On Shyness

by Darius Kazemi on October 31, 2007

in networking,psychology

So I travel around the country to conferences and schools, giving talks about how to break in to the game industry, and more specifically, how to network with people.

I like to give a new version of the talk every year. In 2006 the main talk that I gave was mostly a narrative version of my networking articles. In 2007 I’ve been giving a talk about how to make yourself memorable, how to make your own luck, the power of networks, and a 10-minute rant about craptastic business cards.

What should I talk about in 2008? I think one of the questions that I get asked most and don’t really have a good answer for is, “What do I do if I’m shy?” I’m not sure if that would constitute an entire presentation on its own, but I think I want that as part of the talk I put together.

So, warning, I’ll be rambling about shyness for the rest of this post with little or no direction. This isn’t being listed as one of my official networking articles because eventually I’ll write something that actually can help people. For now this is just a very public piece of scratch paper.

There’s a pretty good definition of shyness I found in this article about shyness: shyness is “a feeling of discomfort or inhibition in social or interpersonal situations that keeps you from pursuing your goals.” According to some sources, shyness affects about 40% of American adults.

The poorly thought-out answer that I usually give to people who ask me how they can overcome shyness is to bite the bullet and embarrass the crap out of yourself so many times that eventually it doesn’t bother you that much anymore. This isn’t terribly useful advice. It’s like telling a depressed person that they should just be happy, and then they won’t be depressed anymore.

On the other hand, people often ask me after a talk how I learned to be a good public speaker. And the answer is that I ran so many clubs when I was in college that I ended up addressing meetings of 10 to 20 people three days a week, and presenting to meetings of 50 to 100 people about twice a month. Not counting class presentations. So I just put myself in situations where I was forced to be a public speaker, and after four years and roughly 300 speaking occasions ranging from small to quite large, I got good at it.

So I think there’s some merit to the idea that getting over shyness takes practice. But what are the individual things you can do to get over shyness? One thing I used to do was practice in front of mirrors a lot, before going to parties or gatherings or giving a talk. Just practice being social. It kind of helped. I also find that being extremely knowledgeable helps curb shyness. If you’re going into a social situation and you know that you’re going to be able to contribute to the conversation, that really helps. I’m incredibly outgoing at game industry events, obviously. But the one time I went to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, I knew I was clueless about baseball so I actively avoided people who might want to start talking about sports–i.e., everyone.

It occurs to me now that if you’re shy, that might not be such a bad thing at the beginning anyway. It’s kind of a natural instinct that helps you shut the fuck up and listen, which is a very important skill to have. Is it your first game industry conference? Maybe you shouldn’t be talking to people, but rather just politely listening to conversations. You can listen to people’s conversations (as long as they’re being held in a fairly public place) without even saying a word to anyone. You just sort of enter the circle, put a look on your face that makes it clear you’re listening intently and should not be interrupted, and then quietly leave. Then you’re equipped with knowledge that can help you at your next event.


Doug November 1, 2007 at 12:35 am

I generally agree with the ‘practice helps shyness go away’ advice. I had a lot of trouble in social situations, particularly through high school. By the time I got to college it was easier, as I was usually surrounded by geeks (one plus of a smaller engineering school…). I pretty much forced myself to get more involved socially – going to parties (having access to beer helped with the shyness, but that may not be the best advice in general), getting involved in some clubs (IEEE was a big one for me – especially with the friday afternoon trips to Ralph’s Diner and then Jillians for pool).
Giving presentations helps a little too. I find I still get along better if the group I’m is composed of greater than 50% people I know well, but I’m certainly not so uncomfortable in strange crowds anymore. I just don’t talk as much.

Ian Schreiber November 1, 2007 at 12:08 pm

I was extremely shy until college, mainly because being a computer geek was tantamount to having leprosy until I attended a place where EVERYONE was a geek :)

I agree with Doug that probably the best way to start is to hang out with people you know. Clubs are really good for this because there are presentations as part of the status quo, and if you’ve been in a club for awhile and know everyone there already then it’s not so scary to present to them. Once you’re comfortable presenting to a group of people you know, presenting to some other group about the same topic isn’t quite so bad because you’ve already had some practice.

I had a boss once who was totally phobic of public speaking, and he was forced to present at an all-company meeting with 300+ attendees. Trying to calm himself as he got on stage, he recited: “okay, picture everyone in the audience…” before he realized that he was speaking out loud into the microphone. He never did say that last word but everyone knew what he meant, everyone laughed, and he was able to relax a bit after that :). Not sure what the lesson is here…

I’ll also remind you, Darius, that you were practically hyperventilating just before your first GDC speaking engagement. What did you do to calm yourself down? (Obviously whatever you did worked ;)

gina November 2, 2007 at 11:35 pm

heard this and thought of you – hope all is well – gmp

Brian Shurtleff November 3, 2007 at 7:31 am

For me, shyness is really quite contextual. Running club meetings at school doesn’t throw me because I do it twice a week and they’re informal gatherings with friends. Teaching my students this summer never phased me either as I recall.
It’s when things get formal, when there’s pressure to speak well, when I get too self-aware about how I’m speaking and speaking gets difficult.

When networking, it’s a bit of a mix, as networking is largely informal yet also there’s a kind of pressure all the same. Being a student still, who isn’t looking for a job, helps takes some pressure out of the conversation, at least.
Once I’m in a conversation it’s that mix of shyness and the casual, but I’m finding I generally do well enough, particularly as developers prove to be approachable folks. Instead, it’s getting the push to go talk to someone in the first place is the trickier part with me.

But the mix of shyness and confidence is proving to be a useful mixture.
Like you said – being shy in a conversation means you’re quiet, and listening.
I’ve been told I’m a great networker because of that – I don’t irritate the people I’m meeting.
Yet if the right moment strikes, the more confident me can jump in with something memorable to say.
That’s the hope anyway.

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