From Agatha Christie and Charles Darwin to Keira Knightley, Francoise Hardy and Morrissey, the socially awkward and anxious have changed the world for the better. Have we forgotten the benefits of being shy?

If you are ever overcome by feelings of self-doubt, just remember Agatha Christie. In April 1958, her play The Mousetrap became the longest-running production in British theatre, having given 2,239 performances to date. Her producer had arranged a party at the Savoy Hotel to celebrate her success.

She donned her best bottle-green chiffon dress and elbow-length white gloves, and made her way through the lobby to the party room – only to find that the doorman failed to recognise her and refused entry. Instead of hastily demanding “Don’t you know who I am?”, the 67-year-old author meekly turned away, sitting in the lounge all by herself. Despite outselling every other writer of the time, she said she was still paralysed by “miserable, horrible, inevitable shyness”.

“I still have that overlag of feeling that I am pretending to be an author,” she later wrote.

How could someone so successful still be so insecure? This is the paradox at the heart of a new book, Shrinking Violets, by the cultural historian Joe Moran, which explores shyness in politics, literature and psychology. Shyness may seem a trivial matter to those who aren’t afflicted, but as Moran points out, these feelings can even be a matter of life and death; the American doctor Henry Heimlich (who gave his name to the Heimlich Manoeuvre) once observed that “sometimes, a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the eating area unnoticed. In a nearby room, he loses consciousness, and if unattended, he will die or suffer permanent brain damage.”

Interested to know more, I called Moran to discuss the inspiration for his book and the conclusions he has drawn from his extensive research.

Moran says he has felt shy for as long as he can remember – and that he could easily identify with Christie’s predicament at the theatre that day. “It’s the kind of thing I probably would have done.”

Those feelings that may have shaped his career long before he decided to explore the subject academically. His previous books held up a magnifying glass to the minutiae of everyday life. Queueing for Beginners, for instance, explored the history of everyday objects and routines – from water coolers to duvets to standing in a line at the shops – while Armchair Nation examined Britain’s television viewing habits. “I think shyness probably does turn you into an amateur anthropologist, really – you are more likely to be an observer.”

Moran sees Shrinking Violets as following a similar vein, turning the spotlight of his attention inwards as he examines the thoughts and feelings that many people are too embarrassed to discuss. Its strange, contradictory nature – including the fact we often feel shy about our own shyness – struck him as particularly a rich subject for study. “It often doesn’t make a lot of rational sense.”

‘In-between spaces’ – such as photocopying rooms or corridors – become a particular minefield for a shy person

Many people may expect that shyness permeates every situation, for instance, but Moran notes that it “ebbs and flows” depending on the context. He might feel more comfortable giving a lecture to a hundred students than taking questions afterwards, for instance. He notes that he is more comfortable in situations where the etiquette is clearly defined, but his self-confidence is more precarious when a situation is ambiguous: in a large group at the pub, for instance, he finds himself falling between two conversations, but unsure how to join either. “There always seems to be a key point when you’re left behind.” In the office, meeting people in those “in-between spaces” – such as photocopying rooms or corridors – can become a particular minefield for a shy person. “You don’t know whether you are supposed to stop or for how long.”

Moran describes one 19th Century aristocrat, the Duke of Portland, who was so shy he built a 15-mile-long labyrinth of tunnels under his stately home so he would not have to face his staff. But not all shy people are introverts. As Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet, has also regularly pointed out, the two are quite different. While introverts may need time by themselves, while not necessarily caring what others think of them (Cain uses the example of Bill Gates) a shy person may well crave company, while also feeling nervous and anxious about the way they are perceived. In this way it is perfectly possible to be a shy extrovert – to simultaneously fear and crave the limelight.

The Duke of Portland built a 15-mile labyrinth of tunnels under his stately home so that he would not have to face his staff

Moran’s book portrays this full spectrum. Consider Dirk Bogarde, who, having learned how to hide his feelings from bullies at school, likened himself to a hermit crab hiding in a scavenged shell. “I was safe from predators,” he wrote, “and by predators I meant everyone I met.” He had hoped to conquer his shyness in adulthood, but he found it was “a malady” that “crippled me before I walked into a crowded room, theatre, restaurant or bar”. Acting in the West End, he would throw-up before every performance, saying “you can’t be as frightened as I am now and still be alive. This is as near death, execution, and everything else that I’ve ever come across.” As Moran points out, Bogarde was not taking these words lightly: he had fought at D-Day and in the following battles in Normandy.

Other examples include Charles Darwin (who believed himself to have no “social sophistication” and to be “an abysmal public speaker”), Keira Knightley (who finds she is tongue-tied at parties), the writer and neurosurgeon Oliver Sacks, the French president Charles de Gaulle, Smiths’ singer Morrissey and even the epitome of ‘60s Parisian cool, Francoise Hardy (pictured at the top of this page). Some of these public figures may benefit from “Maskenfreiheit” – a German word that expresses the freedom you can feel from wearing a mask or acting a part. This sensation of “unrealness” helps Moran himself with public speaking, although the shyness and anxiety return as soon as you feel your real personality becomes exposed. Some shrinking violets may only thrive when they reach the spotlight.

Clearly shyness doesn’t necessarily prevent success, but does it come with any tangible benefits? Some evolutionary biologists might argue that these feelings come from basic prehistoric behaviours that aided out survival. Recent studies on animal personalities have charted the “shy-bold spectrum” in a range of species, finding that it often pays for some individuals to be timid and anxious. Whereas the braver animals may find more mates and eat more food, the shyer individuals, hiding on the side-lines, might avoid attack – both successful evolutionary strategies.

If so, a kind of rudimentary shyness is a very basic, primitive trait. Moran is sceptical this is the whole story, however. “I don’t think you can talk about shyness without talking about that capacity for what Darwin called self-attention,” he says. “We can think about ourselves, reflect on ourselves, and be aware that there might be other humans thinking about us.” Living in large groups, we needed to start caring what others’ thought of us – even if that also brought about uncomfortable feelings, like embarrassment and blushing.

“We create these strange, circular, self-fulfilling and self-defeating cycles of meaning – we think of ourselves as shy, and we’re shy about that, and we’re embarrassed about being embarrassed,” he says.

Moran thinks that human shyness has been compounded by the problems of language – an infinitely expansive, but also imprecise, tool of communication. “When we talk, it’s always an approximation of what you feel,” he says, describing us as “isolated consciousnesses” who can never fully understand each other’s minds. “I think that’s true of everyone but maybe shy people are more aware of that imperfection.”

The consequence may be the so-called ‘esprit de l’escalier’ (staircase wit) – the tendency, after we have left the room, to replay what we should have said. It is an agonisingly frustrating condition but it may come with its compensations. “A lot of the writing and art that I write about in the book… it kind of emerges from the sense that the spoken word or face-to-face contact is imperfect or has failed,” Moran says. Instead, the artists try to express what could not be said at the time. “I wouldn’t say that’s the only motivation for art or writing but you can see how it might inspire people.”

Moran has also explored the different ways that shyness is expressed in different cultures. The Stanford Shyness Survey is a questionnaire that helps psychologists to assess individual differences in shyness, and the research suggests that some countries – including Japan, the UK and the Nordic countries of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland – do indeed tend to score higher than countries such as the US. It is hard to tell whether that reflects true differences in actual feelings, since the words for shyness in these languages may have more positive connotations (perhaps also evoking the idea of unassuming modesty, for instance) that may mean people are simply happier to label themselves as shy.

A barking dog does not catch a hare – Finnish proverb

But some cultures certainly do seem to be more tolerant of shy behaviours. Many Finnish proverbs, for instance, underline the value of contemplation and forethought, with phrases such as “one word is enough to make a lot of trouble” or “brevity makes a good psalm” or “a barking dog does not catch a hare”. “If you go to Finland there’s a different etiquette,” Moran says. “There’s a greater appreciation of silence in conversation.”

In some countries (particularly the US) shyness can now be diagnosed as a psychiatric disorder, a move that has worried some psychologists, who believe it is a move to “treat” or “correct” anything that falls outside the norm. DSM-IV – the “psychiatrists’ bible” – includes highly-specific variants such as “shy bladder syndrome” (the inability to urinate in a public toilet) and treatments range from talking therapy and lessons in social skills to anti-anxiety drugs. “I’m a bit torn about it,” Moran says, “because I don’t romanticise my own shyness. It can be a bit debilitating; it can be a bit of a pain and a burden. There are certainly extreme examples of shyness where people can’t live their lives… where they suffer such extreme social anxiety. But I do think there is a bit of a trend to medicalise things that may just be within the range of human experience.”

Moran is talking from experience here. He once wondered about asking for the drug Seroxat, which was meant to take the edge off social anxiety. But he suspected that his shyness was too resilient for a cure; it would be like “shouting at the wind, arguing with the rain” or “trying to find a cure for being alive”.

Having now written his book, he’s come to realise that shyness may be far more common than he had once realised. Many people – often those he had least expected – have confessed to feeling social awkwardness or embarrassment regularly. “One of the mistakes you can make when you are shy is to think that you are very unusual in the way you are interacting with people – but some of these problems are universal.” With Moran as its reluctant, mild-mannered cheerleader, the Shy Pride movement may have just been born.

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David Robson is an Acting Associate Editor at BBC Future. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter. Joe Moran's book Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness is published by Profile. You can listen to an extract on Radio 4's Book of the Week.

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