The Heimlich maneuver, in the nearly 50 years since Dr. Henry Heimlich established its protocol, has been credited with saving many lives. But not, perhaps, as many as it might have. The maneuver, otherwise so wonderfully simple to execute, has a marked flaw: It requires that choking victims, before anything can be done to help them, first alert other people to the fact that they are choking. And some people, it turns out, are extremely reluctant to do so. “Sometimes,” Dr. Heimlich noted, bemoaning how easily human nature can become a threat to human life, “a victim of choking becomes embarrassed by his predicament and succeeds in getting up and leaving the area unnoticed.” If no one happens upon him, “he will die or suffer permanent brain damage within seconds.”
Something bad is happening; don’t let other people see it; you will embarrass yourself, and them: It’s an impulse that is thoroughly counterproductive and also incredibly easy to understand. Self-consciousness is a powerful thing. And there are, after all, even in the most frantic and fearful of moments, so many things that will seem preferable to making a scene.
Shyness, that single emotion that encompasses so many different things—embarrassment, timidity, a fear of rejection, a reluctance to be inconvenient—is, despite its extreme commonality, also extremely mysterious. Is it a mere feeling? A personality-defining condition? A form of anxiety? While shyness is for some a constant companion, its flushes and flashes managed in the rough manner of a chronic disease, it can also alight, without the courtesy of a warning, on even the most social, and socially graceful, of people. It can manifest as the mute smile that appears, unbidden, when you’re alone with a stranger in an elevator. Or as, right before the curtain goes up, the leaden stomach and the clammy hands and the desperate desire to escape to someplace—any place—that is not the stage. Or it can come when the bite of chicken didn’t go down quite right, and your throat is closing, and the world is spinning, and everyone is watching, and all you want to do is get away from it all.