Owning the label

I spent years of my life running from and denying this term. Getting angry and annoyed when people used it to describe me (which was often). Thinking that it was such a bad thing for a person to be. Wondering why it was so hard to avoid being labeled with it. Hating that I was it.


Yes, world, I am shy. Okay?

For some reason, living in Korea has helped me to embrace the term. Until recently, I’d never even considered that “shy” doesn’t have to be a negative thing.

Why is shy so bad, anyway?

First definition on Google:

  1. being reserved or having or showing nervousness or timidity in the company of other people.

And this is bad because…?

Personally, I don’t feel nervous when I’m with other people (and I assume I don’t look nervous… hopefully), but if I don’t know the people very well, the words reserved, quiet, and even timid definitely apply. And I just don’t see how that earns a negative connotation.

We’re not talking about social anxiety here, which is NOT the same thing as being shy and is, arguably, objectively a bad thing because it creates discomfort or pain for the person experiencing it. Maybe people who have social anxiety are frequently called “shy” by other people, but social anxiety goes deeper than that – but that’s a whole ‘nother topic (and I’ve already done an anxiety/mental health post this week, so for the sake of this post we will talk exclusively about non-anxiety-driven shyness, so everything in the definition except “nervous” because nervous can have a negative meaning).

Anyway, shyness is neutral, people.

A few months ago, I had a lesson on personality with an after-school class. After teaching them a variety of personality trait words (kind, lazy, funny, shy, honest, mean, etc.), I told them to circle the positive or good traits and put a square around the negative or bad traits. When it came to “shy,” a lot of them didn’t know what to do. I told them it’s not good or bad.

I think if I had done this activity with American students, most if not all of them would’ve labeled shy as negative. And that’s sad.

As a child and teen, I had this notion instilled in me that shyness was like an illness or a bad habit. Something I needed to grow out of. Something that would impede my attempts to be successful as an adult.

Well, guess what?

It’s not. It wasn’t. It hasn’t.

I may never be that person networking and getting great job opportunities through my social connections, but that was never a big goal of mine anyway. I want to work doing something I love and enjoy (which, ironically, involves working with people), and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last year and a half, and for 10 years before that in America.

I may never be that person who goes to a new place or event or party and comes away with dozens of new friends and contacts, but that was also never a big goal of mine. I like having my small group of close friends. Do I need friends and family? Absolutely, 100% yes. Please don’t equate shy or reserved with antisocial or hermit. I need people in my life. I want to be social sometimes too. But my social bar fills up more quickly than some others.

I may never be that person who, after meeting someone for the first time, leaves a fantastic first impression and makes the other person think “Wow, what a hilarious, amazing, cool person!” But that’s okay. Do I sometimes wish I could be like that? Of course. I see these vibrant, outgoing people and think, Their social skills are so fluent. I wish I could be so smooth when meeting new people! But again, it’s okay. There are all kinds of people in this world, and we can’t all be outgoing and super friendly and funny – just like we can’t all be introverted and reserved and shy (thank God! no one would ever talk to each other ever!).

I guess I started thinking about this more because since arriving in Korea, many coworkers (English teachers and other teachers/school staff) have mentioned my shyness. But it doesn’t seem to have the same connotation here as it would in America. It’s just like “Oh, you’re shy” in the same way one might say “Oh, you have brown eyes” or “Oh, you’re tall.” The only reason they seem to think it strange is that I break their stereotype about all Americans being boisterous and outgoing. Heehee.

Anyway, if you are a shy person and you want to work on not being shy, I will cheer you on. If you are miserable about being shy, then definitely go for it, challenge yourself to be talkative and outgoing and meet new people. I’ve met really, really outgoing people who have admitted to me that they used to be shy and really worked on it and overcame it. So don’t despair! You can change certain aspects of your personality.

But my point is, shyness shouldn’t be seen as something that must be overcome. It’s not necessarily a problem or a negative. If you’re like me, content with being reserved and quiet in certain social situations, then don’t let other people make you feel like it’s a bad thing. Because IT’S NOT.

If someone accuses you of being shy or quiet (the dreaded “You’re so quiet!”), just own it. You don’t have to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable (easier said than done, I know), because you’re not doing anything wrong. And you don’t need to explain it to anyone. Does an extroverted person ever have to explain why they’re outgoing and like to chat? No? Then you don’t need to explain why you’re quiet.

Best of luck on your arduous path, fellow shy people. And for those who enjoy being outgoing and extroverted, I hope this can give you a little insight and understanding for us strange shy ones.


5 thoughts on “Owning the label

  1. Craig says:

    I love your posts about shyness or introversion cos i can relate to them so much myself! so thanks!

    Can i ask though, how do you find the whole teaching experience? I mean, walking in front of a class of 20-30 kids could seem quite an extrovert thing to do and feel comfortable with. Also, teaching english abroad to kids can seem especially ‘extrovert only’ from what i see. That’s why i find it so impressive and inspiring that you’re doing it.

    I have thought for a while about doing the same but the introvert/extrovert thing puts me off. Mainly because all the videos of esl teachers i’ve seen seem to show these ‘crazy’, ‘lively’, ‘zaney’, ‘wacky’ (insert other outgoing people’s word for how totally fun and amazing they are here if necessary) people doing all kinds of songs, games, playing guitar while juggling, dancing and telling the students about their lives and families back home, meanwhile the kids are all cheering loudly and it ends up with one hyooooge extroverted group hug. yay. I guess the thing here is only the really extroverted wacky ones are the ones video-ing their lives for youtube!

    It seems like a more normal, ‘schooly’ way of teaching might not seem fun enough for the esl industry – although maybe this is more true of thailand and more backpacker places than Korea where i guess it’s a lot more professionally set-up?

    Sorry to ramble, but yeah i just wondered how you find the actual process of being in front of class and engaging given your ‘shy’ nature? Do you have to be more extrovert in class and then sigh of relief when you get home? I don’t mean these things in a negative way, as i know from your posts you love teaching, just wondering how you find this balance?


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Maddy says:

    I’m glad you enjoy these kinds of posts! I’ll try to address all of your questions without rambling on forever!

    First, I do think there’s a fair percentage of introverted ESL teachers here in Korea – it’s definitely not just me. Like you said, the extroverts are probably more likely to post videos to YouTube which is why you tend to only see these outgoing, energetic personalities. However, introverts are just as capable of being good teachers, obviously.

    For me personally, I draw confidence from my previous job experience, teaching martial arts to kids and adults. Leading martial arts classes translated well enough into teaching ESL classes of 20-30 kids. If you have any experience with teaching anything, or presenting or public speaking (yuck) or being a group leader or anything like that, you can definitely draw on that to help build your confidence for teaching ESL. But even if you don’t have teaching experience, taking the (required, if you don’t have a degree in Education or English) TEFL course with an in-class component will help. As dreadful as it is to do the in-class portion, it truly helped me realize that this *was* something I could do.

    –Classroom persona–
    You certainly don’t have to be super bubbly and energetic and an “entertainer” (I’m not!), but you should try your best to let the kids see your real personality. One piece of advice that stuck with me when I started, from a fellow new EPIK recruit who had previous experience teaching in the U.S., was “Don’t be fake. The kids can tell right away if you’re being fake, and they won’t like it.” I went to another NET’s open class last year and he was really soft-spoken, no song and dance routine, but he exuded a quiet confidence, had devised some simple classroom management techniques, and the kids seemed to love him.

    *However*, I’m a middle school teacher, and of course that’s going to be a bit more solemn and studious. From what I’ve heard, elementary school may require you to be a little more active and willing to sing songs with the kids and that kind of thing (especially the young ones, 3rd-4th grade), but at least you can take comfort in the fact that they won’t judge you. You don’t have to be able to play guitar or do acapella performances or anything, just find level and age appropriate English songs, activities, and games (there are tons of resources for those) that can help them learn and engage. If you’ve had any experience working with young kids, you know they just like to be silly, and they’re really eager to learn! And they’re adorable!

    Also, keep in mind that if you’re doing it right, the focus won’t just be on you for 40 or 45 minutes. Typically after book work, you should be able to prepare activities and/or games that puts the focus back on the students and gets *them* to be the ones doing the speaking. [And on that note, it’s true that the majority of schools will probably expect you to bring “fun” into your classes. Definitely no lecturing – they get that in their English classes with the Korean teachers, and most of their other classes as well. While some people strongly dislike this approach, I think as long as the kids are being good and listening, why not bring some fun into the class? Games definitely grab their attention more than staring at the textbook.]

    –Being introverted–
    To me, I find talking with kids to be more energizing than draining on my social meter. Making personal connections with them or having them confide in me or do / tell me something cute or goofy or smart helps keep me going through the day. If you enjoy kids, it might not drain you as much when you teach class. Yes, I do have to turn on a more “extroverted” facet of my personality when teaching, but at the end of the day (most days), you can just go home and chill and recharge.

    Overall, there are so many factors that decide whether or not you’ll enjoy this job – your level of introversion, yes, but also general personality, how much you enjoy working with kids, your ability to embrace another culture and adopt (at least some of) their customs, how well you can adapt to change, etc.

    I could probably write thousands of paragraphs on this but I’ll stop there for now! Hope this helps and let me know if you have any other questions!


    • Craig says:

      Wow thanks for the thorough and helpful response, that’s awesome! Very useful and reassuring to me.

      I see everything you’re saying and that makes me feel much more comfortable with the idea. I think you hit the nail on the head as to my main apprehension when you talk about being yourself and not being fake. I think i’ve had the tendency to watch these videos and get the wrong impression that all esl teachers would need to be that way. And to be like that for me would be way too draining, too much acting and overall fake and not me. That’s what would feel so uncomfortable. It’s so reassuring that i could do things my way, still be fun and connect with the kids (i know i would melt with how adorable they’d be) and still be a good teacher, without needing to be quite so full-on.

      Thanks again for that, it’s very helpful to me. This has been the only thing holding me back really, as i feel pretty comfortable in other aspects of the job/culture change etc, In fact, as i think you said in one of your posts on this, being in a foreign city like that can be perfect for us introverts what with the language barrier, cultural differences etc. There’s no expectation to be in the middle of everything i guess.

      Thanks a lot!

      Liked by 1 person

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