of a 30 second speech at a Boy Scout meeting.  I rarely talk about this, but I did manage to play a small role in my 4th grade production of Peter Pan, but I can not for the life of me explain how I ever pulled that trick off.  I suppose if you go by that you can make the argument anything is possible with a little confidence, but I think that was just a once in a lifetime event.

Middle school was an adjustment, but I managed.  They stuffed the “smart kids” in all the same classes, so I had the same circle of friends for those three years.  In fact, those friends are still my friends today.  It was high school that did me in initially.  Freshman year for me was terribly difficult, as I knew no one.  I was 14 years old, so I couldn’t just pretend I couldn’t speak, so I talked when I had to, but there were entire classes in which I was mute.  I look back on that year with some regret as I missed an opportunity to make some great friends, however sophomore year saved the day as I met all my closest friends that year.  Through them I was able to come out of my shell a bit, and now I am 31 years old and I have no excuse not to participate in things when I have the chance.  The thing is, shyness doesn’t just go away.  Yes, I have managed to overcome a great deal of my social anxiety, and to be honest, I have to thank my job for that.  I was put in a position of authority and if I was to be successful as a manager, I had to learn to be more outgoing.  I still can be quite reserved around new employees and this often leads them to think I am not a very nice person.  I don’t like allowing people to think this about me, but again, sometimes I just don’t have any control over it.  Often times people falsely believe it’s an arrogance thing, and I want to tell them it’s quite the opposite, but how can I convince them of that?

It seems once people get to know me a little bit, my personality comes out a bit and they find I am not a terrible person after all.  I guess I just take some getting used to.  Unfortunately, there are still plenty of times when I clam up for no good reason.  I hate making phone calls to unknown people, even if it is business related.  For some reason, until recently (this is one I have been working on) I hated shaking hands.  This went for hugging too, which made family gatherings awkward as everyone got hugs but me.  I’m working on changing that too, because I realized that although I may have gotten over my stupid insecurities, my friends and family don’t know this so they still avoid physical contact.

So this brings me back to the foreign language thing.  I was actually pretty upset that many of the people posting in the forums were simply saying, “Get over it, don’t be shy.”  If it were that simple, no one would be shy.  It’s not like a shy person chooses to be that way.  One person even went so far as to say shy people were just rude for not participating.  Again, do they think we don’t want to participate?  I have been dabbling with Spanish for a long time now.  Years in fact.  I understand it pretty well, and I’d like to think I can speak it pretty well too, but there are only a select few people I feel comfortable talking with in Spanish.  I mean, think about it, I am trying to have a long distance relationship with someone who lives in South America and I am afraid to speak to her in Spanish.  Thankfully, she has given me the confidence to just do it, but I still struggle to take the initiative to speak on my own when I should.  I always say I want to work at a Mexican restaurant so I can practice, but I have yet to do more than hand a bartender an application and run out the door.

Next Friday I have signed myself up for a book club at the Spanish Community Center in my town.  You think I’m not terrified of this?  Since moving out on my own four years ago, I have been working on being a more social adult who gets involved in the community.  I know this is a great opportunity to get over my fears, but it is still going to be a huge step for me to take.  I have the book, I’ve been reading it a bit, and I have talked with the head of the discussion, so I’m like 3/4 of the way there.  The problem is that last quarter is the biggest quarter.  I desperately want to be that person who can flawlessly shift between languages and have conversations about anything in either language.  I know I can write pretty well, but speaking requires a bit more speed of thought.  I wouldn’t be so worried if I had the confidence to just spit out the first thing that comes to mind but I am a perfectionist and I worry about every detail.  I see myself coming home, kicking myself for saying la instead of el at some point.

In any case, the important thing now is simply getting to the meeting next week.  Wish me luck.

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~ by James on July 5, 2012.

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