Shyness and Social Awkwardness in Different Cultures

Medical Reviewer

Shyness and social anxiety are found all over the world, but depending on who you are, where you live, and the conventions you've grown up with the issues that trigger them will likely differ. If you've grown up in a Nordic country, for example, it may feel intensely uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of highly emotive outbursts from someone with Mediterranean origins.

Here are some examples of cultural variations that might cause embarrassment in one setting but can go completely unnoticed in another.

Eastern and Western variations

Socially acceptable behaviors can vary drastically between cultures. In a number of Asian countries, for example, prolonged eye contact upon first meeting someone can make people feel uncomfortable. In Western cultures, meanwhile, lack of eye contact, especially when meeting someone for the first time, can appear evasive and rude.

In Western cultures the focus of shy or socially anxious persons is often on their own anxieties. They typically fear being negatively judged because of perceived inadequacies. In Japan, however, a culturally distinctive form of social anxiety known as taijin kyofusho, refers to a fear of offending or embarrassing others. People with this disorder worry that their own facial expressions, eye contact, body parts or body odor could be offensive to others.

A misunderstanding of cultural norms can lead to unintended insults. Kris Rugsaken provides some interesting examples of cultural variations on the National Academic Advising Association website.

In one example, former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale took offence at the number of closed eyes in a Japanese audience while he was giving a speech. The U.S. ambassador then pointed out that the reason their eyes were closed was to block out external distractions in order to concentrate on his words.

Eastern cultures tend to value harmony and quiet loyalty to superiors. There is also a higher focus on avoiding the shame of failure. Such values might be regarded as promoting shyness. Western cultures, on the other hand, often emphasize and value individual achievements, material success, and competition.

For a shy person, living in a Western culture can make it especially difficult to feel worthwhile and noticed. An overly shy person in Western cultures can sometimes be seen as socially incompetent and suffer rejection as a result.


Personal space and gestures

Personal space is relevant whether we’re on the beach or in a business meeting. In Western cultures, people tend to prefer about an arm's length of space in order to feel comfortable with strangers. That being said, people from different cultures often have differing attitudes toward what constitutes "personal space." Japanese people who are strangers will generally stand further apart than Americans do. Data also shows that people from Venezuela and people from Arab cultures stand much closer together than Americans.

How we behave in public can also be viewed as acceptable or offensive, depending on the culture. In Middle Eastern and some Asian countries, the left hand is regarded as "dirty," as it is the hand used to clean oneself - so it is best to eat with the right hand and accept cards or gifts with either the right hand or with both hands.

In Asia and the Middle East people can feel self-conscious -- or even insulted -- in a room with someone who is seated cross-legged. Crossing legs is a sign of disrespect, so a balanced posture with both feet planted firmly on the floor is the common practice.

Men and women

From what we know about shyness in different countries, it appears that men and women are affected roughly equally. Dr.Gillian Butler highlights some other generalizations. For example, among young adults shyness affects two-thirds of those in Japan but only one-third of young people in Israel.

Shyness is still considered more of a female trait, although men tend to learn to hide behind what Butler refers to as "rules of the game," in which their behavior is structured around work or business roles. However, as it stands to my knowledge, there is no systematic global data on shyness, hence the isolated generalizations offered by Butler's observations from countries where studies have been conducted.

Cultural variations can and do account for many of the experiences we regard as shyness or social awkwardness. In circumstances where shyness interferes with daily living, it might be helpful to seek therapy.

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Butler, G. (2012), Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness.

Kenneth H. Rubin and Robert J. Coplan, ed. (2013). "10". The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 213–227. ISBN 978-1-60623-522-5. Retrieved 17 January 2014.

Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of theBritish Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of variousself-help books and is co-founder of