Shrinking violets


I’ve just finished a book called Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness. ‘Shrinking violet’ is not, in fact, a phrase heard much these days: along with the word ‘wallflower’, it has a pre-1960s feel to it. In Howard Jacobson’s autobiographical novel The Mighty Walzer, the Shrinking Violets are the central character’s shy aunts as described by his father, who refers to them as if they were ‘an established showbiz group like the Andrews Sisters’. (Jacobson, by the way, has described himself as an acutely shy child who became a writer ‘because I was afraid of the world and wanted to remake it’.)

A Google search for ‘shrinking violet’ today brings up links to a weight reduction method that women may use to magically ‘reduce by a dress size in one treatment’. It seems to involve wrapping oneself in a heat-inducing cling film-type material full of essential oils that trigger lipolysis, which breaks down fats so they can be processed by the liver. It promises, in other words, a literal rather than a figurative shrinking – the only type of shrinking now deemed acceptable in a society ruled by what Susan Cain calls the ‘extrovert ideal’.

Someone once suggested to me that writing a book was like dropping a stone down a really deep well. The stone might rattle along the sides of the well’s walls a bit, to remind you of its continued existence, and then years later you might hear the tiniest plop as it hit the water table. I think the metaphor was meant to be consoling, to remind you never to give up hope of a long-delayed response to your work. But instead it made me worry that writing was a one-sided and fluky affair, with no guarantee that it would ever find a reader. Anyway, I have thrown in my stone, and I will come back in a year to see if I can hear a little splash.

6 thoughts on “Shrinking violets

  1. Hi Joe! My name is Helena and I am writing to you from Sweden. A time ago I read your article “Shyness cannot be cured” and enjoyed it a lot. I have recently started a company of my swedish blog and homepage about shyness and introversion (

    Right now I am planning a online course that will focus on how to embrace your shyness and stop trying to cure it. Today I am researching the science-field for more information on how the cultural view of shyness have developed. And when I learned that you will publish a book about this it made me so happy. Do you know during which time next year the book will be able to order? Are there any articles/materials available today about your findings?

    Given what you have written in this blog post I will assure you that you already have at least one reader!

    Best regards, Helena


  2. Hi Helena
    thanks for this and your interest in the book. The book isn’t out until September 2016, although I have an article coming out about shyness in the Times Higher (it should be available online) on 24 September if that’s of interest. In the meantime you could try, if you haven’t already, Susan Cain’s book Quiet, Christopher Lane’s book Shyness and Sian Prior’s Shy. Good luck with your website – I will check it out.
    best wishes


    • Hi Joe and thanks for your answer. The article about shyness sounds interesting, I am gonna look for it! And thanks for all your book tips, I have read them before and liked them all a lot. Best wishes, Helena


  3. I read a book back in the eighties on this subject. It is called “Shyness” by Philip Zimbardo. For anyone who has a particular shyness around public speaking or being in the limelight Toastmasters is a particularly good organisation.


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