I never thought of myself as shy. But there I was, all wibbly-wobbly in the legs as I waited to go on TV | Adrian Chiles

I was given an award last week. It was a grand prix, if you don’t mind, at the Croatian national tourist board’s Golden Pen awards in Dubrovnik. The garland was hung around my neck for a thing I did about the island of Murter on Shaun Keaveny’s BBC Radio 4 series Your Place or Mine. I’ll spare you the humble stuff along the lines of: “Aw, shucks. Me? Really?” This award was richly deserved – less for my contribution to Shaun’s splendid show than for a lifetime spent using my privileged position in the British media to bang on about my mum’s home country.

At the ceremony I was asked to appear live on Croatian television. I’d not been so nervous about anything in years. As we waited to go live, the interviewer, alarmed that I was deadly quiet, sweating profusely and all wibbly-wobbly about the legs, asked me if I was all right. Was it that I was more used to radio than television? I explained that I was terrified of making a fool of myself speaking publicly in such poor Croatian. But then the light went on and I babbled and burbled my way through it, and everyone seemed happy.

It reminded me of being on television for the very first time, a good 30 years ago now. And I was so grateful for this. The great baseball coach Joe Maddon said: “Your mind and heart are never as far open as they are when you encounter a place or an opportunity for the first time … Make every day count by seeing it with first-time eyes.” So true. And there was a bigger insight about to come my way.

I overheard the Croatian woman who had set up the interview – a woman I’d known for a while – say that the appearance had been typical of me, all shy until the camera went on but then just fine. Shy? I’d never been described as shy before. But I could see why she had said it. For the previous few days I’d been part of a two-coachload group on a tour of the Dubrovnik region. There were writers, broadcasters, bloggers, podcasters and – dread word – influencers from all over the world. We were accompanied by as many Croatians – tourism executives, local bigwigs and so on. My Croatian is fluent enough but limited. I was too proud to resort to speaking English but hamstrung in Croatian – ashamed of my poor vocabulary and terrible grammar, and frustrated by my inability to express myself as I would have liked. So, gradually, I clammed up. I had indeed become shy. I’d been trying shyness on for size, seeing it with first-time eyes, and hadn’t much enjoyed the experience.

Do some internet research into shyness and you soon disappear into a word salad of theory raising more questions than answers. Social anxiety either is or isn’t a synonym for shyness. It’s a spectrum. Its origins may or may not be related to some trauma. And so on. Newsflash: it’s complicated. My heart bleeds for those afflicted by it, but even that might not be right. If introversion suits you, who’s to say that extroversion is any better?

My friend and colleague, the comedian John Robins, says it’s shyness that led him to standup. He says it’s a good way of steering clear of one-on-one conversations. I can think of easier ways, but there you go. He also says that, in his case, it’s a lot about the clash between huge ego and correspondingly low self-esteem. That was me too, back in Croatia: too big an ego to lean in and contribute to the occasion if I was unable to give the group the full benefit of my brilliance. And too limited in self-esteem to even try.

I thank them all for the award, though. It opened my first-time eyes and taught me a lot.

Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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