The Timid Sex

ONE night, a while ago, I had to address thirty or forty business men. When the hour arrived, three men sat in the front row, and the rest loitered diffidently in a lobby at the back of the room. At last, one of the three in the front row turned round and shouted: ‘Come on, you fellers: let’s go!’ And the twenty-seven or thirty-seven others began to come in, sliding sideways into the first seat they came to. They all wanted to sit in the back row, or, failing that, in the row nearest the back row.

They were intelligent men, and they could hardly all have been bashful. They had no reason to be scared. They could not possibly have been as scared as I was. For some reason, however, a seat was a haven of refuge for them, into which they slid as soon as they could. I do not think they reasoned it out. I do not think they consciously said to themselves: ‘I am of a naturally retiring and timid disposition: I will therefore hide myself so far as I am able from the public eye; here is a seat more or less behind a post or a fat man; I will sit in it.’ No. I look upon their peculiar choice of a seat as so instinctive as almost to deserve the name of ‘reflex action.’ I think I understand it, too; because I also have sat in the last row, or, deprived of that refuge, behind a post or a fat man.

Of course, this curious habit is not wholly to be ascribed to timidity. Timidity is there, almost always; but other subconscious motives play their part. There is, for example, deepseated in every manly breast a determination not to be, or at least not to appear to be, interested in anything that any teacher, lecturer, or preacher may say; and it is merely masculine to register this obscure impulse in any way short of audible groans. A woman will tell you that men are poor listeners because they want to do all the talking themselves; but such an unjust suspicion must be ascribed to the satirical view that one sex naturally holds of the other. However this may be, it is certainly true that women are courageous church-goers, concert-goers, lecturegoers, without whose encouragement most of the public talkers of the world would have to go out of business.

Now, no woman minds at all walking the length of a room and sitting in the front row, even when the room is full of people. In fact, she rather likes it. If she sees a seat in the front row, she goes for it; and her ears do not get red, either. For her, walking to that seat is a purely practical matter. Why should her ears get red? Watch her as she sails down the aisle at a lecture or in church, cool as a cucumber; and then watch her husband as he slinks after her. He has clearly been trying to slide into the back row, and has made several little bolts in that direction; but she properly ignores him. She never gives in to his manly timidity, for she hopes, sooner or later, to train him to overcome it.

At the theatre, or even at a concert, he is not averse to sitting in the front row, because he has a ticket. This gives him courage. He will even politely precede his wife down the aisle, if he can conspicuously display a seat-check as an advertisement that he is not callously trying to obtrude himself upon the public gaze. But at a wedding-breakfast, a reception, or an afternoon tea, if he is so unfortunate as to have to attend one, he shows a quite remarkable expertness in fading into recesses and corners, or, if none offer, in gravitating into the company of his fellows. In a mixed company he behaves like pepper or sawdust sprinkled on water. However much he may circulate for a time, he will eventually drift together and cohere. In board and faculty meetings, where he is under no obligation to be sociable and may therefore be entirely natural, he exhibits this peculiar molecular attraction most clearly of all. He sits on one side, and the ladies all have to sit on the other.

This delicate organization of the male, his instinctive craving for selfeffacement, while it makes him a poor self-starter, makes him work well in groups; and at a football game or a political convention, if he is systematically stimulated, he may overcome his inhibitions and untangle his complexes even to the extent of making a great noise. Women have never really understood football games and political conventions, or perceived very clearly why, in order to win a game or nominate a candidate, it is essential to make a great noise. They have not even fully comprehended the esoteric significance of the axiom (discovered, I believe, by a man) that ‘if we don’t all hang together, we shall all hang separately.’ No woman ever really believed that, and most women would rather hang separately than adopt it as a rule of conduct. They attain their ends by more insidious means; and it is, therefore, not surprising if they privately look upon the making of a great noise without any adequate reason as a rather boyish and sentimental performance. Their faces on these occasions suggest, at any rate, that they find the sudden lunacy of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and lovers a more interesting phenomenon than the game itself, or the order of business. ‘Can it be possible,’ they seem to be asking themselves, ‘that these men, now demanding the instant death of somebody, are the same timid creatures who sit meekly through three hours of after-dinner speaking, or even through a long-winded sermon, lecture, opera, or symphony concert, merely because they are afraid to get up and leave?’ Yes, dear ladies, we must reply; they are the same. They would sit through anything rather than make themselves conspicuous by getting up singly and leaving. As for rising in a body and marching out, such an idea never enters their gentle heads. To do this they would have to have a bandmaster or cheer-leader. Lacking one, each waits for the other fellow, and the other fellow waits for him.

As I understand it, women sit on only because they want to. They somehow convince themselves more easily than men can do that they enjoy concerts, sermons, lectures, and operas. Or, it may be, of course, that they really do enjoy them — who shall say? That they would get up and leave, singly or in a body, if they wanted to, seems highly probable. No foolish timidity would deter them.

A friend of mine, who has had some hair-raising adventures on the lecture platform, once agreed to deliver a course of lectures to an audience of school-teachers; and, after his first appearance, was naturally anxious to learn whether his efforts had given satisfaction. Nothing in the manner of his audience seemed to reveal their sentiments on this question; so he ventured to ask a lady, whom he knew sufficiently well, what she thought.

‘Oh, yes,’ said she; ‘you did very well. Nobody left.’

‘But,’ asked my friend, ‘would they leave?5

‘To be sure,’ replied she. ‘So-and-So began a lecture here last month with six hundred and ended with fifty.’

‘And are they likely to do that to me?' he gasped.

‘Of course, if they don’t get what they want,’ she answered, smiling sweetly. ‘We’re busy women, and can’t afford to waste an hour listening to something that does n’t profit us.’

My friend tells me that his second lecture dwells vividly in his memory.

A man approached by my friend with the same question would have slapped him on the back and said, ‘Fine! Fine! ’ and this without the slightest reference to the truth. For a man would feel only one timid impulse — to avoid any discussion of the lecture, to which he would probably not have listened. He might privately have decided to stay at home next time, but he would still exclaim heartily, ‘Fine! Fine!’ It would never enter his mind to warn the lecturer to do his best. His feeling would be that, if anyone is so peculiarly constituted as to agree to deliver one lecture, let alone a course of them, that person’s fate is on that person’s head.

One afternoon, years ago, by some surprising combination of circumstances, I found myself not only present at a meeting of a woman’s club, but seated in the front row of the audience, alongside the president. The platform was occupied by a professional reader, who, the president confided to me in an aside, was ‘really rather awful.’ But the president, I soon discovered, was responsible for the reader’s presence, and was, therefore, determined to make the reading a success. This she proceeded to do by means so far beyond the conception, much more the execution, of a man, that I watched her out of the corner of my eye with humble admiration. No woman ever expressed so much with her back as that president did. Her very shoulder-blades were eloquent. The plume on her hat was a semaphore signaling applause. She threw over her shoulders right and left glances that said, as plainly as if she had spoken, ‘Excellent! Touching! Affecting! Superb!’ And at every pause in the programme she lifted her hands high above her head and clapped them enthusiastically, that all the world might see. And all the world, seeing, of course applauded too, convinced that they were witnessing a remarkable performance — as they were, but not on the platform.

Now I am as well convinced that almost any woman having an equal incentive could have done likewise, as I am that no man except a professional actor could have done it under any circumstances. I was looking over a Teacher’s Handbook to-day, in which I came upon a sentence that ran as follows: ‘It may be unwise at first to ask a pupil to come forward and face the class when telling a story; but the instructor should work toward this ideal, beginning with a girl of the braver type.’

But I seem to remember from my own schooldays that almost any girl was of a braver type than almost any boy, if by brave is meant unaffected by the limelight, the glare of publicity. Here and there was a girl who shrank, of course; just as here and there was a boy who did not; but it is at least open to question whether any girl ever shrank as obliteratingly as most boys, or any boy ever willingly stood up and faced a mixed class as composedly as most girls. When, moreover, a boy did shrink, he knew that all his sex sympathized; and when, without any masculine hesitation, he did stand up, he knew that all his sex looked upon him with surprise, derision, or disgust. Standing up before a class and speaking a piece or telling a story was, he knew, the kind of thing girls did well, with a matter-of-fact calm and a perfect control over arms and legs. For a boy to do it without boring into the floor with his toe, smirking at the window, twirling a button, and rumpling his hair, was for him to proclaim himself to his sex as peculiar, if not downright girlish. If his piece was one that he could roar or bellow, with an occasional sawing of the air with his hand, he might escape the jeers of the unskillful; but anything less robust made him feel foolish.

The little girls, on the other hand, had no such compunctious visitings of nature. They rose brightly, went forward quickly, curtsied, smoothed down their skirts, took a deep breath, opened their mouths wide, and began. We little boys in our seats snickered and winked at one another behind our hands or desk-covers, or, if a favorable opportunity offered, made faces at the little girl reciting; but she went right on till she was through, and then she curtsied again, and tripped happily back to her seat. What the other little girls thought of her, they never told me, but she apparently did not care. She saw no reason why she should care.

In order to be sure that I had not imagined these things, I discussed them recently with a young woman of acute observation. Having herself taught mixed classes of various ages, and even of adults, she agreed with me that the males always sat in the back row if possible, and that they assumed a kind of protective coloration by looking as bored or as illiterate as they could.

‘But,’ said she, ‘if you want a complete vindication of your theories, simply observe the respective manners of a woman addressing five men, and of a man addressing five women.’

‘Why five?’ I asked.

‘Because it is much harder to address five people of the opposite sex than five hundred. Five women are five women, but five hundred women are only a general impression.’

‘Yes, there is something in that.’

‘You will find that the woman, if only she is becomingly gowned, is enjoying herself; while the man, whatever his appearance, is suffering.’

‘Then you think that clothes make a difference? ’

‘Of course. If the woman is all dressed up, she is all the more at her ease; but if the man is all dressed up, he is all the more miserable. Have n’t you ever noticed, also, that a man is never happy if he suspects that his clothes attract attention, while a woman is never really so happy as when she knows hers do?'

‘Now that you mention it,’said I, ‘I have had some such suspicion. But I have always supposed that the welldressed woman avoided being conspicuous.’

‘To be sure, she does; but not being conspicuous is by no means the same thing as not being looked at. Consider brides — and then consider grooms.’

‘I have considered them several times, as well as maids of honor and best men, and bridesmaids and ushers. I seemed to perceive that the brides and maids of honor and bridesmaids wished to be looked at, while the grooms and the best men and the ushers hoped that they would not be looked at.’

‘And you were not mistaken. They did. And consider a man with a new hat, and then consider a woman. The man looks as if he wished you to think the hat was last year’s; but the woman would be very angry if she thought you thought hers was.’

‘Now you are getting near home,’ said I. ‘I always have a feeling that I look half-witted in a new hat.’

I am glad to be able to shoulder the responsibility for such subversive sentiments upon somebody else, and to remove to less precarious ground.

Something over twenty years ago, Mr. A. B. Walkley published a little essay on ‘Timidity: Its Varieties.’ It can be read in the volume, Frames of Mind, which is full of good things. In it he mentions as timides Shakespeare, Hamlet, Milton, Tennyson, Fitzgerald, Thackeray, Richardson, Cicero, Sarcey, Paillet, Rousseau, Sir Willoughby Patterne, Carlyle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Renan, Taine, Mérimée, Swift, Vergil, Horace, Constant, Michelet, and Amiel. Now it may be only one more of Mr. Walkley’s little jokes, but he mentions not a single lady. And he gives the impression of being very serious, even scientific. He classifies the effects of timidity as threefold: an awkwardness of the movements, a bemuddling of the mind, and a stupor or paralysis of the whole being; in short, an inhibition of function; and, apparently, when he pictured to himself a creature in that condition, he saw a man. The symptoms of timidity, he records, are agoraphobia, blue funk, stage fright, yearning for sympathy, telling lies (‘not deliberately, but out of sheer mental confusion’), self-analysis, boastfulness, bookworminess, bearishness, coldness, and hardness. Can we for an instant accept this as a description of a woman? We cannot.

Of men who were not timid he names only three — Fielding, Sheridan, and Johnson. (‘I have no great timidity in my own disposition,’ said Johnson to Wyndham, ‘and am no encourager of it in others.') Three bold men against twenty-five timides, in one short essay! I am reminded of my three men who sat in the front row, and the twentyseven or more who did not. Can it be possible that the three were just as timid as the rest, but that their timidity expressed itself as boastfulness or a morbid yearning for sympathy? Who shall say? I noticed, however, that when I addressed the group a second time, a week later, the courageous three had changed their seats.