If I had a pound for the number of times I’ve had people tell me that they thought I was cold, aloof or a bit up myself the first time they met me, we would be getting our loft extension done by now…
It happened just recently again and even though it was said in a kind, well-meaning way, it still gets me.
The first time I remember it happening was when I was travelling in Thailand in 2001 with some girlfriends. My father had very recently passed away. I was just 21. I think its probably fair to say I was dealing with some shit.
The friends I was travelling with were happily flirting with every boy they came across but I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to lie on the beach by day and then get giggly and dance with my mates by night. Inevitably, being young and blonde, drunk blokes tried it on with me but I simply ignored them.
Then one night, at a beach bar in Koh Chang, my rejection obviously got one suitor’s back up because he cornered me by the bar. “Your friends say you’re moving to London soon,” he jeered at me. “You’re not going to get very far in the UK with that Ice Queen act of yours.”
Then he sauntered off, proud of himself for teaching that young, aloof South African some manners.
I should have thrown my alco-pop in his face. Instead I went back to my little beach shack and cried my eyes out. Ice Queen? Throughout my school and uni years I’d always had loads of friends. I’d never been told I was cold before. My friends did a great job at buoying me up and I pretended to move on. But that little seed was planted deep into my psyche and I have never, ever forgotten it. Not least because since then it has played out many more times in different guises over the years.
The truth is, I’m not cold, I’m shy! People don’t believe me when I say that but I’ve looked into it and I’m what is known as an extroverted introvert. I have a large personality and a good sense of humour. I have a lot of friends. So people think that I can hold my own. But put me in a room of strangers and my heart races, my palms sweat and I just want to get out of there. As a journalist, I’ve had to attend many press launches and been instructed by my editors to “mingle” and the thought still gives me shudders. Thank Christ I don’t have to go to those anymore.
I’ve had lengthy conversations with my mother-in-law about this. She is shy too but you’d never know it. No-one would ever describe her as cold. She tells me she has spent her whole life working on it. As the wife of a naval officer she had to learn how to ‘work a room.’ “Smile and ask people lots of questions about themselves,” she advised. I have tried this technique many times but my brain still freezes. I can’t think of a single question apart from asking their name and what they do. Then the conversation goes quiet and I just want the ground to swallow me up.
My husband reckons his private school education taught him small talk. He will immediately find some middle ground with a complete stranger. I love him for this and I stick to him like a limpet if we go to an event where I will know no-one. I so admire warm bubbly people who can just randomly talk about utter nonsense and not care. I have tried my level best to emulate these clever souls but I have now come to the realisation that that is simply never going to be me.
And here’s the thing, why should I change? I am not cold. Every friend who has admitted to me that they found me scary when they first met me soon changed their minds when they got to know me and found I was actually the opposite. The only reason I might not speak to you much when I first meet you is not because I can’t be bothered it’s because I literally cannot think of a single thing to say! My mind has drawn a blank. I love people, and once the cat has loosened its hold on my tongue, I can chat away for hours but only if I’m given half the chance.
I have got a little better over the years. I rekindled an old passion for drama by joining a theatre group a few years ago to give me the confidence to stand in front of a crowd and speak: a skill I need as a yoga teacher. But the thing I have mainly got better at, through my yoga practice, is acceptance. I will always be shy and that’s actually ok. God knows the world has enough extroverts vying for attention. Extroverts can be narcissists. Extroverts can be bullies.
In her excellent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain explains how a third of us are introverts yet the world is powerfully dominated by extroverts. Shyness, sensitivity and seriousness are seen as negative. In business, those with the biggest egos get promoted fastest. As a mother to a sensitive boy, I hope the world will change its current parameters but I doubt it will and that saddens me.
We are all different and we all have our place in the world. We need to try a little harder to understand each other. Dig deeper. Be less judgemental. Understand that everyone has their own stuff going on. And be kind. Be kind be kind be kind.