Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow/On being shy

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First published in Home Chimes 2, no. 10 (7 March 1885): pp. 218-20.

129424Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow — On Being ShyJerome Klapka Jerome


All great literary men are shy. I am myself though I am told it is hardly noticeable.

I am glad it is not. It used to be extremely prominent at one time, and was the cause of much misery to myself, and discomfort to every one about me—my lady friends, especially, complained most bitterly about it.

A shy man's lot is not a happy one. The men dislike him, the women despise him, and he dislikes and despises himself. Use brings him no relief, and there is no cure for him except time; though I once came across a delicious receipt for overcoming the misfortune. It appeared among the "answers to correspondents" in a small, weekly journal, and ran as follows—I have never forgotten it:—"Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially towards ladies."

Poor wretch! I can imagine the grin with which he must have read that advice. Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially towards ladies," forsooth! Don't you adopt anything of the kind, my dear young shy friend. Your attempt to put on any other disposition than your own will infallibly result in your becoming ridiculously gushing and offensively familiar. Be your own natural self, and then you will only be thought to be surly and stupid.

The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him. He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits become, in his presence, depressed and nervous.

This is a good deal brought about by misunderstanding. Many people mistake the shy man's timidity for overbearing arrogance, and are awed and insulted by it. His awkwardness is resented as insolent carelessness, and when, terror-stricken at the first word addressed to him, the blood rushes to his head, and the power of speech completely fails him, he is regarded as an awful example of the evil effects of giving way to passion.

But, indeed, to be misunderstood is the shy man's fate on every occasion; and, whatever impression he endeavours to create, he is sure to convey its opposite. When he makes a joke, it is looked upon as a pretended relation of fact, and his want of veracity much condemned. His sarcasm is accepted as his literal opinion, and gains for him the reputation of being an ass; while if, on the other hand, wishing to ingratiate himself, he ventures upon a little bit of flattery, it is taken for satire, and he is hated ever afterwards.

These, and the rest of a shy man's troubles, are always very amusing, to other people; and have afforded material for comic writing from time immemorial. But if we look a little deeper, we shall find there is a pathetic, one might almost say a tragic, side to the picture. A shy man means a lonely man—a man cut off from all companionship, all sociability. He moves about the world, but does not mix with it. Between him and his fellow-men there runs ever an impassable barrier—a strong, invisible wall, that, trying in vain to scale, he but bruises himself against. He sees the pleasant faces, and hears the pleasant voices on the other side, but he cannot stretch his hand across to grasp another hand. He stands watching the merry groups, and he longs to speak, and to claim kindred with them. But they pass him by, chatting gaily to one another, and he cannot stay them. He tries to reach them, but his prison walls move with him, and hem him in on every side. In the busy street, in the crowded room, in the grind of work, in the whirl of pleasure, amidst the many or amidst the few; wherever men congregate together, wherever the music of human speech is heard, and human thought is flashed from human eyes, there, shunned and solitary, the shy man, like a leper, stands apart. His soul is full of love and longing, but the world knows it not. The iron mask of shyness is riveted before his face, and the man beneath is never seen. Genial words and hearty greetings are ever rising to his lips, but they die away in unheard whispers behind the steel clamps. His heart aches for the weary brother, but his smypathy is dumb. Contempt and indignation against wrong choke up his throat, and, finding no safety valve, when in passionate utterance they may burst forth, they only turn in again and harm him. All the hate, and scorn, and love of a deep nature, such as the shy man is ever cursed by, fester and corrupt within, instead of spending themselves abroad, and sour him into a misanthrope and cynic.

Yes, shy men, like ugly women, have a bad time of it in this world, to go through which with any comfort needs the hide of a rhinoceros. Thick skin is, indeed, our moral clothes, and without it, we are not fit to be seen about in civilised society. A poor gasping, blushing creature, with trembling knees and twitching hands, is a painful sight to every one, and if it cannot cure itself, the sooner it goes and hangs itself the better.

The disease can be cured. For the comfort of the shy, I can assure them of that from personal experience. I do not like speaking about myself, as may have been noticed, but in the cause of humanity I, on this occasion, will do so, and will confess that at one time I was, as the young man in the Bab Ballad says, "the shyest of the shy," and "whenever I was introduced to any pretty maid, my knees they knocked together just as if I was afraid." Now, I would—nay, have—on this very day before yesterday I did the deed. Alone and entirely by myself (as the schoolboy said in translating the Bellum Gallicum) did I beard a railway refreshment-room young lady in her own lair. I rebuked her in terms of mingled bitterness and sorrow for her callousness and want of condescension. I insisted, courteously but firmly, on being accorded that deference and attention that was the right of the travelling Briton; and, at the end, I looked her full in the face. Need I say more?

True, that immediately after doing so, I left the room with what may possibly have appeared to be precipitation, and without waiting for any refreshment. But that was because I had changed my mind, not because I was frightened, you understand.

One consolation that shy folk can take unto themselves is that shyness is certainly no sign of stupidity. It is easy enough for bull-headed clowns to sneer at nerves, but the highest natures are not necessarily those containing the greatest amount of moral brass. The horse is not an inferior animal to the cock-sparrow, nor the deer of the forest to the pig. Shyness simply means extreme sensibility, and has nothing whatever to do with self-consciousness or with conceit, though its relationship to both is continually insisted upon by the poll-parrot school of philosophy.

Conceit, indeed, is the quickest cure for it When it once begins to dawn upon you that you are a good deal cleverer than any one else in this world, bashfulness becomes shocked, and leaves you. When you can look round a roomful of people, and think that each one is a mere child in intellect compared with yourself, you feel no more shy of them than you would of a select company of magpies or orang-outangs.

Conceit is the finest armour that a man can wear. Upon its smooth, impenetrable surface the puny dagger-thrusts of spite and envy glance harmlessly aside. Without that breast-plate, the sword of talent cannot force its way through the battle of life, for blows have to be borne as well as dealt. I do not, of course, speak of the conceit that displays itself in an elevated nose and a falsetto voice. That is not real conceit, that is only playing at being conceited; like children play at being kings and queens, and go strutting about with feathers and long trains. Genuine conceit does not make a man objectionable. On the contrary, it tends to make him genial, kind-hearted, and simple. He has no need of affectation, he is far too well satisfied with his own character; and his pride is too deep-seated to appear at all on the outside. Careless alike of praise or blame, he can afford to be truthful. Too far, in fancy, above the rest of mankind to trouble about their petty distinctions, he is equally st home with duke or costermonger. And, valuing no one's standard but his own, he is never tempted to practise that miserable pretence that less self-reliant people offer up as an hourly sacrifice to the god of their neighbours' opinion.

The shy man, on the other hand, is humble—modest of his own judgment, and over-anxious concerning that of others. But this, in the case of a young man, is surely right enough. His character is unformed. It is slowly evolving itself out of a chaos of doubt and disbelief. Before the growing insight and experience, the diffidence recedes. A man rarely carries his shyness past the hobbledehoy period. Even if his own inward strength does not throw it off, the rubbings of the world generally smooth it down. You scarcely ever meet a really shy man—except in novels or on the stage, where, by-the-bye, he is much admired, especially by the women.

There, in that supernatural land, he appears as a fair-haired and saint-like young man—fair hair and goodness always go together on the stage. No respectable audience would believe in one without the other. I knew an actor who mislaid his wig once, and had to rush on to play the hero in his own hair, which was jet black, and the gallery howled at all his noble sentiments under the impression that he was the villain. He—the shy young man—loves the heroine, oh so devotedly (but only in asides, for he dare not tell her of it), and he is so noble and unselfish, and speaks in such a low voice, and is so good to his mother; and the bad people in the play, they laugh at him, and jeer at him, but he takes it all so gently, and, in the end, it transpires that he is such a clever man, though nobody knew it, and then the heroine tells him she loves him, and he is so surprised, and oh, so happy! and everybody loves him, and asks him to forgive them, which he does in a few well-chosen and sarcastic words, and blesses them; and he seems to have generally such a good time of it that all the young fellows who are not shy long to be shy. But the really shy man knows better. He knows that it is not quite so pleasant in reality. He is not quite so interesting there as in the fiction. He is a little more clumsy and stupid, and a little less devoted and gentle, and his hair is much darker, which, taken altogether, considerably alters the aspect of the case.

The point where he does resemble his ideal is in his faithfulness. I am fully prepared to allow the shy young man that virtue: he is constant in his love. But the reason is not far to seek. The fact is it exhausts all his stock of courage to look one woman in the face, and it would be simply impossible for him to go through the ordeal with a second. He stands in far too much dread of the whole female sex to want to go gadding about with many of them. One is quite enough for him.

Now, it is different with the young man who is not shy. He has temptations which his bashful brother never encounters. He looks around, and everywhere sees roguish eyes and laughing lips. What more natural than that amidst so many roguish eyes and laughing lips he should become confused, and, forgetting for the moment which particular pair of roguish eyes and laughing lips it is that he belongs to, go off making love to the wrong set. The shy man, who never looks at anything but his own boots, sees not, and is not tempted. Happy shy man!

Not but what the shy man himself would much rather not be happy in that way. He longs to "go it" with the others, and curses himself every day for not being able to. He will, now and again, screwing up his courage by a tremendous effort, plunge into roguishness. But it is always a terrible fiasco, and after one or two feeble flounders, he crawls out again, limp and pitiable.

I say "pitiable," though I am afraid he never is pitied. There are certain misfortunes which, while inflicting a vast amount of suffering upon their victims, gain for them no sympathy. Losing an umbrella, falling in love, toothache, black eyes, and having your hat sat upon, may be mentioned as a few examples, but the chief of them all is shyness. The shy man is regarded as an animate joke. His tortures are the sport of the drawing-room arena, and are pointed out and discussed with much gusto.

"Look," cry his tittering audience to each other, "he's blushing!"

"Just watch his legs," says one.

"Do you notice how he is sitting?" adds another; "right on the edge of the chair."

"Seems to have plenty of colour," sneers a military-looking gentleman.

"Pity he's got so many hands," murmurs an elderly lady, with her own calmly folded on her lap. They quite confuse him."

"A yard or two off his feet wouldn't be a disadvantage," chimes in the comic man, "especially as he seems so anxious to hide them."

And then another suggests that with such a voice he ought to have been a sea captain. Some draw attention to the desperate way in which he is grasping his hat. Some comment upon his limited powers of conversation. Others remark upon the troublesome nature of his cough. And so on, until his peculiarities and the company are both thoroughly exhausted.

His friends and relations make matters still more unpleasant for the poor boy (friends and relations are privileged to be more disagreeable than other people). Not content with making fun of him amongst themselves, they insist on his seeing the joke. They mimic and caricature him for his own edification. One, pretending to imitate him, goes outside, and comes in again in a ludicrously nervous manner, explaining to him afterwards that that is the way he—meaning the shy fellow—walks into a room; or, turning to him with, "This is the way you shake hands," proceeds to go through a comic pantomime with the rest of the room, taking hold of every one's hand as if it were a hot plate, and flabbily dropping it again. And then they ask him why he blushes, and why he stammers, and why he always speaks in an almost inaudible tone, as if they thought he did it on purpose. Then one of them, sticking out his chest, and strutting about the room like a pouter-pigeon, suggests quite seriously that that is the style he should adopt. The old man slaps him on the back, and says, "Be bold, my boy. Don't be afraid of any one." The mother says, "Never do anything that you need be ashamed of, Algernon, and then you never need be ashamed of any thing you do," and, beaming mildly at him, seems surprised at the clearness of her own logic. The boys tell him that he's "worse than a girl," and the girls repudiate the implied slur upon their sex by indignantly exclaiming that they are sure no girl would be half as bad.

They are quite right; no girl would be. There is no such thing as a shy woman, or, at all events, I have never come across one, and, until I do, I shall not believe in them. I know that the generally accepted belief is quite the reverse. All women are supposed to be like timid, startled fawns, blushing and casting down their gentle eyes when looked at, and running away when spoken to; while we men are supposed to be a bold and rollicky lot, and the poor, dear little women admire us for it, but are terribly afraid of us. It is a pretty theory, but, like most generally accepted theories, mere nonsense. The girl of twelve is self-contained, and as cool as the proverbial cucumber, while her brother of twenty stammers and stutters by her side. A woman will enter a concert-room late, interrupt the performance, and disturb the whole audience without moving a hair, while her husband follows her, a crushed heap of apologising misery.

The superior nerve of women in all matters connected with love, from the casting of the first sheep's eye down to the end of the honeymoon, is too well acknowledged to need comment. Nor is the example a fair one to cite in the present instance, the positions not being equally balanced. Love is woman's business, and in "business" we all lay aside our natural weaknesses—the shyest man I ever knew was a photographic tout.