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Shyness is really nothing to brag about

IN William Boyd's new novel titled ``Stars and Bars,'' a young Englishman visiting the United States dreams of acquiring the self-assurance of an American. He wants American teeth. He wants an American tan. But above all, he wants the confidence that he thinks go with them -- the native's capacity to speak loudly and firmly to friends, business associates, and taxi drivers. What misreading of national character is going on here? Every shy American reader must raise his voice to a whisper in protest.

Not too long ago Jonathan Cheek, a psychologist at Wellesley College, announced that 40 percent of all Americans consider themselves shy. Dr. Cheek was probably too shy to place the figure higher and more accurately -- 50 percent at the minimum.

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Of all the things Americans fall shy before, few outrank the presence of an Englishman. The wonderfully plummy self-assurance of an English telephone voice is enough to make a shy American hang up in panic upon hearing a clerk at British Airways say, ``Good afternoon.''

``Too, too shy-making,'' in the phrase of Evelyn Waugh, an Englishman to whom Mr. Boyd has been compared by a stammering American reviewer or two.

If Mr. Boyd, an Oxford scholar, did any research to misinform himself that Americans are never shy, perhaps he was concentrating on the wrong word. You look up ``shy'' in Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature and they tell you to see ``bashful.''

``Bashful,'' as every shy American knows, is worse than ``shy'' any day.

Americans are so shy, in fact, that they keep electing shy leaders -- Abraham Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, and Jimmy Carter, to name just three.

The shelves of any American library Mr. Boyd might care to visit are full of self-help books with lonely titles beginning, ``How to Win Friends . . .'' and ``I'm O.K. . . .'' before which blushing Americans shyly crouch.

In the magazine section, featured articles inquire, ``Are You the You You'd Like to Be?'' If you have to ask, you aren't.

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And if you aren't, there's always another article commanding you to ``like yourself'' anyway.

``Self-love,'' or at the least, ``self-esteem,'' is promised like a glowing complexion by the seminars on shyness, advertised among the classifieds.

Where else but America is a radio program practically dedicated to shy people, like ``Prairie Home Companion''?

How could an Englishman, or anybody else, confuse Americans -- a veritable nation of Jimmy Stewarts -- with the virtue of confidence?

The answer gets to the heart of the problem. It is the essential nature of shyness to believe that other people have confidence.

Shy Englishmen think all Americans have confidence.

Shy Americans think all Englishmen have confidence.

Shy children think all parents have confidence.

Shy parents think all children have confidence. (They're right.)

Short people think all tall people have confidence.

Women who describe themselves as ``just housewives'' think all ``career women'' have confidence.

People who don't go to college think confidence comes wrapped in each and every diploma.

Confidence is always, it seems, in another country.

Is confidence, then, what nobody has?

Are confident people just perfectly nice shy folks who've pumped themselves up with ``I-love-me'' techniques into hearty monsters of make-believe?

Shy people will never know. They're too shy to get close enough to find out. But if they did, they might discover, on a basis of comparable worth, that shy people ought to be more confident and confident people more shy.

At that Utopian point, everybody could sort of swagger modestly ever after, forgetting the competition in dark tans and white teeth -- not to mention those power games with cabbies.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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