How many times have you heard someone described as being shy? Have you ever thought about why someone was reluctant to approach another person and begin, or join, a conversation? One of the many misconceptions about shyness is that it is inherent to certain people and not others. However, shyness is not a personality factor, it is highly situational.
Let's clarify the difference between a personality factor and a situational factor. I know, I'm sure that most people could probably figure this out on their own. Yet, I want to be thorough with my post, so I will go ahead and lay this foundation. A personality factor indicates that this characteristic/trait/behavior is a relative constant for an individual in almost all circumstances. A situational factor indicates that these characteristics/traits/behaviors will appear in almost all environments or situations that are similar, but not necessarily in others. Wait. What's with all the qualifiers? Well, one of the components of Cattell's personality theory was the idea of surface traits and source traits.
A surface trait is a characteristic or behavior that shows up in certain situations and not others. It is believed to consistently appear in these types of situations any time this particular individual finds themselves in one. On the other hand, a source trait is part of the core essence of an individual, so it will show itself, or be very difficult to mask, in nearly every situation. The only problem with Cattell's theory is that neither he nor other researchers was ever able to identify which traits are surface and which are source. This idea seems to be as much an individual feature as one's actual personality. That is to say, one person's source trait may be seen as another person's surface trait. Regardless of the inability to identify which personality features are more malleable than others, personality researchers began to see that people's behaviors are influenced by their environment as well as their inherent personality.
The next leap was to try to find behaviors that were almost always situation-specific, more-or-less the opposite of a personality characteristic. Not surprisingly, there weren't too many behaviors that could be attributed solely to the environment. However, some behaviors, after years of careful scrutiny, did appear to be almost entirely situational by nature. Shyness turned out to be one of them.
Researchers found that a "shy" person--someone who seems to keep to themselves and who is reluctant to engage in activities or conversation with others--will actually open up to certain people in select situations. Yes, there are some people who appear to be shy almost all the time to almost everyone who meets them. There are better explanations beyond a throw-away assessment of "shyness" smacked upon them. Perhaps this is an individual who is cautious by nature. Maybe they want to observe their environment before they determine the expected behaviors or they were hurt in the past and are reluctant to share too much of themselves for fear of being hurt once more. It is possible that the "shy" person is an introvert who is preserving their energy for the right socialization moment. You could also have a case in which the individual has determined that this is a threatening situation and they do not want to make any false moves, so they shrink back from any possible confrontation.
Some people appear shy when meeting someone of the opposite sex. Others are shy around perceived authority figures (for example, my daughter shrinks back and is reluctant to speak any time she has to meet a new adult, but meeting new children her age or younger poses very little problems for her). Sometimes individuals are reluctant to speak up in a crowd, such as a classroom or meeting, but when they are surrounded by their friends or only a couple other people they seamlessly participate in the conversation and activities. If you were to observe these shy individuals in other contexts, then you may find that they have no problem opening up to other individuals in other circumstances.
So, before you dismiss someone as simply shy, try to think about the situational factors that may lead to them being reluctant to communicating. Could they be an observant or cautious individual? Could the situation be overwhelming? Could you, yourself, be perceived as an overly dominant force? It also helps to think about the moments when you may have been shy or more cautious to join in the conversation with others. Put yourself in their shoes before you start judging them. Then you might be able to help relieve their anxieties and get them to open up to you more easily.