We were waiting for a table for brunch yesterday when a little boy started talking to Fred. “Hey, what’s your name?” he asked. Fred took a sideways glance at him and didn’t respond. The little boy kept trying to make conversation, and finally Fred came over to me and buried his head in my stomach.
“Hey, he doesn’t want to talk to strangers.” The little boy’s mother snapped. “You should be like him, Christopher. He knows. Don’t talk to strangers.” His mother’s voice was sharp and she went on and on. But the boy was sweet, and I always appreciate when other children are willing to put themselves out there. So I walked over to him and tried to do some small chit chat. Christopher waved at Fred and introduced himself to him.
“Christopher! He doesn’t want to play with you, okay?”
I thought about how this would make Christopher feel, so I quickly said to him, “No, it’s not that. Fred is just really shy.” If Fred had 20 more minutes with Christopher, they’d be playing together, and they’d have a ball. Once Fred warms up, he is incredibly fun and generous. I also felt the sting of the mother’s tone and words, whether real or imagined. My boy isn’t cold. My boy isn’t snobby. He’s just shy. And sometimes he just wants his personal space.
I had grown up shy too. And I remember being misunderstood often. I used to be amused and bewildered at the things people said they thought about me – that I was really confident, or that I didn’t seem like I needed anybody, or that I was so good and pure and innocent. I’d wondered where they had gotten these ideas, and then one day I figured it out. When you don’t reveal yourself to people, they will color in your portrait for you.
The fact that I could eventually grow out of it (in many though not all situations) makes me wonder if my shyness was not inherent, and that I had changed because my environment and circumstances changed. I know for a fact that the moment I had started to fill out a bit, the moment I started to look more like a 17 year girl instead of a teenage boy with stunted growth, that I became less shy. In fact, by the end of my senior year, a male classmate said to me, “What do you mean you are shy, you are the most UN-shy person I have ever met in my life!” Which, to me, was another surprise. All those years of being the quiet girl and here is a guy talking like I was Julie the cruise director.
And years later at work I would literally be called Julie The Cruise Director. I was the one who organized all the office parties, the one who always kept her office door open. Flash forward more years and I walk into my son’s kindergarten classroom one day to have the teacher say, “Hey, how would you like to be Class Mom?” (To which I respond, “Sure! Uh, what’s a Class Mom?”) So alot of years have intervened, and now “hey how are ya” rolls off my tongue without any effort whatsoever (unless I haven’t had a chance to wash my hair and I don’t want you to look at me too long, and then I just retreat behind my baseball cap visor and pretend I don’t see you). But now another thing has changed too: the way I look at others who are shy.
Take, for example, a Japanese mother at my son’s school. Her son and Fred play so well together and I would like to get to know her better as she seems like a quite nice and interesting person. Except that she never talks to me unless I talk to her. I am always the one initiating conversation. She responds every time, but I get the feeling that if I stop initiating, she’d stop talking. And I wonder, is it me? What is wrong with me? Am I annoying? Do I look gross? (She always looks good.) I asked Max, who is Japanese, and he said,
“She is probably shy, because she’s the perfect mother type.” Okay, my husband does not speak English as his native language, and you can see how being married to an American who is very picky about words can lead to some big misunderstandings. But I have learned over the years to not jump on him immediately.
“Um, what do you mean by “perfect mother”? Do you mean that she is too perfect to talk to me?”
“No, I mean that she cares about appearance, she has to appear perfect, and she is self-conscious about her English, so she is scared to talk to you.”
How quickly I have forgotten what people used to think about me when I didn’t talk. That is why I would scoff when they thought I was “so confident.” HELLO. If I were confident I would talk to you, I would laugh with you, I would share my opinions and not worry if they sounded stupid. I would open myself up to you without the aid of vodka or wine, intoxicated by my own confidence alone. So if I don’t talk, it is me, and not you, but it is not because I am cold, or snobby. It is because I am not sure if you’d like me as your friend. But I am so happy that you are making the effort and I would love it if you don’t give up on me.
How clearly I do remember that now. How I need to remind myself of that when I meet new people. And how I want you to keep that in mind the next time your child wants to play with my child, but he is not immediately ready to say yes.