This is a guest post by Dr. Robert Spires.  Bob is assistant professor of education at Valdosta State University and has collaborated on Project Share research.

What, if any, negative impacts of shyness are likely for disadvantaged youth in Hong Kong?  First it is important to make some distinctions about how we define shyness, particularly in the Hong Kong context.  Shyness can be situational, depending on issues like language, or social setting. Shyness can also be related to more personalized mental health issues such as social anxiety.  In this post, I will: examine some literature on shyness, discuss the use of the term epidemic, explore some examples from fieldwork, and do some comparison between marginalized youth and their more academically elite cohorts.

Shyness is largely considered a prevalent issue among youth in Hong Kong (Chan & Wong, 2011), and likely has negative repercussions for youth in terms of social mobility (Chan, 2014).  A distinction has been made in the literature between anxious shyness and regulated shyness where anxious shyness is more closely associated with a Western idea of shyness, and regulated shyness is more closely distinguished in the Chinese cultural context (Tong, Ting & McBride-Chang, 2011). Regulated shyness has positive associations in some Hong Kong contexts, but is also alternately seen as problematic in the Hong Kong public arena (Richter, 2009).Linkages have been made between shyness and English and Chinese language skills Hong Kong students (Tong, Ting & McBride-Chang, 2011). Shyness and anxiety have been linked to foreign language learning in general, and in Hong Kong where English is a compulsory subject, emphasis on English in school and in society may contribute to the shyness epidemic.

When thinking about the tenuous notion of shyness and its relation to social anxiety and self-esteem, it is important to put this discussion into conversation with the social mobility efforts of Project Share. Using Project Shareas an example, which is a Hong Kong based NGO and registered charity, teachers refer students to the organization to participate in internships and workshops, as well as write recommendation letters for these students.  In some cases, both students and teachers use shyness as a description of the student’s personality.  The term is framed as a trait to be overcome, not wholly negative, but certainly a hindrance to their future. Project Share’s target group may be biased toward shyness because teachers could be selecting out shy youth to recommend to the programs.However, after talking to Band 3 teachers, it seemed as though they were, in fact, selecting out some of the more dynamic youth.  These youth stood out as above average in one or more ways, including socially, according to participating teachers.  So, if the Project Share youth are the least shy of their peers, and they are still very shy, then there may truly be a shyness epidemic.

Epidemic is an emotionally charged term with a negative connotation, and may not be the most accurate term to describe this issue, but in terms of the potentially negative implications of shyness on the social mobility of Project Share youth, epidemic is a term that insinuates the potential crisis that this issue presents. My assumption is that this shyness certainly has negative implications for social mobility, particularly in terms of the social elements of job interviewing, building and maintaining meaningful social relationships and establishing new relationships in educational and professional settings.  However, these connections need to be investigated further.

We need to know what causes this shyness, and whether shyness is an element of culture within the low-income families or communities with large numbers of public housing estates.  Shyness could be an inherent result of the type of schooling the students receive in the Band 3 schools, or a residual effect from the geographic and social isolation and compartmentalization in Tin Shui Wai sociality.Or, a growth in general shyness (if indeed this is occurring) could be a world-wide trend brought on by the inundation of hyper-interactive online gaming and social media. Certainly, the spatiality of planned communities like Tin Shui Wai, with their single-use shopping and residential buildings attached to crowded housing estates and integrated into the transportation system web of train, light rail, bus stations, over-pass foot bridges, and signage deterring all manner of social behavior, does not discourage shyness. Certainly, the exam-obsessed education system, where thousands of students watch video tutorials from popular star tutors who claim high exam results for every student as long as the students sit and listen to their exam prep strategies, does not discourage shyness. The focus on efficiency and a popular perception of modern consumerism has cost the community of Tin Shui Wai social cohesion and the real, textured, varied and lively sociality and culture so vibrant in other areas of Hong Kong.

In comparison, we need to take a dialectical approach to exploring the shyness issue. If these Band 3 school students are shy, how do they compare to the students at elite schools, most of which use the International Baccalaureate (IB) system in Hong Kong. One teacher I spoke with described her experience with a student who left an IB program at an elite international school. His mother was worried that his Chinese skills were poor and he was becoming disconnected with his ‘roots’. She pulled him out of the elite school and enrolled him in a Band 1 local government school. The student was apparently very proactive and outspoken in his classes. He asked many questions of the teacher during her lectures, and wanted to dialogue in an interactive fashion with the teacher throughout her lessons. None of the other students exhibited this behavior in this teacher’s experience, and eventually, the other Band 1 students begin to tell the student to stop asking questions. This example illustrates the gap between the ethos of IB education and that of the public education system. The gap between this student and his peers in Band 3 schools is also likely to be large in terms of proactive attitude and general shyness. As education system cultivates shyness in its students, particularly those from already disadvantaged backgrounds, the potential implications for mobility in a highly competitive knowledge- and service-based global economy. Without the basic social characteristics assumed at elite schools, where the bulk of the students go on to top universities in Hong Kong and abroad, upward mobility for the shy students is hindered.

The elite in Hong Kong and world-wide instill these values of proactive behavior, confidence and boldness in their children at an early age, and insist that their schools foster these values as well. The compounding effect of shyness, discouragement from confident and proactive behavior in school, and already disadvantaged social, cultural and economic assets in the eyes of the affluent, create a difficult-to-escape vortex limiting upward social mobility.

Chan, S. (2015).Common interview mistakes.The Standard. Retrieved from

Chan, S. M. & Wong, K. Y. A. (2011). Shyness in late childhood: relations with attributional styles and self-esteem. Child: care health and development. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2214.2011.01351.x

Crozier, W. R. (2001). Shyness: development, consolidation and change. London: Routledge

Huang, H. & Leung, L. (2009). Instant messaging addiction among teenagers in China: shyness, alienation and academic performance decrement. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 12:6, pp. 675-679. doi: 10.1089=cpb.2009.0060

Kerr, M. (2001).Childhood and adolescent shyness in long-term perspective.In Crozier, W. R.(Ed). Shyness: development, consolidation and change. London: Routledge. Pp 64-87.

Lazarus, P. (1982). Correlation of shyness and self-esteem for elementary school children. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 55/8-10.

Richter, C. (2009). Shake off Shyness. South China Morning Post. Retrieved from

Shaw, G. (n.d.). Just shy or social anxiety disorder: Is social anxiety disorder just another name for being shy? WebMD. Retrieved from

Tong, X., Ting, K., & McBride-Chang, C. (2011). Shyness and Chinese and English vocabulary skills in Hong Kong kindergarteners. Early Education and Development: 22/1, 29-52. doi: 10.1080/10409280903507253

Wong, V. (2008).Young people in social withdrawal an extreme form of social exclusion?Policy agenda and organizational practices. East Asia Social Policy Conference: Welfare Reform in East Asia. [conference paper]. Retrieved from