Blushing, tongue-tied, nervous of the limelight? Good for you, says Hester Lacey. Shyness can be crippling, according to a conference last week. But consider the alternatives
Shy people, apparently, are not happy people. The first ever international conference on shyness, held last week in Cardiff, revealed that the acutely timid may suffer from loneliness, blushing, trembling, speech problems, difficulties in forming relationships, etcetera etcetera. But only one in ten cases is severe, and the other 90 per cent of shrinking violets should take heart, rather than hiding their light under the nearest blush- sparing bushel. Why? Because in this country, we like people of a retiring and modest demeanour.

In the US, calling someone "assertive" or even "aggressive" is a compliment; over here it's a deadly insult. When Princess Diana was still "Shy Di" she could do no wrong; since she developed a loud voice and big muscles she's had a bumpy ride. Princess Michael of Kent (aka Princess Pushy), ostentatiously tiaraed, who with Prince Michael is notorious for turning up to anything for a fee, recently went bust to the tune of more than pounds 2 million, to the great glee of the press; her brashness is universally loathed. Meanwhile, the unassuming Duke and Duchess of Gloucester have just quietly celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. "How different the public perception of royalty might have been if they were all like this," commented the Daily Mail approvingly of the nice, modest Gloucesters.

Royal circles are not the only ones where a sudden outbreak of shyness would be a happy event. Faced with the relentless in-your-facery of the strident Spice Girls, thank god for Portishead, who hardly ever play live and steadfastly refuse interviews. Thomas Pynchon, the famously reclusive writer, has just spent 30 silent years on his new novel, Mason And Dixon, which is being hailed as a masterpiece. Will Self, on the other hand, who can't blow his nose without hitting the front pages, has hit a sticky patch career-wise. Can anyone truthfully say that they don't wish Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (Vogue again this month, sigh) and the rest of the so- called "It" girls would just shut up for a while?

It's time for shy people to come out and be proud of their charming reticence. "I'm not ashamed of being a quiet person," says Susanne, 29, a personal assistant. "I don't think hogging the limelight is a very attractive quality. I can listen as well as yak about myself. I would rather see one of my close, trusted friends than go out to parties and make dozens of meaningless acquaintances. Quite often, I would rather stay at home in the evenings than go out. I'm very close to my family and enjoy spending weekends at my parents' house or with my sister. And so what? If people think I'm boring that's their problem."

In fact, many might be quite jealous of the determination with which shy people repel the grim invitations that others end up accepting. "What's that phrase - something like, 'The more I see of people, the more I like my dog'? That's how I feel. I meet a lot of clients in the course of my work, which is fine on a professional level but socially I am not at all keen," says John, 35, a solicitor. "I would rather be hung, drawn and quartered than go to an office party, it's my idea of hell. It is certainly shyness, but a defensive kind of shyness. There are an awful lot of arseholes out there. I am very happily married and my wife feels much the same. Our hearts sink when we get an invitation - we tend to go to things out of duty. But don't think we're boring, sad people - we get invited out all the time. I think people find our self-sufficiency and calmness quite intriguing and attractive."

The shy can be discovered lurking even in some traditionally up-front niches. "I'm no good in a group," says Emma, 29, a journalist. "I'd be very shy about telling a story in front of five people. But one-to-one I can get a lot out of people. I think it's a very positive trait. People who are the life and soul of the party, when you get them alone, are often really shallow and one-dimensional."

And shy people can generally be relied on not to get drunk and fall over/insult your other friends/show you up in public. "I have a good friend I've known for years, but I really try to avoid going out with her - I always try to arrange things so we go to each other's houses," confesses Anna, 30. "She is just so loud, the whole pub or restaurant gets to listen in to whatever we're saying, and she's always bumping into people - she somehow just takes up too much space. I wish she would simmer down - larger-than-life people can be very wearing."

Tim Pole, author of Be Yourself: The No-Nonsense Guide To Living Effectively (Element, pounds 5.99), agrees. "Incredibly positive, hyped-up people are a pain. What is wrong with being quiet? It's the people with the most to say, the highly visible company heads and suchlike, who get featured in the media. But the people who are really accomplishing the success of these few are what I call quiet achievers; they don't brag, they just get on with it. There are many more quiet achievers than front men."

Shyness, he says, is nothing to be ashamed of. "Everyone feels anxious in certain situations - maybe a party, or a new job. We all put on a big front at times. It's because of the popular image of success - the outgoing are held up as role models. But they don't reflect the vast majority of people, any more than women's fashion models reflect the majority of women."

And it's a myth that up-front assertiveness is guaranteed to land you a job. In fact, it is more likely to send prospective employers cowering in horror behind their desks. Olwyn Burgess, assistant director of career counselling at the Focus Consulting Group, warns against too macho a stance. "People who have read all the books on self-marketing think they have to blow their own trumpets, but it can be a mistake. We had one client who was offered quite a senior role, and went in determined to make an impression. He severely upset people; he was too brash, too opinionated, he came across like a bombastic pig. He lasted two weeks."

One of the key points where a degree of modesty is vital, she says, is fitting into a team. "If you are too overpowering, a recruiter will start making judgements on how well you will fit in with the people who are already there. Employers are just as likely to want someone who will be sensitive and perceptive, with good people skills - someone who will manage by involving and consulting, rather than an old-fashioned 'leader'."

And if you're talking too loudly, you might miss something. "Listening skills are so important," says Burgess. "The more you listen the more you can respond appropriately. Consultancy, for example, is ten per cent talking and 90 per cent listening and thinking."

In California, where listening and thinking are evidently low-priority activities, shyness is perceived as being such a problem that the world's first shyness clinic has been set up there. Here the afflicted can do "social workouts" (aka endless role-playing). Let's hope it never happens here.