Shyness in the Japanese EFL Class: Why It Is a Problem, What It Is,What Causes It, and What to Do About It

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Paul Doyon, Asahi Daigaku, Gifu

Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom. -- Earl Stevick, A Way and Ways

When I ask my Japanese students to raise their hands if they think they are shy, almost all the hands in the class go up -- all but about two or three in a class of thirty. Unfortunately, many of us teachers may either ignore it, not know what to do about it, or even actually exacerbate the problem.

Why is Shyness a Problem?

In a language conversation class, teachers for the most part agree, in order for students to make gains in the spoken language, they need to actually communicate in the target language. Unfortunately, in many conversation classes, students are reluctant to speak out. In researching Western language teachers in Japan, Fred Anderson (1993) found that the following traits troubled the teachers most: Their Japanese students (a) rarely initiated discussion, (b) avoided bringing up new topics, (c) didn't challenge the instructor, (d) seldom asked questions for clarification, and (e) didn't volunteer answers. He goes on to state that

they seldom volunteer answers, a trait that many Western instructors find extremely frustrating. Most Japanese will only talk if specifically called upon, and only then if there is a clear-cut answer. But even if the answer is obvious, it may be preceded by a pause so long that the instructor is tempted to supply the answer first. This type of pause -- or even a true silence -- does not necessarily signify an unwillingness to comply, but may simply indicate that the student is too nervous to respond, or too uncertain of the answer to risk public embarrassment. (p. 102)

Many articles in The Language Teacher and the JALT Journal address Japanese students' shyness or unwillingness to speak. (See, for example, C. Williams (1994), Miller (1995), Nimmannit (1998), and Mayer (1999) ).

Craig Williams (1994) connects student reticence to Japan's educational system, which as he notes

has often been cited as a reason for a student's inhibition about speaking during class activities. Traditionally the technique employed in most classrooms is of a lecture style, where the teacher remains standing behind a desk at the front of the class and the students receive information as the teacher lectures. Little input is ever solicited from the students, and it is instilled that a classroom is a place where one listens and learns but does not speak. (p. 10)

The evidence that "Shyness" is a "problem" is not limited to the anecdotal and impressionistic folk wisdom of expatriate teachers. According to Philip Zimbardo (1977), a psychology professor at Stanford University who has done extensive research with regards to shyness,

Our studies show that shyness is more prevalent in Japan and Taiwan than in any other culture we surveyed. Among the Japanese, 57 percent reported being currently shy, as compared to 53 percent of the Taiwanese. For three-fourths of the Japanese, shyness is viewed as a "problem," over 90 percent report having labeled themselves as shy in the past or currently, and, more than any other nationality, the Japanese report feeling shy in virtually all social situations. . . . [Although] more Japanese subjects than any other group reported that they like being shy and extolled its positive consequences. . . this twenty percent of the population is, nevertheless, in the minority. (pp. 212-2131)

My own classroom research supports this conclusion (Doyon, 1996). In a survey, when I asked my students, "Do you think shyness is a positive or negative quality?" 25 students said it was a negative quality, 11 said that it could be both negative and positive, but none of the students said that is was purely a positive quality (p. 18).

Zimbardo (1977) states that "shyness can be a mental handicap as crippling as the most severe of physical handicaps and its consequences can be devastating" (p. 12). Kumiko Nakamiya (1993), in her highly personal paper describes the same sentiments with regards to herself:

When people speak to her, she sometimes feels that they are not talking to her, but to a person who is one of the handicapped people (non-natives). It is difficult for people to see her as she is, because her handicap (second language & quietness) is so visible to them. . . . Therefore, she who is handicapped also begins to be unable to see her true self who has potential. [italics added] (p.ll)

As teachers who respect and care about our students as individuals and hope to honor their choices of learning and social styles, some of us may be reluctant to address this issue of shyness, and hence, not attempt to mediate in helping those students overcome the feelings and behavior that constitute what is titled as "shyness." And indeed, well-intentioned but misguided approaches to shyness can exacerbate the students' suffering, as we shall see.

Nevertheless, in foreign and second language learning and teaching, shyness does pose problems for both teachers and students. If our students wish to interact with foreigners, travel to foreign countries, and in general live productive lives reaching their full potentials, it is in their best interests to overcome these feelings; and by addressing this issue, teachers can start to play active roles in helping their students. The fact of the matter is that most shy people don't like being shy and actually do feel handicapped by it.

A Closer Look at Shyness in the Classroom

Zimbardo (1981) defines shyness in depth as

a mental attitude that predisposes people to be extremely concerned about the social evaluation [italics added] of them by others. As such, it creates a keen sensitivity to cues of being rejected. There is a readiness to avoid people and situations that hold any potential for criticism of the shy person's appearance or conduct. It involves keeping a low profile by holding back from initiating [italics added] actions that might call attention to one's self. (p. 9)

In A Way and Ways (1980), Earl Stevick strikingly employs the same terms of evaluation and initiative in describing the alienation felt by students in many EFL classrooms:

But the teacher's own urge to become "an object of primacy in a world of meaningful action" can lead her to carry any of these five legitimate functions to undesirable excess. Cognitive primacy may become an assertion of infallibility; the responsibility for structuring time may lead to a demand of omnipotence, and also to excessive defining of goals. Together, they are the principle ingredients of the evaluative manner that is so effective in stifling the initiative of students. [italics added] (p. 21)

Combining these viewpoints shows us the teacher's power to either evoke or allay these feelings in her students.

Many Shades of Blue

For everybody who has ever felt shy or believes that they are shy, the feelings of shyness and the situations that elicit these feelings are a little different. One of my students wrote the following:

Most Japanese think themselves shy. So do I. But I think that feeling or thinking shy is different in each person. And it is even more so if the country is different.

While the reasons for shyness are highly complex and individual, there are common threads to what induces it.

Zimbardo (1981, p.15) distinguishes a number of different kinds of shy people in his research: chronic, true-blue, situational, introverted, and extroverted shy people.

Of those who feel chronically shy (in most situations), true-blue shy people will feel shy in all situations and with all people. Other people will feel shy depending on the situation. Introverted shy people appear obviously shy to other people, and will usually prefer to shun the company of others.

Extroverted shy people, on the other hand, usually do not appear shy to others and usually do enjoy the company of others. Yet, they do not feel as others perceive them. One student I interviewed, who always appeared very outgoing in class, put it this way:

So you think you are shy and you have always been this way?
-- Yes.

In the dassroom you didn't appear to me as being shy. But you believe yourself to be this way?
-- Yes.

Compared to everyone else you think you're shyer?
-- Yes.

Why do you think so?
-- Because I don't have confidence. When I stand in front of everybody my heart is beating like crazy.

How about in everyday life?
-- Well, being called to this interview has made me feel nervous.

Whether one feels shy in many or few situations, the label one gives oneself and the reasons one attributes to the feeling are essential distinctions.

What Causes Shyness?

How many times have you heard yourself or others implore students with the phrase, "Don't be shy!"? Yet this is easier for the teacher to say than for the student to do, because shy people do not feel in control of these feelings. Zimbardo (1977) likens the extremely shy person to having two mentalities in one head -- that of the guard and his prisoner.

In the classroom, there are students who know the answer and want to make a good impression on the teacher, but something keep their hands down and stifles their voices. They are inhibited from acting because of inner commands from the guard-self: "You'll look ridiculous; people will laugh at you; this is not the place to do that;. . . you'll be safe only if you are seen and not heard." And the prisoner- within decides not to risk the dangerous freedom of a spontaneous life and meekly complies. (pp. 2-3)

What seems to happen -- for most starting early in childhood -- is that the approval that one desires from parents at first, then teachers, and eventually peers, is given sparingly, if at all, and is contingent on behaving in a specified manner. The result is hesitance in one's actions for fear of disapproval from those important others. I recall a student in a course I was taking who told his classmates that after he brought home a report card with all A's and one B, his father threw it across the room and admonished his son to never bring home a report card with a B on it again. Zimbardo (1977) goes on to state that

we find children are made to feel that their worth and the love they desire from adults is contingent on their performance. They have to prove they are deserving in a world where success is modestly taken for granted and rewards are given sparingly, where failures are magnified in the spotlight of shame. Children of shyness-generating societies are often not encouraged to express their ideas or feelings openly, nor given adequate opportunity to interact with adults or play freely with their peers. (pp. 220-221)

Zimbardo (1981) believes that shyness is explicitly and ultimately caused by a combination of low self-worth, labeling, and shame. Stevick discusses what he calls the Evaluational Paradigm in the classroom:

Most traditional classroom activity, in any culture that I know anything about, follows the Evaluational Paradigm, which consists of variations on a single formula. In this formula, the teacher says to the student -- cynically or warmly, threateningly or reassuringly -- "Now try to do this so I can tell you how well you did, " Mistakes are pointed out -- harshly or gently, immediately or after some delay -- and the students response to the task is evaluated. The student generally comes away feeling that he himself has been evaluated -- positively or negatively -- along with his product. We may be offering the student a "world of meaningful action," but by our evaluation we deny his primacy in it. If our evaluation is negative, we also cast doubt on his adequacy within that world. (p. 23)

Teachers therefore hold the potential to either alleviate or to intensify the feelings of shyness in their students. Adopting the role of evaluator is most likely to accomplish the latter. To achieve the former, we may need to adopt a position of what Carl Rogers (1969) calls "unconditional positive regard." What this means for me is that the "being" of one accepts the "being" of another in a positive manner and without judgment -- unconditionally; and this, while perhaps difficult to achieve 100% of the time, it is something we teachers should try to aim for (not just in the classroom, but also in our lives as well).

In Japanese Society

As Stevick and Zimbardo point out, and as we all can perhaps recall from our own schooling, shyness is endemic to the evaluational paradigm, a paradigm which is found throughout the world. Teachers in a specific culture, especially those new to it, should keep in mind the elements of that culture which contribute to shyness.

Interactional domains. Takie Sugiyama Lebra (1976) has demarcated three domains which account for different kinds of behavior in Japanese people: the ritual, intimate, and anomic.

The ritual domain is characterized by formalities, conventional rules, manners, and etiquette, and highly guarded behavior. These stem from the high value a participant places on the approval of those who partake in or observe the interaction. Reticence is a natural form of defensive behavior employed in this domain to protect the participant from making any errors which might incur an unfavorable opinion. A conventional classroom situation, especially in interactions between teachers and their students, is a familiar and illustrative example.

On the other hand, behavior in the intimate domain, for example, among family, friends, and coworkers, is characterized by a "communication of unity" and "display of spontaneity": The participants have created an emotional bond allowing them to relax and to act spontaneously due to their knowledge that the other participants won't find their behavior objectionable.

Behavior in the anomic domain is characterized by both social distance and a lack of concern for the opinion of others. There is no need for formalities,and no desire for intimacy. People driving cars or riding the subway can be said to be operating in the anomic domain.

Control and initiative. Japanese society has tended to be highly controlled and regimented, and within the educational system this control and regimentation starts early in kindergarten and continues throughout high school. Stevick talks about how the teacher's overuse or misuse of control can stifle the student's initiative:

What so often happens, of course, is that the teacher, in the name of "exercising control," also monopolizes initiative, telling the student which line of the drill to produce, which question to ask (or how to answer it), whom to talk with, or so on. (p. 20)

What he is saying here is not that a teacher should relinquish all control in the classroom, but that a teacher should allow students to make choices and decisions about their own learning, and hence, their own lives. I don't think that we have seen too much of that in the Japanese educational system or in Japanese society in general -- although this is starting to change.

Amae. Another highly plausible contributer to shyness in Japanese society is the Japanese characteristic of amae, which Takeo Doi popularized in his book The Anatomy of Dependence (1971). In the introduction to the book, John Bester states the following:

The Japanese term amae refers, initially, to the feelings that all normal infants at the breast harbor toward the mother -- dependence, the desire to be passively loved, the unwillingness to be separated from the warm mother-child circle and cast into a world of objective "reality." (p. 7)

The related verb amaeru is often rendered in English as "behave like a spoilt child" or "to take advantage of [another's kindness]; presume upon [another's kindness]." This behavior is said to be caused by an "over-indulgence" in childhood producing a passive dependence in the child and later adult to those in higher positions, and this behavior is said to permeate all vertical relationships and levels in Japanese society. An outgrowth of this passive dependence is a relinquishing of responsibility. And as Zimbardo states generally, "the more you foster dependence in a child (or anyone else for that matter), the more you foster shyness" (1981, p.59).

Sempai-kohai relationships. In Japanese human relationships each person's position is delineated on a Confucianist vertical ladder: younger defers to older, woman defers to man, and student defers to teacher. These interactions pervade all aspects of the society and, naturally, elicit the guarded behavior characteristic of the ritual domain.

Uchi-soto relationships. Orthogonal to this vertical demarcation is the distinction of who is in-group who is out-group: To an extent which may surprise foreigners, Japanese people find it unnatural to make contact with or even talk to one who is not considered part of the group, unless there is specific reason to do so. Moreover, when one does actually do so, the interaction is often marked by great formality of both behavior and speech. Given this tendency, one's opportunity to feel at ease practicing certain social skills is restricted.

Shame. In the Japanese language the words for shy (hazukashigariya) and shame (hazukashisa) are almost the same. Since any act violating the expectations of those "important'' others might bring on this sense of shame, then naturally the feelings of constraint will inhibit the taking of initiative.

The Way. In many aspects of Japanese culture, especially those having to do with learning or accomplishment, more emphasis is placed on the proper way of doing than on attaining a useful or practical result. The word do means "way" and is evident in such words as judo, kendo, aikido, sado, and kado. In these arts, one must be taught "the way" by a master. People are not encouraged to find their own way -- a virtual contradiction in terms -- and when faced with an unfamiliar situation, many will become immobilized, and experience feelings of shyness, or even panic, having not been shown "the way," and hence, not know how to act.

Mistakes. For many Japanese people in many situations, there seems to be an intense fear of making mistakes. Naturally, in a language class, the fear of making mistakes can be a major deterrent to conversation.

The Japanese Educational System: A One Way Street. In many respects, the Japanese educational system (at least from junior high school on up) fosters passivity in its students. Information is transferred in one direction from teacher to student.

Japan's educational system has often been cited as a reason for a student's inhibition about speaking during class activities. Traditionally the technique employed in most classrooms is of a lecture style, where the teacher remains standing behind a desk at the front of the class and the students receive information as the teacher lectures. Little input is ever solicited from the students, and it is instilled that a classroom is a place where one listens and learns but does not speak. (C. Williams, p. 10)

In many cases, students are not active learners nor interactive learners: they do not act on what they learn nor do they interact with their peers during class. One of my students had the following to say about his education:

It's one-way. . . It's one-way from teacher to student. Students have no place to express themselves. Due to this, it's natural that students will feel shy when they want to express themselves. . . We've been conditioned to be passive for so long that one will feel shy when [wanting to express oneself.]

Another student expressed it this way:

They teach everybody at the same time. They don't give importance to the individual -- the individual character. They cut out the students that stick out.

Too Busy to Learn Social Skills. Another reason for the predominance of shyness in the Japanese culture may be the sheer busyness of its people. Children's schedules are usually very full with things like swimming lessons, piano lessons, English lessons, on top of cram school. With all this there is very little time left over to play "freely" with one's peers and develop those highly important social skills. The importance of free play has been relegated to the back seat with a predominance placed on those more "purposeful" activities.

What To Do About It

Moving Toward The Intimate Domain In The Classroom

Probably one of the most powerful things we can do to help our students is to create a classroom atmosphere which is conducive to the intmate domain. In calling for this approach, C. Williams states that

in an intimate situation, a Japanese person is released from cultural or institutional restraints and free to explore the use of the target language. . . . The EFL teacher who works toward a more relaxed and intimate atmosphere in the classroom can, I believe, expect better results during free conversation exercises. (p. 11)

What specifically can the teacher do to bring about this process?

Creahng Intimacy Between the Students

First of all, a teacher must look for ways to create intimacy between the students. In order to accomplish this, C. Williams suggests that teachers choose "topics that will explore each student's personal background such as childhood memories, vacations, dreams, etc." (p. 11). He also suggests (a) the changing of partners, (b) the use of pair work, and (c) the use of ice-breaking activities. By revealing personal things to each other, students create an atmosphere of intimacy. Since students will usually sit next to someone with whom they are already familiar, I like to have the students change partners from the start of a class. Since rules of communication are subconsciously defined early on in a relationship, the rule of using English is more likely to be implemented with another student with whom one is unfamiliar. Another activity which can facilitate intimacy is the use of language learning joumals, where studentswrite down their true feelings about learning the foreign language after each class, and then share these entries with other classmates. The truth is that the majority of students do want to improve their English, but often feel that they will appear foolish in front of their peers. However, when they find that their peers have the same desires and fears as they do, and are hence, in the same boat, then they are much more apt to use the target language. Another device in the classroom for creating intimacy is the use of first names, and not only between the students themselves, but also between the students and the teacher.

Removing the "Teacher's"Mask

A traditional Japanese classroom epitomizes the ritual domain, and the teacher, in light of his position on the vertical ladder, is almost certain to elicit feelings of shyness in his students. While students will more likely talk freely with their peers, they are less likely to approach their teacher, and when and if they do, their behavior is likely to be more guarded, and hence, more awkward. It is for this reason, that the teacher remove the "teacher" mask as much as possible, both inside, and even more so, outside of the classroom when interacting with students. Stevick also recommends leaving the teacher's role from time to time as one step in creating a positive interpersonal atmosphere in the classroom:

Yet I have seen a few teachers who are able to come out from behind this Teacher mask, at least during "free conversation." They have generally been among the best language teachers I have known. They escape the teacher mask through changes in voice, posture, and facial expression. Their nonverbal behavior is the same that they might use at home in the living room. (p.28)

In moving from the "ritual" to an "intimate" situation, C. Williams also gives the following advice:

In order to change from a ritual situation to an intimate one, intimate behavior needs to be displayed. . . [in] an intimate situation, unity and spontaneity are the two principle elements; therefore the EFL teacher wishing to effect this change should develop ways to communicate both. . . . Methods of communicating such ideas can depend largely on the individual personality of the teacher; however, tone of voice, body language, and conversational style are important tools. (p. 11)

Of course, as Stevick even recommends, in order to maintain a certain level of control, a teacher cannot always wear the Ordinary Person mask: "It is a supplement for the teacher mask, not a replacement for it, and it is, afterall, a mask" (p. 29). On the other hand, it may be even more essential with "shy" students to remove the "teacher" mask more often than not.

In response to a survey I took in one of my classes toward the end of a course I taught several years ago, many students circuitously hinted that I should do just this in order to help them overcome their feelings of shyness:

  • Become friendly with us. S27
  • Mix in more small talk, jokes. S44
  • Actively engage us in conversation. S26
  • Talk to us on a one to one basis. S31

In following up the survey with interviews, I asked S27 to explain more clearly what he meant by the statement "become friendly with us." His response was that during the lesson, I should not portray the feeling that I was "The Teacher."

MovingAway From the Evaluational Paradigm

If we hold that feelings of shyness or the fear of taking initiative stem from one's sensitivity to and concern about the evaluation of them by others, then it also becomes clear that we as teachers must move away rom a climate which puts students in the spotlight of evaluation. And this goes for both positive and negative evaluation:

Most teachers are willing to agree that negative evaluation can sometimes be harmful to the student, but I have found few who are ready to see that positive evaluation is almost as dangerous a tool. It seems to be the evaluative climate, more than the content of the evaluation, that does the damage. (Stevick, p. 23)

What students seem to really need and appreciate is a genuine interest in them as people and in what they are doing, and not an evaluation of them and their products. In a review of research carried out on feedback, M. Williams and Burden (1997) state the following:

Too much praise was seen as detrimental by the learners, who preferred teacher interest in their work. For any sort of comment to be effective, reason's for the teacher's approval or disapproval needed to be stated. One further factor which emerged clearly was that teacher's opinions about what would or would not prove to be effective motivators often differed markedly from those of leamers. (p. 135)

The trick seems to be in being able to have students feel good about themselves without the feeling that they are being evaluated.

Mistakes and Error Correction

While on a conscious, "intellectual" level, most students will say that they want to have their "mistakes" corrected (and most teachers feel that this is an important part of their job), on a subconscious, emotional level, it can actually inhibit students from freely expressing themselves. It is for this reason that teachers should (a) wait until a certain level of trust has been established between themselves and the student, (b) wait until they feel the student can handle error correction, and (c) take less obtrusive routes in their forms of error correction.

A teacher should develop a feel for how a student will react to overt error correction and should have certainly built up some kind of trust within the relationship before attempting it. Also, there are a number of indirect modes to error correction which can be utilized. A direct mode of error correction may be construed by the student as a critical evaluation of his performance, whether or not this is really the actual intention of the teacher or not. While I recognize that at some point the students will have to become aware of their errors, I also realize that the fear of making mistakes should not inhibit the students from speaking out. It is for this reason, that I encourage students not to worry about making mistakes. One student offered this comment:

Until now I had resistance to speaking English. The reason being that I wasn't sure if my English was correct or not. But what I realized was that, more than things like pronunciation, what is important is that one conveys what he is thinking to the other person.

Another student wrote this after the first class of a conversation class that I was teaching, in which I told the students not to worry so much about making mistakes, and that I would forgive their mistakes in English if they forgave mine in Japanese:

I was a little nervous but I think that I'll get used to it quickly. Not worrying about grammar and just talking in this class was different from other classes. It seems like I'll be able to speak English easily. Since it's okay to make mistakes, I want to try to speak English as much as possible.

Changing Those Labels

An important distinction between people who believe they are shy and those who don't is the difference in from where they attribute the causes of their feelings coming. People who consider themselves shy will see it coming from inside themselves, whereas people who don't consider themselves as being shy will attribute the causes from coming from the externa I situation or environment.

Wayne Dyer, in his book, Your Erroneous Zones (1976), calls it "The I'm Circle":

  1. I'm Shy
  2. Look at that attractive group of people.
  3. I think I'll approach them.
  4. No! I can't.
  5. Why not?
  6. I'm Shy (p. 100)

Since a good majority of Japanese students carry this label with them, it is important for teachers to get them to realize that everything changes and for them to affect positive change within themselves, they must be able to change what might be considered negaff self-descriptors of themselves. And in my opinion whatever prevents students from reaching their full potentials and leading fulfilling lives, can be con strued as negative.

Graded Anxiety Desensitization

Given that certain transactions that occur in the classroom will cause either more or less anxiety fo students than others, it would seem reasonable to assume that by introducing activities where thes transactions are graded from lower-anxiety-producing to higher-anxiety-producing, we can desensitize students to the anxiety-producing affects that it causes within the students.

For example, pair-work may be very low on a scale of anxiety producing transactions, whereas giving a speech in front of the class might be very high. By starting out with mostly pair-work activities and gradually introducing activities which are little higher on the scale, teachers can desensitize students to the interactions which are more likely to cause anxiety for them.

Relaxation Techniques

It is also very beneficial for teachers to teach their students how to relax. There are a number of techniques from yoga, to mediation, to biofeedback, which can be useful for students. One technique I had success using in class was to have the students focus on their feelings of anxiety by having them visualize its shape, color, location, and intensity. While it was different for all of the students, it was fascinating to see, for example, a black square with an intensity of ten in the pit of a student's stomach, change into a white circle with an intensity of one float away from the student's body and across the room.


This article examined shyness in the Japanese EFL classroom was examined. A comprehensive definition of shyness was presented with respect to the concepts of initiative and evaluation. An in-depth analysis followed in which shyness was looked at from the angles of why it is a problem, what it is, what causes it, and what to do about it. It is my hope to have shed some light on these complex and often misunderstood phenomena and that by being better informed, teachers will be able to deal with the enigma of shyness in their classrooms.



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Author Information

An MA graduate of the School for International Training and a student in Sheffield University's Japanese master's program, Paul Doyon teaches at Asahi University and is president of the Gifu JALT affiliate chapter.