Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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Bernardo Carducci
Bernardo Carducci
Photo by Patrick Pfister Photography

Fighting Shy

by Lauren J. Bryant

Bernardo Carducci isn't the first to liken adolescence to a battle. But he may be among the few to recommend working in a fast-food restaurant as a tactical maneuver for teens who are shy.

It worked for him, at least. "I was a very shy adolescent," confesses Carducci, professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast and director of the Shyness Research Institute there. "I had friends, but no dates. I couldn't talk to girls. Working at McDonald's made a huge difference."

The 50-year-old Carducci says he's "successfully shy" now. Since publication of his 1999 book Shyness: A Bold New Approach, he has frequented the limelight: ABC's "Good Morning America" (five times), radio broadcasts in the Ukraine, features in the New York Times, to name just a few of his appearances.

When high school student Ariel Fuchs contacted Carducci about a research project on shyness among adolescents, the successful social scientist—and the shy teen inside—instantly responded.

An overlooked issue

Fuchs, a student at Suffern High School in Suffern, N.Y., was developing a project for a special science and technology program at her school. Many students in the program struggle to find mentors, according to Fuchs, but when she contacted Carducci after reading his book, he provided more than simply guidance.

Seeing a rare opportunity to gain access a large group of teenagers, Carducci suggested a collaboration. Working together, along with Fuchs's school adviser and school administrators, Carducci and Fuchs developed an open-ended survey, and Fuchs collected data from hundreds of Suffern students. Carducci's institute did data coding and entry, and Carducci is analyzing the results.

He's found that the percentage of shy teens is about the same as the percentage of shy adults█around 40 percent. And both teens and adults say the same kinds of things make them feel shy—interacting with strangers, talking to authority figures, approaching the opposite sex, for example. But teens, Carducci notes, experience shyness far more sharply than their grownup counterparts.

Shyness intensifies during periods of transition, he explains. Adults may experience shyness after they get a divorce and begin dating again, for instance, or when they lose a job and have to pound the pavement or return to a classroom. In the vast transitional period of adolescence, shyness intensifies for just about every teenager, but for the 40 percent who are shy, self-consciousness expands to a much higher level. These teens have a lot of trouble with social interactions. They feel powerfully isolated—unable to date, to make conversation, to try new things.

Fuchs thinks shyness is often overlooked as a serious issue for teens. "I've been a firsthand witness to how shyness has interfered with peer relationships and relationships between students and teachers, coaches, and administrators," she says. "Shyness affects who people are, and who they want to be."

Strategic service

During adolescence, which Carducci calls a "developmental dress rehearsal for adulthood," shy teens form attitudes, behaviors, and coping strategies they'll use for the rest of their lives. By studying these teens in action, Carducci believes, researchers may learn a lot about how to identify and ameliorate shyness at earlier stages. He likens the study to a medical investigation. "You say, ╬here's the disease,' then you begin to look backward to see what causes the problem and what can be done to prevent it," he says.

Shy people have to learn how to prepare themselves for the world, according to Carducci. "You think shy people are passive, but actually, shy people try lots of things to deal with their shyness. But most of the things they do are often incomplete." For example, he says, a shy teen might force himself to go to a party or join a club, but when he shows up, he's unable to start a conversation.

Far worse, a teen may turn to "liquid extroversion," as Carducci calls it, meaning alcohol. "Twenty-two percent of shy teens say they use drugs and alcohol to deal with their shyness," he says. "To me, that's alarming. We need to find ways to help shy kids understand the nature and dynamics of their shyness."

When it comes to causes, Carducci is firmly in the nurture, not nature, camp. We are not born shy, he says—rather, shyness evolves because children and teens have lacked sufficient social support, particularly from family.

As children grow, they become involved in increasingly complex social situations, but many parents and families are not teaching children the skills they need to handle those situations, perhaps because the parents are shy themselves, Carducci notes. By the time a child reaches middle school and high school, "the issue is not just who to play with anymore. We expect teens to know how to be interested in other people, how to take the other's perspective. But we don't give them the skills," he says. "We're sending them into battle without training."

The best strategy is service, according to Carducci. Whether it's fast-food service or service-learning as a volunteer, these semistructured social situations give shy adolescents a secure place to practice interpersonal skills.

"Do you want fries with that?" is only a starter, but Carducci says such scripts are enormously helpful to tongue-tied teens. "The practice teenagers get at coming into contact with lots of people lets them start getting comfortable with a greater diversity of individuals. It's a place where shy teens can learn some skills they need."

Volunteer service is even better. "When you begin to become involved in the lives of others," Carducci says, "it's much more difficult to disconnect."

Shyness by another name

Carducci's battle references may be more than metaphoric. There's a dangerous side to shyness among teens, too—a connection between shyness and bullying. Carducci and Fuchs did not find evidence for what seems the obvious link, that deeply shy teens would make easy targets for bullies. Instead, there's a more surprising connection: shyness may turn shy teens into bullies themselves.

Some adolescents become what Carducci calls "cynically shy."

"Cynically shy individuals are a subgroup whose shyness not only causes them social discomfort, it also makes them angry. They feel frustrated and hostile because they can't connect," he explains. "When you feel that isolated, you can begin to have hostile feelings toward others. If you're disenfranchised, it's easier to start seeing others in negative ways, to start berating others. And it's very easy to go from hating people to hurting people."

Carducci thinks cynically shy teens may have played a role in some of this country's horrific high-school shootings, and he hopes further study will reveal how shy teens cope, or don't. "One of the things we're really trying to do with this research is to compare the cynically shy kids with other kids who are shy but don't have hostile feelings," he says.

Logging on to life

Technology may seem a great coping mechanism for deeply shy teens. Web sites, e-mail, and instant messaging make social interactions much less threatening. "The Internet can eliminate difficult steps for shy people," Carducci agrees. "If you have an interest in anything, the Internet makes it easy to find a chat group who shares that interest, and you don't get rejected."

But that Internet connection is tenuous at best, according to Carducci. Take instant messaging, for example. "Look at the nature of that conversation. It goes on constantly, but what's really there?" he says. "It's communicating, but it's not connecting." At some point, he says, shy teens "have to log off the computer and log on to life."

Carducci admits that contemporary life isn't kind to shy people. America's hyperspeed culture leaves behind shy folks, who need lots of time to assess social situations and warm up. Instant gratification is the modern norm, though, and instant expectations mean we lose patience.

"As we lose patience, we begin to separate ourselves from those who are different from us, because things that are different take time," Carducci says. "And when we constrict our social interactions to smaller and smaller circles and expose ourselves to less and less divergent views, we lose tolerance. We lose our skills for dealing with difference."

The pace and pressure of American culture are pushing up the numbers of the shy, says Carducci, who's been doing shyness research since about 1975. "The data used to suggest that 35 to 40 percent of people were shy," he says. "More recently, it's about 40 to 43 percent." As the numbers grow, so does Carducci's conviction to help. For shy people, he says, the question is not what to do█shy teens and others know they want to make contact█but how.

"We need to think about shyness in the big picture," says Carducci. "My work is not about changing who you are as a shy person. It's about you controlling your shyness, rather than your shyness controlling you."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.