Many of us have experienced awkward moments, where we don’t understand a particular social situation and put our foot in our mouths. While these social faux pas are certainly unpleasant, they don’t necessarily impact our social relationships too much.
But for some people, awkwardness can be a way of life, punctuated by regular experiences of painful misunderstandings that lead to social exclusion. This not only hurts them, but can be hard for their colleagues and loved ones.
For those who suffer from awkwardness—or know someone who does—look no further than psychologist Ty Tashiro’s recently published book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. In his book, Tashiro explains some of the neuroscience behind how awkward people see the world and why they tend to miss important social cues. His book not only provides guidance for how to manage awkwardness, but also points to the particular strengths of awkward people.
Inside the awkward brain
According to Tashiro, awkward people tend to see things differently, shining a spotlight of attention on parts of their perceptual world that others tend to look past. This means that they might spend hours poring over spec sheets for their computer, but miss the subtle cues—like foot-tapping or arm-crossing—that let them know someone is bored or impatient.
The reasons for this difference lie in the brain. Neuroscience research suggests that awkward people—who are somewhat similar to people with “high-functioning autism” or Asperger’s Syndrome—have less activity in their “social brains” and require extra cognitive effort when interpreting social cues. This is not only difficult and draining for them; it can also cause anxiety, which is probably why awkward people sometimes choose to withdraw from social contact altogether.
Clearly, this is a problem, given the importance of social contact in a happy, healthy life. But Tashiro has ideas of how awkward people can feel more at ease in social situations, including cultivating curiosity and worrying less about being clever.
“When you show your genuine interest in what others have to say, the deeper message you send is that you are invested in their well-being,” he writes. Even awkward people can learn to stop talking and ask questions to further the conversation, he suggests.
In addition, he suggests that awkward people can be taught to pay attention to social cues like eye contact during conversations, and not interrupt when someone else is speaking. And, recognizing that social faux pas happen in life and aren’t the end of the world can also aid socially awkward people in moving past them.
Raising an awkward kid
Tashiro gives helpful advice to parents of awkward children. While awkward children may subconsciously say or do things that others will interpret negatively—such as correcting people’s grammar or strictly adhering to rules and routines (which helps them to function well, but can be perceived as inflexible)—parents can act as coaches, helping to point children to behaviors that will ease their social interactions.
“Parents need to calmly show empathy about their awkward children’s tendency to become overwhelmed by social situations and find ways to coach their reluctant children about social scripts that help them fit in seamlessly to social situations,” he writes.
One way is by teaching their awkward kids manners—social expectations for dress, behavior, and talk that may not be obvious but can be learned and rehearsed. Tashiro also mentions the importance of helping awkward kids find their passions and connect with others who have similar interests. And, while our modern-day preoccupation with social media can be a boon to the nerdy kid, he suggests encouraging awkward kids to use social media more for setting up face-to-face time with friends than to escape social encounters.
Tashiro kindly offers his own story of being an awkward kid to illustrate how he learned to connect better. A particularly poignant lesson came from a tennis partner in high school—a kid who was somewhat nerdy, but had lots of social capital—who displayed unusual kindness toward him after an embarrassing situation when he couldn’t hit a tennis ball during practice. This taught Tashiro the importance of displaying kindness, consideration, and loyalty himself when forming friendships.
“If I was consistent about maintaining these prosocial attitudes, then I built some cushion for those times when I inadvertently bungled some social situations or mishandled an expectation in ways that offended others,” he writes.
The upside of being awkward
Of course, being a nerdy kid or adult is not all bad. In fact, Tashiro writes of how a spotlight attention can help awkward people to develop expertise and think outside the box. He points to famous examples of socially-awkward people—like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein—whose obsessive interests helped fuel innovation and new knowledge.
“Although awkward people are missing important social information that falls outside of their narrow aperture, what they do see is brilliantly illuminated and this gives them a deep, nuanced perspective about things that no one else takes the time to notice,” he writes.
While not all awkward people have special gifts, Tashiro explains, awkward people may be more likely to excel at systematic problem-solving tasks, as in math or science; to recognize patterns in a complex visual environment; and to persist in the areas that interest them. This suggests that awkwardness may have some evolutionary advantages, perhaps leading to insights or engineering breakthroughs that helped groups survive over time.
So, while his book is particularly instructive for awkward people negotiating their social world, it also calls upon the rest of us to have greater appreciation and empathy. If we all reached out with more understanding toward those who struggle socially—rather than judgment or rejection—we would benefit from a wider circle of friends and create a more inclusive society.
As Tashiro writes, “When awkward people take the responsibility to work hard to improve their empathic capacity and others show some patience and encouragement, awkward and socially fluent people can find an unusual brand of emotional connection.”
As someone with socially awkward people in my community of friends and family, I’m inclined to agree.