One Sunday at a church dinner I was standing with my dad near the food table. I must have been 9 or 10. An older woman in our church approached us and spoke to me. I don’t remember what she said, but I quite clearly remember that I didn’t really respond. As she
walked away, Dad gave me “the look.” He then asked why I hadn’t spoken to the woman, someone who had taken a special liking to me and was especially sweet to me. I said something along the lines of, “I’m embarrassed. I don’t like talking to people.”
Dad reprimanded me, and I will never forget what he said: “That was rude. People will mistake your shyness for rudeness. Do you want people to think you are rude or don’t care about them?”
I was mortified. I was a little pleaser and certainly did not want anyone to think I was rude or unkind!
People who have known me in the last few years only don’t believe me when I say that I was a very shy child. Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood I tried to be invisible. Most people know me now as outgoing, friendly, and warm. I have had to work hard to cultivate those qualities. It is natural for me now, but it hasn’t always been. My dad’s instructions to me about my shyness being the equivalent of rudeness, at least in this situation, stayed with me.
The lesson is actually far larger than my dad probably conceived in that moment. When we don’t reach out in small gestures of civility, when we don’t acknowledge those around us, when we “snub” our neighbors, for whatever reason—even just plain ol’ shyness—we close ourselves off to their humanity. We miss out on being touched by others and touching them in some way. We are not loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I would also argue that when our shyness or fear of the kind of response we will receive outweighs our concern for others’ feelings, we are actually being disrespectful of others. Our failure to express our most generous spirits diminishes our own humanity and devalues others’ feelings. As a society we complain a lot about the lack of civility in our culture. We see it in politicians, with our neighbors, and so on. A true belief in respect for every human being, and then expressing that through even the simplest of gestures—a handshake, a smile, a wave, a hug—can and will make for more peaceful homes and communities.
So why this soapbox? I’ve experienced this kind of incivility and lack of consideration
several times in the last few months. It has just made me think about where my own values and ideas about how to show respect to others and why we bother with the small gestures of civility come from. My dad was exactly right. My shyness was a form of rudeness.
There are other benefits, of course, to having come out of my shell. I have a lot more fun! I’m also a better teacher, better friend, better fundraiser, better professional and lots of other better things than when I was more withdrawn. I have a lot more friends and have had so many opportunities to have my life enriched by so many wonderful people. I have also been able to model for my son respectful and mannerly behavior. He doesn’t always use it with me, but he does with pretty much everyone else, one of his very best qualities.
I still have moments when my timidity grips me, but I can power through it now after years of practice. I am always richly rewarded when I do.