I used to consider myself shy. I no longer do, for I can confidently conduct interviews for my campus newspaper, lead productive consultations as a tutor at Pomona College’s Writing Center, and eagerly participate in class discussions. As long as there is a concrete topic at hand, I know what to say. But I must admit that when I encounter a purely social situation, my shyness sometimes returns. If a conversation has no obvious “goal,” I am prone to feel aimless and at sea. So I was reassured to learn that one of my inspirations, Eleanor Roosevelt, once felt the same.
When Eleanor Roosevelt married Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1905, she was 20 years old and intimidated by her new social responsibilities. Though well educated, Eleanor knew that being the wife of an up-and-coming politician would require endless conversations with a wide variety of individuals on an even wider variety of topics with which she may or may not be acquainted. How could she possible prepare herself? “Knowing my own deficiencies,” she writes in her 1960 book You Learn by Living, “I made a game of trying to make people talk about whatever they were interested in and learning as much as I could about their particular subject… It was not only great fun but I began to get an insight into many subjects I could not possibly have learned about in any other way.”
While this conversational approach served her well most of the time, there was one occasion on which she had to improvise. Over lunch with Governor and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, Eleanor quickly realized that the Governor, with whom she was supposed to be conversing, “never did anything but grunt.” Eleanor remembered some advice shared with her by Ruth Bryan Rohde years before: “She found if very useful, if she was sitting next to a person whose interest she knew nothing about, to begin going through the alphabet. A is for ants. ‘Mr. Jones, are you interested in the life of the ant?’ He might not be interested in the ant but at least he was startled and amused.” Eleanor decided to try this with the Governor. “I tried every letter of the alphabet,” she writes, “but I did not succeed even in startling Governor Coolidge, let alone amusing him, no matter how outrageous a subject I suggested… I was most uncomfortable but he was quite happy. He preferred to eat in peace and quiet and he saw no reason for saying a word.”
Next time I’m at a loss for words, I’m going to try Eleanor’s approach and go through the alphabet one letter at a time. I’m sure an interesting conversation will result! Of course, not every conversation will be a successful one, as Eleanor discovered during her lunch with Governor Coolidge. I think this is a truth that we must come to terms with if we are to feel comfortable having any conversations at all; we must be willing to fail if we are ever to succeed, in conversations as in much of life. Some final words of wisdom for those who consider themselves shy, from Eleanor, who was once shy herself: “I learned a liberating thing. If you will forget about yourself, whether or not you are making a good impression on people, what they think of you, and you will think about them instead, you won’t be shy.”
Here are two photos of Eleanor Roosevelt looking not at all shy. 🙂