LM Montgomery’s The Story Girl features a character described as “the Awkward Man”, a man who rarely goes out into society because of his crippling shyness and difficulty in managing in social situations. However, when the Awkward Man is in his own element he’s articulate and accomplished, to the point that those who haven’t seen him engage with others in public are baffled by his nickname.
As we sat there the Awkward Man passed by, with his gun over his shoulder and his dog at his side. He did not look like an awkward man, there in the heart of the maple woods. He strode along right masterfully and lifted his head with the air of one who was monarch of all he surveyed.
The Story Girl kissed her fingertips to him with the delightful audacity which was a part of her; and the Awkward Man plucked off his hat and swept her a stately and graceful bow.
“I don’t understand why they call him the awkward man,” said Cecily, when he was out of earshot.
“You’d understand why if you ever saw him at a party or a picnic,” said Felicity, “trying to pass plates and dropping them whenever a woman looked at him. They say it’s pitiful to see him.”
For people who struggle with shyness or social anxiety, being in an unfamiliar environment or around unfamiliar people can be a crippling ordeal. But their awkwardness in a social situation is not only owned by them, but also by others, who construct an identity around them. An identity that while not necessarily incorrect is certainly misleading: it doesn’t show the full picture.
I am personally shy enough that even the term “wall-flower” is too gregarious in application. I am more the rendering of a flower on a piece of wall-paper. For me, social situations are crushingly exhausting. I find myself at a loss not only for what to say, but about why on earth anyone would be interested in hearing it, and after a few hours I simply wilt: the strength that’s needed to bear up against the interpersonal press of a social event is something that my schmoozing muscles lack. Sadly, whatever was there in the first place has atrophied over time.
And yet, shyness is so often taken as standoffishness, aloofness and superiority, among goodness knows how many other negative traits. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been accused of all of these when the truth of it is rather that at the time of my supposed cold-shouldering I was desperately treading the chill social waters and fighting some base instinct to flee.
There are factors, however, that help me overcome my shyness, and these include time, a companion who will help share the social burden, and also an environment that feels safe and non-threatening. Give me all of these and I’ll speak at astonishing length and with something approaching confidence. If you allow me that time, then you might even grow to like me–but many people don’t have that patience. I’m the Awkward Girl: a person of two identities, the presence of which is decided by a roll of the social die.
I might at times seem to be my own evil twin, but the point is that not all Jekyll and Hydes are malevolent characters.
Needless to say, I identified tremendously with Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, a man in whose actions and comportment I saw myself to an astonishing degree (even though sadly I am not someone on the modern-day equivalent of ten thousand a year). I’ve read all manner of things about Mr Darcy being a cold, proud individual who basks in passive-aggressiveness and pointedly closes his world to those who are not of his social standing. I’ve read accusations of his being the precursor to the modern-day literary alpha male, someone who is cruel, manipulative and emotionally withdrawn.
And yet, I saw none of these things, not even though our perceptions of Mr Darcy are filted through Elizabeth Bennett’s experience. Instead I, quite heart-breakingly, saw myself. Take, for example, our introduction to Mr Darcy, an initial meeting that takes place an environment that is frankly an introvert’s nightmare (it is, however, a dream for an extroverted character such as Mr Bingley, a man who thrives in social gatherings). Being thrust into a ball situation where only one or two people are known to me is to me patently terrifying, and I have little doubt that like Mr Darcy I would spend the night in something approaching withdrawn silence, and that I would be doing all in my power to avoid the dance floor despite the years of dance classes I’ve taken.
To be fond of dancing may well be a certain step towards falling in love, as the quote goes, but an initial reticence does not necessarily indicate a lack of fondness–of dancing, or of the person with whom one is to dance.
Sadly, where Mr Bingley is beloved for being “lively and unreserved [and dancing] every dance”, Mr Darcy is immediately vilified as having a “most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend”.
And yet where an extrovert might see plenty to condemn at first glance, an introvert sees things quite differently indeed. For example, Mr Darcy’s assertion that there is “not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with” is tied to his comment about only enjoying dancing when he is particularly acquainted with his partner: he is expressing his discomfort regarding dancing with those who are unknown to him, not an unreasonable dislike of everyone in the room. Hence Bingley’s later remark to Jane that Mr Darcy tends only to be vociferous among his intimate acquaintances, with whom he is remarkably agreeable.
I dare say that if Mr Darcy had not his ten thousand a year, he would have been given little opportunity beyond this initial ball, for first impressions very quickly and tenaciously take hold, and for an introvert a first impression can very often be a last one.
Shyness is something that has to be overcome with time, and it can require a patience and understanding that many people are not willing to afford to someone who is a mere acquaintance. It is certainly a barrier to developing a deeper relationship, and there are a good many who would rather engage with those who are immediately open and vivacious, who share the burden of developing a relationship. But for a shy person, any engagement is sharing that burden: the issue is that we are capable of shouldering a lesser amount and that for a smaller amount of time.
Take Caroline Bingley’s comment about Mr Darcy’s painstaking letter-writing: “It is a rule with me that a person who can write a long letter with ease cannot write ill,” suggesting that openness and gratuity are the mark of a kind person, and that in shyness there is something cruel and wrong. Or Elizabeth’s speech, where she says that both she and Mr Darcy are of “unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb”, at which Mr Darcy comments that this is not at all how he sees himself: his laconic nature is not due to wanting to leave a series of pithy epigrams in his wake, but rather due to his shyness.
These misconceptions are eventually reconsidered, but largely due to the constant kind words of others–Mr Bingley, for example, and Mr Darcy’s household staff. If it were not for these words in his favour and the constant reassertion that Mr Darcy is an individual whose seemingly brusque, proud nature is merely a symptom of his shyness, not a thread that runs through his entire personality, there’s little doubt that Mr Darcy would never have been allowed the time and opportunity he needs in order to demonstrate that there is more to his person than might be seen at first glance. Think, after all, of how quickly word of his glaring social inadequacies and apparent cold temper spread after that first fateful ball. I wonder how many of my friendships might have fallen before my shyness had not I had someone in the wings ready to act as my reference.
This is not to suggest that Mr Darcy does not have his flaws, and certainly there are times when his behaviour does warrant admonishment. But is this so surprising from someone who is universally judged and found wanting by those around him, who is put regularly into social situations where it is inevitable that he is going to fail, and who is judged again for that?
We live in a world that prizes the traits of the extrovert, where boldness and confidence and a silky social nous are things that work in one’s favour, where ease of association and an ability to recharge by diving into a social occasion is valued. Introverts, on the other hand, thrive in situations where no one is around to see them doing so. We are the inverse of the extrovert: rather than our charms being on the outside and our insecurities hidden within, the opposite is true.
There is a distinct sense of uncertainty and disquiet where introverts are involved, as though we are secretive and prideful people, when the truth is that we would love for you to give us the opportunity to let our true selves come out from behind the Awkward Man garb we can’t help but don as our public uniform. It just may take some time and some withholding of judgement–both in books, and in real life.