Social anxiety has its benefits. As social creatures, it is perfectly rational for humans to desire being liked and fear being shamed. Indeed, ensuring one was well-liked by one’s tribe was once critical to one’s survival. It is unsurprising, then, that many (in fact, most) people still have a healthy level of fear when interacting in new social settings. It is only when this anxiety hinders one’s ability to interact and function normally that it becomes problematic.
When we interact with others, we are constantly picking up on and deciphering social cues. Decoding body language and tone allows us to assess a situation and respond appropriately. Even minute changes in tone can signal underlying sadness or anger, and those who successfully reacted to these signals in our evolutionary history were more likely to survive and reproduce. As such, it was only natural that the fight-or-flight response was embedded in social interaction; understanding the difference between aggression and excitement could have quite literally been a matter of life and death.
Similarly, anxiety has a function in present day social interactions. When we receive a signal from another person that they dislike a conversation – say, they pull back slightly and frown in a display of disgust – it is typically a good thing for us to feel some small amount of anxiety, enough so that we correctly respond to the social cue and change the subject. In fact, one’s social interaction would be noticeably stunted without a recognition of these cues; one would constantly discuss their bowel movements with strangers, sing loudly on public transit, and perform any number of other strange acts. The failure to feel shame would make it very difficult for them to interact with others. They would be socially outcast.
Social anxiety, then, is a good thing. It allows us to maintain a healthy level of embarrassment which in turn moderates what we say and how we interact with others. Social anxiety and the fear of shame ensure we do not swear in front of our mothers, put our bare feet on restaurant tables, or masturbate in our boss’s office while singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Even self-professed anarchists and decriers of civility will typically refrain from performing perfectly legal but culturally denounced acts, for fear of social reproach. Shame is a very powerful and useful tool for maintaining social standing.
However, just like wolfing down too many ice cream sandwiches, too much social anxiety may cause one’s mind to freeze up. When anxiety becomes paralyzing, and when social cues that indicate polite disagreement (or, in some cases, even excitement or positive feedback) induce unreasonably high levels of fear, it can become a problem. This may well have been an adaptive trait, but when so few of our social interactions are held to high standards, let alone the life and death standard of our evolutionary history, this is no longer the case.
I include such a lengthy introduction because I do not wish to make defamatory remarks towards the so-called “sitters” who stay back and observe before taking action. The strategies of sitters are still valid strategies for survival in social situations, and confer many benefits even today. To quote this article from the New York Times:
In an illustrative experiment, David Sloan Wilson, a Binghamton evolutionary biologist, dropped metal traps into a pond of pumpkinseed sunfish. The “rover” fish couldn’t help but investigate — and were immediately caught. But the “sitter” fish stayed back, making it impossible for Professor Wilson to capture them.
However, there are certain disadvantages to those practicing the sitter strategy that are worth mentioning, namely, their failure to adapt when placed into new situations:
Professor Wilson used fishing nets to catch both types of fish; when he carried them back to his lab, he noted that the rovers quickly acclimated to their new environment and started eating a full five days earlier than their sitter brethren. In this situation, the rovers were the likely survivors.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have a full five days to acclimate to our surroundings before attempting to make social contact. Parties typically last a handful of hours; many opportunities for social interaction last even less. And unlike Professor Wilson’s sunfish, very few of us will risk being caught by metal traps when we ask someone at the bus stop for the time, or say hello to someone at the park. In fact, in many cases, the time between contact and social interaction can be very important to a first impression; the longer you wait to strike up a conversation with the person next to you, the more awkward it may feel to them when you finally break the silence. Sitting back for too long will destroy these opportunities.
I want to make it clear that I am not advocating one strategy over the other. However, I do wish to clarify that for those of us who are “sitters” such as myself, there are very few risks to actually assess when beginning a social interaction. There is a difference between rationally assessing the feel of a party and its attendees before attempting interaction and irrationally worrying about nonsensical or unimportant factors and allowing this to cripple you. Socially anxious people do the latter. While it may be rational to avoid jumping right into social interaction with a group of people you have never met – assessing whether they were, say, dangerous criminals – it is not so rational to avoid talking to someone at a party because they might laugh at you or disagree with your viewpoints.
As such, shyness in the modern era is often irrational. Social interaction is just as important in current times as it was in our hunter-gatherer days, perhaps more so. Similarly, most of the risks associated with social interaction have largely been destroyed; it is a rarity at best that speaking with someone in your daily life will have any negative impacts.
Shyness, however, may not always be irrational. In fact, it can predispose us to prosocial behaviors and empathy. To quote this study on PubMed:
Results support the hypothesis that high socially anxious individuals may demonstrate a unique social-cognitive abilities profile with elevated cognitive empathy tendencies and high accuracy in affective mental state attributions.
Social anxiety, it seems, may stem from the high sensitivity experienced by anxious individuals. This tendency for anxious individuals to be overly responsive to stimuli in turn predisposes them to more empathetic behavior. Their high sensitivity may put them in a better situation to actively feel the emotions of others, and therefore be more empathetic. Social anxiety may even stem from a fear of harming or embarrassing others – something seen more readily in Taijin-Kyofu-Sho (TKS), a common East Asian presentation of social anxiety. This high sensitivity also makes “sitters” and those with social anxiety more likely to be good listeners, as they are more attentive to social cues and minute changes in tone.
These abilities prove to be crucially important in social interaction. In fact, if those with social anxiety can remove the negative impacts this behavior has on their ability to interact with others, they may have a huge advantage over those without the same traits. It is important to realize, however, that too much of a good thing can be crippling, and as such those with social anxiety should attempt to find a more moderate balance. The intent is not to destroy social anxiety altogether – in fact, this may be impossible without one’s being a psycopath – but to simply recognize it and not allow it to control our behavior.
If this post interested you, be on the look out the next couple days for a post I will be publishing discussing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and its ability to help reform patients with social anxiety through “shame-attacking exercises.”