Shyness is on the increase - but America is pioneering new techniques to help. HESTER LACEY learns how to get out there
Many people at this time of year will admit to a certain reluctance to drag themselves off to yet another Christmas party. But for some, this feeling is more than rebellion against tepid white wine and hangovers. Anxiety in social situations, aka shyness, can be a scourge for those who suffer - and, according to American research, numbers are increasing. Around 50 per cent of Americans today claim to suffer from shyness, up from around 40 per cent a decade ago.

Earlier this year, an antidepressant drug, Paxil, was licensed for use in the treatment of acute shyness in the US, and sales leapt by 28 per cent. However, many American experts believe that drug treatment is only an appropriate measure in the most severe cases - people who are, quite literally, unable to leave their homes because of crippling social phobia. Psychologists and therapists can also help - and claim that their treatment is likely to be more effective in the long run than pill-popping.

One woman whose life has been changed by treatment for shyness is Diane, who lives in New York. "My shyness had affected me since forever, but as a child you don't articulate it, and no one acknowledged it," she says. "I was usually OK one-to-one, but in group situations, even with people I knew well, I would just disappear. I'd be paralysed, I'd be having physical reactions - I'd freeze up, have palpitations, sweat. I was told I looked quite normal, but I was feeling terrible the whole time."

She suggests to anyone who can't understand how debilitating acute shyness can be that they imagine they suddenly had to address an audience of several thousand people. "Then imagine feeling like that all the time," she says.

Recently, however, Diane has had several triumphs. She has joined a painting class, which would have terrified her before. And she stood up to speak in a meeting of 300 parents at her daughter's school. "Afterwards I felt terrific," she recalls. "My husband had volunteered to do the speech, but I insisted on doing it myself. He was very proud of me."

Diane's new confidence is down to group therapy sessions with Dr Bonnie Jacobson, director of the New York Institute for Psychological Change. Dr Jacobson, a clinical psychologist and a professor at New York University, believes that shyness is much under-researched. "Most psychologists put it down as a sub-clinical problem and don't really recognise how serious it is," she says. She first became interested when a client of hers, a bright, articulate lawyer, confessed to acute shyness in certain situations. "I found there were no books on the subject, so I started to do some research."

Her own volume, distilled from six years of research, will be published next year. She has found that some unlikely professions have a high level of shyness: actors, doctors, lawyers. "If they have their role down to pat, in a script or a consultation or a courtroom, they can do it. It's when they feel uncertain that they become shy," she says.

Dr Lynne Henderson, director of the Shyness Clinic in Menlo Park, California, also finds that among her clients are a high proportion of professional people. Many are underachieving because their timidity holds them back. Like Dr Jacobson, she takes a group approach. "Groups are what they are scared of, so they have to be exposed to group situations," she says. "For the first 13 weeks of the course we do role plays, over and over, then the group is encouraged to get into the feared situations outside." For the next 13 weeks, her clients work on social skills: listening; asking for what they want; saying no; non-verbal expression and so on, to make them more effective in different situations.

Dr Henderson believes that cognitive behavioural therapy is the answer in the long run, not drugs. "You can think of `social fitness' in the same way that you think of physical fitness. Some people will never like big parties in the same way that some people aren't tennis players, but they might be good in small groups. And shy people think everyone else finds it easy, they don't realise everyone has to put effort into social learning."

So where have all these shrinking violets come from? Some researchers believe that the rapid rise of e-mail and other forms of communication where no speaking or meeting are required has contributed to the rise of shyness, though others have found that e-mailing can be a useful bridge for the reserved; once you've exchanged a few messages then you might be ready to (gasp) make a phone call.

Professor Bernardo Carducci, director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, has a number of suggestions to explain the rise. "Changes in technology and the way we interact are important," he says. "These days we can do everything very fast and we lose patience with people who need time to warm up when dealing with others. These are the shy people."

Second, there is a syndrome he has dubbed "identity intensity". "Today you have to get louder and more outrageous in order to get noticed," he explains. "It's reflected in the way movies are more violent, rock stars are more outrageous. When I was young, having green hair was shocking. Now you have to have green hair, studs, and tattoos to stand out. This works against shy people."

Finally there is the downfall of simple, old-fashioned courtesy. "As we move faster and faster, it is easier to move away from people," he says. "It is easier to be rude, and the ones who get pushed aside and pushed around are the shy ones. All these factors create anxiety."

Prof Carducci, who is the author of two books on the subject: Shyness: A Bold New Approach and The Pocket Guide To Making Successful Small Talk: How To Talk To Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, is against the use of drugs like Paxil. "Shy people don't need drugs, they need to understand their shyness, to manage it, to become `successfully shy'." He has put together a raft of strategies to make interaction easier - his guide to small-talk is as easy to follow as a cake recipe.

Prof Carducci also favours "quick-talk"; simple exercises like exchanging a few words with the server in the coffee-shop, or holding open a door and inviting someone else to pass through. And, he says, a key part of his therapy is to be kind, and to make the conversation easy for others too. "A critical part of shyness is self-consciousness, and once you start paying attention to others you become less self-conscious," he says.

The shyest country in the world is Japan; the most outgoing is Israel. As for Britain, the diagnosis and treatment of shyness here is still in its infancy. But we should take heart, says Dr Jacobson. "It works fine being shy in England, because you can be idiosyncratic, you don't have to speak a lot. But in the US it is very hard going - we are a very extroverted country." And, adds Prof Bernardo Carducci, perhaps we should value shyness over brashness. "Our society is so rude, we need more shyness, more people who take their time - but I mean `successfully shy' people, of course."

"Shyness: A Bold New Approach" by Prof Bernardo Carducci is published by HarperCollins; to order "The Pocket Guide To Making Successful Small Talk", call Pocket Guide Publishing (tel: 001 812 282 3938).


5 Don't turn up late hoping to blend in. Come early and meet people one-to-one as they arrive. Prof Bernardo Carducci

5 Don't stand in corners or behind tables because people can't get to you. Stand near doorways or areas of heavy traffic, so people can approach you. Dr Lynne Henderson

5 Go to the party with someone who accepts that you're shy and ask them to introduce you to people and initiate conversations that include you.

Dr Bonnie Jacobson

5 Don't immediately down a couple of drinks; instead walk round the room, see what's happening, who's there, what they are talking about. (BC)

5 If it's a work party, set a deliberate goal; think of two or three people you would like to know better, and make contact with them, one at a time. (LH)

5 You don't have to be brilliant, just nice. "Lovely weather we're having" is fine to start a conversation - it's just a signal that you'd like to speak to the other person. (BC)

5 Don't jump in to an ongoing conversatio. Hover just outside a group and follow the talk with your head, nod. When there is a lull, make a statement of support, like "That's an interesting point". Then introduce a relevant statement of your own. (BC)

5 Beforehand, read a paper, go to a film - have something prepared to talk about. Choose positive subjects. (LH)

5 Try to approach someone who also looks shy, and start a conversation with them. (LH)