Quiet Achiever: An interview with Sian Prior

[First published in The Big Issue No 459, June 2014]

When then Prime Minister Julia Gillard stood before the National Press Club back in 2011 and confessed to having been a shy child—a temperament which, she claimed, continued to dog her in the top job in Parliament—the overriding public reaction was one of disbelief. The first ever female leader of Australia, whose job it is to address the nation on a daily basis, is deep down at heart ‘shy?’—surely not!

Melbourne-based writer and broadcaster Sian Prior was just as surprised by Gillard’s revelation. Author of Shy: A Memoir, Prior is all-too familiar with the sometimes crippling effects of the personality trait. Meeting Prior for coffee, however, it’s easy to experience a similar sense of disbelief. For someone who chats easily and wears a big smile, it’s hard at first to take seriously Prior’s claims of being “bad at small talk”. It’s even harder now she’s gone and published a memoir. Any reasonable observer would agree these are not the actions of a shrinking violet.

“It’s definitely a label I apply to myself and it’s been a huge thing in my life,” says Prior. “Just about every job I’ve had has involved some kind of public performance and that’s why lots of people say ‘I don’t believe you’re shy’.” And who can blame them? Prior, who’s worked as an ABC Radio presenter, a Fairfax columnist and as a musician, hardly has the CV of someone afraid of the spotlight.

In Shy: A Memoir, Prior examines these contradictions and explains how shyness has impacted on her life: from hiding behind her mother’s legs in public as a young girl, to cocooning herself in the school library at lunchtime, to negotiating the often exhausting social mores of adulthood.

“I guess a big part of the book was explaining how it’s possible to be a ‘shy extrovert’,” explains Prior. “I have dealt with a lot of performance anxiety in my many jobs but they were things I really wanted to do and I wasn’t going to let shyness get in the way of me doing them. What I discovered is that professional personas gave me a kind of cover for my own shyness. I could be someone else, I could represent something much larger than myself. It was like a Superman cloak I could put on.”

Shyness, for many people, is not a choice. It’s a mysterious mix of nature and nurture, says Prior. “All the research that I’ve done in writing the book would lead me to say it’s a temperament trait that you’re born with on a spectrum from very shy to not very shy at all.” Despite this biological connection, however, there remains a stigma around those towards the more reserved end of the spectrum.

Take children, for example. Prior says a friend of hers, who is a teacher, told her that there’s a culture of encouraging shy students to combat the trait. The general wisdom seemed to be that shy kids needed to be “brought out of themselves.” This revelation was shocking, at first, to Prior. She says she remembers thinking “Ah, so that is the prevailing attitude—it’s something that needs to be ‘cured’.” This attitude, she argues, is problematic on a number of levels. Prior believes shyness should only be deemed a problem if it causes someone distress. “I don’t think it’s a social problem that there are shy people. In fact, evolutionary biologists and psychologists would say societies need a mix of shy and non-shy people because we can’t all be the bossy ones. Otherwise we’d all be fighting to be top dogs,” she says, laughing. “And as I’ve written in the book, shyness usually comes with a whole lot of nice, valuable qualities like empathy, the ability to listen, the desire to care for other people. That was a really nice revelation for me.”

Such benevolent qualities also make good writers and Prior can certainly claim that quality, too. The result of years of research and interviews with behavioural psychologists and sociologists, Shy: A Memoir is far from modest in scale. Prior deftly weaves together key moments from her life — such as the tragic loss of her father at a young age and, in recent years, a long-term relationship breakdown with a high-profile musician — into the grander narrative of how shyness has influenced her every step.

Though she’s hesitant about sending her life story into the public arena, Prior is ultimately glad she plucked up the courage to write the book.

“I do think it has been cathartic and in some ways I feel less anxious now. The most common treatment for anxiety is exposure therapy, where you’re encouraged to just gradually immerse yourself bit by bit in the thing that you fear. In some ways, writing a book which is so insanely self-revealing, is like the most extreme form of exposure theory I could have subjected myself to. So maybe it will have a curative effect,” she says, laughing.

When reminded of the strange logic of having to conduct a full-scale publicity campaign about a book into shyness she seems unfazed. “That’s okay, she says with a quick shrug of her shoulders, “I’ll just draw on my professional persona.”