Why One Expert Says Awkwardness Is “Awesome”

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Ty Tashiro has long been awkward – so awkward, in fact, that he has written a whole book about it.

As a child in middle school, he preferred bifocals over wayfarers, carried a briefcase-like satchel instead of a backpack, and wore a starched Oxford shirt with crisp khakis on the first day of school. The author and relationship expert explains that he didn’t always understand social expectations and had a hard time grasping the behaviors that are considered socially acceptable.

He is now educating the world on the inner workings of awkward people – always with a side of self-deprecating humor – through his book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. Tashiro has sifted through decades of research in psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, proving the characteristics that make people socially clumsy can help produce remarkable achievements. This subject is actually more universal than you’d think. After all, who hasn’t felt like the odd one out at a big party or forgotten the name of someone they’ve literally just met?

Ahead of Tashiro’s aptly titled Awkward session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature this weekend, he revealed to Goodness which gender gets the short end of the awkwardness stick, what three steps every awkward person should take, and why the word afugr is surprisingly relevant.

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Photo: Courtesy of Oscar Keys

Let’s start with the basics: how would you define the word ‘awkward’?
Awkward moments occur when we deviate from small social expectations, like keeping our zippers zipped or maintaining 18 inches of personal space. In contrast, awkward people are more likely than most to miss small social expectations or consistently have a hard time meeting them. Awkward people see the world differently than others, so I like to look at the root of the word, awkward.

It comes from the Old Norse word afugr, which means facing the wrong way, but more optimistic definitions translate it as “facing a different way”. The image of awkward people facing a different direction maps on well to what dozens of research studies tell us about the unique way they see the world and explains why they might miss the social cues that others detect easily.

Until you came along, no one had used the word “awesome” for feeling awkward. For those who aren’t familiar with your book, can you explain why being socially awkward can actually be awesome?
The interesting thing about awkward people is that the same characteristics that make them awkward are the same characteristics that can drive their unique potential for awesome achievements. So, their unique view of the world might make it harder to pick up on standard social cues, but they also tend to see details that most people miss or assemble those details in unique ways.

Their near-obsessive interest in the things they love makes it easy for them to devote tremendous focus to studying that thing – whether it’s music, science, poetry, or whatever interest they choose. Awkward people tend to nerd out over their interests, but that’s nothing to be embarrassed about because being a nerd is about being really, really passionate about something you love. It’s the opposite of being ‘too cool for school’. But this clarity, focus, and obsessive interest can power a deliberate march towards mastering something, and their unusual perspective can sometimes spark innovative approaches that inspire new ideas or novel outlooks.

Awkwardness is not about bad intent; it’s about a lack of ability to efficiently process social information.

What’s the single biggest misconception about awkwardness?
I understand why people assume that awkward individuals are not trying in their social lives. When awkward people barely make eye contact, say something a little too blunt, or forget the name of someone they’ve met three times, someone who is socially fluent must assume disinterest or bad intent from the awkward offender. But this is almost uniformly untrue.

In fact, if you scan the brains of awkward people trying to decipher the emotional expression on someone’s face or figure out a social conundrum, you will see that their brains are extremely active as they desperately try to find a solution to the social situation. Awkwardness is not about bad intent; it’s about a lack of ability to efficiently process social information.

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Photo: Courtesy of Elena Koycheva

Are men more socially awkward or women?
Men are more socially awkward than women. In fact, studies find that there are twice as many awkward men as there are awkward women. The best explanation seems to be both biological and cultural. Men show higher heritability rates for awkward characteristics, but in countries like the United States, men are also raised to be less emotional and less empathic. If a boy is born with socially awkward tendencies, like difficulty reading social cues, then the social environment does little to remedy these deficits – or may even make them worse.

Based on pop culture and gender expectations, do you think it’s more socially acceptable for a man to be socially awkward?
I think that men get away with quite a bit in social life, including awkward tendencies. This might vary by culture, but in America – where men still hold a disproportionate amount of power – there are fewer consequences for not understanding other people or social blunders. I’m not a fan of this imbalance. I’ve informally observed that socially awkward women are more likely to be seen as unfriendly or rude compared to socially awkward men.

Women who are physically attractive and awkward are often perceived as mean or stuck-up, which is rarely true.

What are the key differences between a socially awkward man and a socially awkward woman?
One key difference is that socially awkward girls are more influenced by their family environment compared to socially awkward boys – this is not necessarily a good or bad thing. However, it’s interesting to note that families may try harder to socialize girls, or that girls may be more receptive to social guidance.

I found it interesting that researchers find few differences between men and women regarding how they are awkward. Regardless of gender, awkward people tend to struggle in three ways: social skill deficits, communication problems, and a tendency to become obsessed with specific interests.

Are there any key traits that socially awkward women possess?
There do not appear to be key traits that awkward women posses, but I do think many awkward women carry unique burdens. Stereotypically, women are expected to be empathic, non-confrontational, and sociable, so when a socially awkward woman struggles with these social skills, the reactions from other people can be quite harsh compared to the reactions that men receive.

I’ve noticed that women who are physically attractive and awkward are often perceived as mean or stuck-up, which is rarely true. A physically attractive man who is socially awkward might be perceived as mysterious or stoic, and that strikes me as an unfortunate error in judgment.

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Photo: Courtesy of Justice Amoh

What’s your ultimate, fail-safe tip for navigating a social situation as an awkward person?
To think about being less awkward, it’s helpful to use a foreign language analogy. Imagine moving to a new country where they don’t speak your native language, and you are not fluent in theirs. Everything you do would become more effortful, you would sometimes misinterpret what people are telling you, and everything moves so fast that you might say the wrong thing.

If you wanted to become fluent in that language, you would do three things: commit to immersing yourself in the language, study the vocabulary, and learn the grammatical rules that organize those words. In the same way, awkward people don’t feel socially fluent, so they have to take three steps: commit, study the social scripts, and practice.

How would you differentiate social anxiety from feeling socially awkward? Is there a difference?
The core feature of social anxiety is an irrational fear of other people forming negative perceptions of you in a social situation. It’s this anticipatory dread that you will come across as unlikable. This might sound harsh, but awkward people’s anxiety about an upcoming social situation is not always irrational.

Awkward people do make more social faux pas than the average person, so it’s unhelpful to give them standard advice like, “Just be yourself.” It’s far more helpful to say things like, “What do you need to know about the upcoming social event?” The awkward person may still feel anxious about the event, but will feel far more confident to handle the social interactions.

Is the rise in social media – and a subsequent decrease in face-to-face interaction – making us more socially awkward as a generation?
Social media is complicated because the results of the initial studies are giving us different answers. Some studies find that social media is associated with poor social outcomes, but I’ve been more intrigued by studies that show people with good social skills and poor social skills use social media differently.

Compared to people with poor social skills, people with good social skills are more likely to ‘like’ the posts of other people or leave encouraging comments. They are also more likely to use social media to facilitate in-person contact. So, social media use can be destructive, but that might be balanced out by people who use it to enhance the quality of their social connections.

Ty Tashiro’s Awkward session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature will take place on Saturday, March 9. To learn more or buy tickets, click here.

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