Medium becomes message for the shy e-mailers

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The electronic revolution, dominated by faxes and e-mails, has helped turn the problem of shyness into an epidemic, the world's first conference on the subject was told yesterday.

The number of sufferers has risen by a fifth in the last two decades and latest research puts the number of shy people at 60 per cent of the population, compared with 40 per cent when studies began in 1972.

New technology and an impersonal business world, coupled with a decline in social networks, have meant a loss of social skills, said Professor Philip Zimbardo, the keynote speaker at the conference in Cardiff and founder of the Shyness Institute in California.

And he warned that shyness was a "potentially lethal" trait, with criminals such as America's Unabomber - who waged a letter-bomb campaign against US universities - being described as almost pathologically shy. "Although we think of shy people as passive and easily manipulated, at the same time there is a level of resentment, rage and hostility."

The professor said life was becoming more difficult for those who had trouble communicating. "The electronic revolution of e-mails and faxes means the medium has finally become the message ...

"With more virtual reality overtaking real reality, ordinary skills and situations are becoming more awkward."

For months after Hugh Grant was caught in flagrante delicto on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, men and women the world over wondered why a man who was going out with Elizabeth Hurley would go to a prostitute.

The answer, it seems, is obvious - the actor is shy. Professor Philip Zimbardo said that men who used prostitutes were often bashful and too shy to ask their wife or girlfriend for "exotic sex". "Hugh Grant is in a relationship with this beautiful and stunning girl and yet goes with a prostitute. He should be able to have imaginative sex with his girlfriend - but he can't because he's too shy."