Once when I was 6 or 7 at school, I was walking with the rest of the class to go to the playground. The rest of the kids were chatting away while I was quietly reflective and listening, when one of the teachers asked me why I didn’t talk. I automatically shrugged with a preprepared look of slight confusion. She then persisted, “Are you just shy?” My normal response to this was to nod in approval, not because I had any profound awareness of myself, but just because it was the easiest answer to give them.

This particular time, some classmates of mine, upon hearing the question, blurted out an answer for me: “He’s not shy. He just doesn’t talk.” Selective mutism has often been labelled as an extreme form of shyness. Sometimes, the selective mutism and shyness are evidently separate. For example, a kid can interact, play, and function by communicating through nods and pointing, and the only thing that makes this child different is the inability to speak.

Shyness is partly a genetic trait that is characterized by a slow adaption process to social situations, but over time, a child with SM can develop a personality that’s somewhat introspective. Even if he/she is naturally gregarious at home, the experiences with not being able to talk can influence personality to a substantial degree.

That is, if nobody wants to play with a kid because he doesn’t talk, and so the kid sits by himself all the time, he’ll start to become more introverted, or shy, and think of himself that way. The selective mutism ingrains itself more and more into the identity and self-image of someone the longer it’s left untreated.

  • Shyness is being uncomfortable around certain social situations.
  • Selective mutism is not being able to speak in certain social situations.

A lot of the time, the not being able to speak part does contribute towards being uncomfortable, but the two traits don’t start out as the same thing. The dichotomy between shyness and selective mutism starts out as an ample separation at a young age, and then gradually that difference lessens. When a kid is in elementary school, it’s a bit easier to be social and play with the other kids on the swings or going down the slide as opposed to when the kid begins high school or college when it gets hard to tell the difference between shyness and SM.

Shyness and selective mutism feed off each other and intertwine into something that’s much harder to deal with later in life, which is why it’s so easy to confuse them for each other.

Also, someone who is just shy only takes a while to open up and can eventually function normally, whereas someone with SM cannot speak, regardless of the passage of time. In fact, instead of opening up as the situation progresses, he/she will find it harder and harder to speak and will be more likely to stay silent.

So looking back, to answer that teacher’s question… was I shy? No, not really, but something sort of like it.