We all have awkward moments, of course. The unintentionally insulting blurt. The joke that lands like a lead balloon. The forgotten name in the midst of introductions.
But in his engaging and practical new book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, psychologist Ty Tashiro addresses not the occasional faux pas, but the life lived awkwardly, “to explain why some people experience awkward moments not as an exception to the rule, but as a way of life.”
Awkward people might consistently forget to greet people when they enter the room, find eye contact unbearably intimate (causing them to miss social cues) or chatter on about esoterica, unaware of eyes glazing around them.
“Awkward people see the world differently from non-awkward people,” writes Tashiro.
“When non-awkward people walk into a room full of people, they naturally see the big social picture. They intuitively understand things like the emotional tone in the room or how formally they should act. By comparison, awkward people tend to see social situations in a fragmented way. It’s as if they see the world with a narrow spotlight that makes it hard to see the big social picture all at once,” writes Tashiro.
It may sound a lot like autism, but Tashiro teases out the differences between awkwardness and autism or Asperger’s. He finds that awkward people are often pretty comfortable with the label, recognizing and accepting it even if they wish it weren’t so. Tashiro readily owns his own awkwardness, and draws from his own life as well as case studies to illustrate and explain throughout the book.
Tashiro recalls, for example, early in his junior high career when he and his “band of misfits”—stymied by the MTV cool of their new school—decided that no matter what the other kids thought, they would just do what they always did: play.
“After some deliberation, we decided to go with one of our playtime activities from sixth grade, reenactments of wrestling matches from the World Wide Wrestling Foundation,” writes Tashiro.
The thing ended badly, both physically—when Tashiro went flying into a steel fencepost—and socially, when they realized that the other seventh graders were not joining in, but were standing around watching the show.
“How could I not see that wrestling reenactments were a bad idea?” He wondered later, as he recovered from a near-concussion.
On one hand, your heart breaks for little Ty, whose childlike spirit was on the verge of being crushed by social pressures. On the other hand, an inability to read social cues and conform to norms, at least to some extent, is a social liability that can affect everything from junior high social status, friendships and jobs to intimate relationships.
“When someone is chronically awkward, then the accumulation of their awkward moments can threaten their social inclusion,” writes Tashiro.
Tashiro’s parents, who realized his struggles early on, made a point of drilling “life skills” into him. For example, before they went into a fast-food restaurant, his “parents would park our station wagon, turn to the backseat where I sat, and one of them would say ‘Let’s get mentally prepared.’…My parents’ series of well-orchestrated questions led to Socratic dialogues about how I would engage with others.”
The dialogues included why they were there, where he should go when they entered the store (to the end of the line), how to prepare before he got to the counter (decide what to order, get his money ready), how to speak to the cashier (eye contact, project his voice, say please), what do to and where to stand after he ordered. This approach, while a little draconian sounding, plugged into Tashiro’s methodical mind to break down elements of interaction and provide concrete skills.
Tashiro uses research and anecdotal case studies to explain the perception differences of awkward people, which studies suggest may involve a genetic component. He outlines some of the ways awkward people can use their hyper-focus and methodical minds to learn to read social cues as they would any other skill.
In the chapter “Emotions Make Me Feel Funny,” Tashiro points out that while awkward people often know when they have violated societal expectations, they don’t always know why. He suggests skills to help awkward people translate emotions into actions that can repair damage, including a chart listing what an emotion is, what it means and what the proper response is.
Tashiro even takes the discussion all the way to flirtation, intimate relationships and the bedroom. His tone is straightforward and compassionate, with clear affection for his fellow blunderers. Woven throughout are reasons the qualities that cause awkwardness can also be assets, and the last chapter delves more deeply into this, connecting the dots between awkwardness and giftedness, the adaptive qualities of awkwardness and the benefits of awkward people’s intense focus.
Useful for those wondering about their own tendency towards social blunders, parents concerned for awkward children or educators who want to help children succeed, Awkward takes an amorphous sense that “something ain’t right about that boy” and shapes it into something we can understand and work with.
Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome
Ty Tashiro, PhD
William Morrow (April 2017)
Hardcover, 288 pages