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The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome

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Psychologist and interpersonal relationship expert Ty Tashiro knows what it’s like to be awkward. Growing up, he could do math in his head and memorize the earned run averages of every National League starting pitcher. But he couldn’t pour liquids without spilling and habitually forgot to bring his glove to Little League games. In Awkward, he unpacks decades of research into human intelligence, neuroscience, personality, and sociology to help us better understand this widely shared trait. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

I can feel everyone staring. The sharply dressed guests, all sipping their cocktails a safe distance from the pool, are surely wondering what I plan to do about the frail six-year-old struggling to stay afloat in front of me. I’m wondering the same thing.

Every time I extend my arms toward the flailing child to offer help, my gesture is refused by his grating scream: ‘Let me do it!’ I feel an uneasy sense of responsibility, but I want to respect his efforts, so I continue to let him struggle. The tension between the adults’ judging glances and this scrappy kid’s determination to persist has me caught in a seriously awkward position. And he’s not even my kid.

Spencer was the son of my friend Zak, whom I had met in graduate school at the University of Minnesota. Zak and I had kept in touch and in the fall of 2013 I had a chance to stay with him and his wife, Lydia, while I attended a psychology conference in Florida. The day I arrived in Florida they happened to be throwing a birthday party for Lydia in their backyard. For some reason, Spencer instantly latched on to me as his new buddy, which was apparently a departure from his normally aloof disposition.

As people arrived at the party, they did the typical things adults do with six-year-olds. In their best ‘kid voice’ they asked Spencer his age, gave him extra-cuddly hugs, or wondered aloud, ‘Do you remember me, Spencer?’ They were being lovely, but this small talk in a party setting was like kryptonite for Spencer. I watched his body language slowly shrink while a palpable sense of anxiety began to overcome him. After a well-intentioned guest asked Spencer, ‘Well, how did you get so handsome, young man?’ he abruptly turned toward me and said, ‘I want you to help me with my swimming.’

When Spencer and I looked toward Zak and Lydia for permission, they said it would be great if I could occupy Spencer while they attended to their arriving guests. As we prepared to get into the pool, Spencer told me, ‘Yesterday, at my swim lesson, I practised jumping into the pool and swimming back to the side.’ He demonstrated this feat two or three times, but then grew bored with his success. As he adjusted his Spiderman goggles, he proclaimed that he would try to swim the entire sixteen-foot width of the pool.

Spencer directed me to stay two feet in front of him while he dog-paddled his way toward the other side. During his initial attempts, he was having trouble making it past the midway point, and each time he began to flounder he rejected my attempts to help. Eventually he would relent, ask me for help, and I would carry him back to the ledge. After a minute of rest, he would say, ‘Let’s try again.’

I’m no Olympian, but even for a six-year-old, Spencer did not appear to be gifted with much strength or coordination. His swimming had a decidedly spastic vibe and seeing it gave one a visceral sense of discomfort, which was accentuated by his loud gasps. I appreciated his chutzpah, but also worried about his ability to stay afloat. I looked to Zak and Lydia for some guidance; they nodded their heads as if this spectacular struggle was completely normal.

With each failure to reach the opposite ledge, Spencer became more agitated, and after his fourth failure he appeared to be on the brink of tears. When I sat him on the ledge I pointed out the tremendous progress he had already made and suggested that we try again tomorrow. But he was not looking me in the eye and in fact I don’t think that he heard much of the easy out I provided for him. He appeared lost in his mind, replaying the causes for his failures and trying to think of better ways to approach the problem. He looked at me intently, though not quite in my eyes, and in a matter-of-fact tone said, ‘One more try . . .’

To understand Spencer’s ambition, it helps to know a little about his parents. During graduate school, Zak was one of the star students in applied mathematics. When he graduated, he took a job at NASA, where he was technically a rocket scientist. Lydia was one of the top intellectual-property attorneys in the country. Together they were a remarkable couple with high-powered intellects and ambitions, but they were also humble and generous people who had always been loyal friends to me.

While Zak was driving me back to their house from the airport, he told me that he had been deeply concerned about Spencer. During kindergarten, he showed little interest in playing with other kids, but when he did try to interact with his peers his efforts came across as overly intense and other kids found him to be odd. It’s not unusual for children to be interested in space travel or trains, but Spencer was obsessed with questions such as planetary orbits and the mechanisms of combustion in different types of engines. The combination of his unusual interests and intense manner made it hard for him to play very well with others. Spencer was bored by his schoolwork and his teachers described him in terms usually applied to much older children, including ‘bright, but disengaged’ and ‘underachieving’.

When Spencer launched into a monologue on planetary orbits or explained the mechanisms of steam engines, he sparkled in a brilliance that fascinated adults. His mind was always at work, generating observations by combining information from his large catalogue of facts. Spencer was like a forty-year-old professor caught in a six-year-old boy’s life. But his social skills deficits were just as glaring as his precocious ability. His eye contact was erratic, his nonverbal behaviours were muted, and he generally played alone during recess.

The school counselor suggested that a child psychologist should evaluate Spencer for a disorder like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or a learning disability. One night after Spencer had gone to bed, Zak asked if I would take a look at the report, which had come back with nebulous recommendations. He knew that I couldn’t act as Spencer’s psychologist, but he was desperate to get some insight into his son’s mind and hoped that as a psychology professor I might have some advice on how to best support him.

The school psychologist found that Spencer’s IQ scores put him well into the top 1 percent of kids his age. His psychopathology test scores never crossed into the diagnosable range for disorders including ADHD or oppositional defiant disorder, but I saw a pattern of unevenness in his profile. His scores for self-control were in the bottom tenth percentile compared to those for kids his age, and his scores for obsessive tendencies were in the top fifth percentile.

Spencer was a boy who did not fit neatly into a diagnosable category, but instead seemed to occupy a limbo in between normal and diagnosable. The psychologist gave Spencer a diagnosis of ‘Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified’, which I usually read as psychologist speak for, ‘Something is socially problematic, but I’m not sure what.’

After we discussed the report, Zak and Lydia asked me a perfectly logical follow-up question, ‘So what should we do?’ After a long pause, I replied, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know.’ My reply activated Lydia’s litigation mode and she began marching down a line of interrogation:

Why is he awkward? What makes him awkward? Well, Lydia, there’s not yet data to—

How many kids feel socially awkward?

I don’t know that anybody has investigated—

Can you be awkward and happy? Do awkward people make friends?

Sure, but—

How did you make friends? You’re so awkward.

Lydia’s face flushed with embarrassment. She launched into an apology for her last question, but I told her there was no need to apologize. For me, it was a refreshing realization that I had been happy with my life even though there were still discernible traces of awkwardness on display. The urgency in Lydia’s voice was a familiar tone, a near-panicked feeling that had once pervaded my private deliberations about how I could navigate a social world that seemed like it moved too fast for me to decipher its secrets. That panic had left me years ago, but I could not articulate how that change occurred or even what the change had been.

As a guy who spends his days reviewing social science research, I was disappointed that I could not provide sound answers. I knew that research must be out there that explains why some people are prone to being awkward and why so many awkward people I knew had managed to forge meaningful social ties. Yet I was unaware of anyone who had put forth a coherent, evidence-based set of answers to the kinds of questions Lydia needed answers to.

After that trip to Florida, I became obsessed with finding answers about why some people feel awkward and how they can navigate an increasingly complex social world. While I scoured hundreds of research papers for answers, I found sociological research to suggest that modern social life has made all of us feel more awkward. We can all relate to having an awkward moment, but I also found compelling psychological research to explain why some people experience awkward moments not as an exception to the rule, but as a way of life.

Awkward people see the world differently from non-awkward people. 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, but their spotlighted view means that they see some things with an intense clarity.

Their spotlighted attention gravitates toward nonsocial areas that are systematic in nature, which is why they like the rules of math or the logic of coding and leisure activities like games or collecting. Although they are more likely to choose Silicon Valley or physics theory over sales or customer relations, they can be found across a wide range of vocations. Regardless of their specific interests, what awkward individuals have in common is a spotlighted view of the world and an obsessive drive to understand their interests, and this drive helps them see unusual details and configurations among details.

Awkward people are a passionate bunch, who tend to be obsessive about the things that interest them. Their obsessive interest to learn everything they can about a topic mirrors the ‘rage to master’ that researchers observe in high-achieving people. Researchers who study prodigious achievement find that high-achieving people share some psychological traits, including a razor-sharp focus, a willingness to search for unusual questions or solutions, and an obsessive drive to master their craft, regardless of whether that occurs in technology, the arts, or entertainment. Awkward people’s obsessive interest helps a scientist persist through the drudgery of repeating procedures hundreds of times in her laboratory, drives a dancer to spend hours fussing over the mechanics of a plié, and allows a comedian the ability to bomb in front of audiences while perfecting new jokes.

However, awkward individuals’ intense and obsessive focus on specific interests comes with an opportunity cost, which is that they are more likely to miss social cues and cultural expectations that others see easily and that are integral for smoothly navigating social life. Their spotlighted view explains some of their common behaviours, including why they have trouble remembering to at-tend to routine social expectations such as greetings, social graces, and understanding nonverbal cues. They can also appear lost in their heads instead of present in their interactions with others. To the awkward, their social world is a Goldilocks tale of living in a world that feels too big or too small, too hot or too cold, but their trial-and-error search for ‘just right’ comes with some painful social missteps and, at times, a sense of feeling alone.

Awkward people can feel like social interactions are chaotic, which makes it hard for them to calmly predict how to navigate new social situations. This makes a scientific approach a good tool for awkward people to understand how social interactions work. The broad aims of science are to describe complex phenomena, organize information, and predict seemingly random outcomes. Awkward people’s minds tend to make them natural scientists because they are good at seeing details, picking up on patterns in those details, and taking a systematic approach to problems.

As kids they do unusual things like take the toaster apart to see how it works or ask incessant questions about how birds know to fly south for the winter or become fascinated with how hybrid engines work. They are not so much interested in toast, pretty birds, or fast cars, but in the hidden mechanisms that make those things tick. So a good approach for awkward people to build their sociability is to methodically take apart social interactions, examine how component parts work, and then reassemble those parts in a way that works for them. But they cannot be satisfied with the intellectual exercise of studying social life, they also need to translate their observations into repeatable actions that become habit-like. It’s the difference between discovering combustion in the laboratory versus building a car engine that can run reliably for thousands of miles.

There is a wealth of self-help advice about how to be more charismatic or gregarious, but that’s not really what awkward people are looking for, at least not at first. Awkward people are often given well-intentioned advice such as, ‘Just put yourself out there,’ or ‘Just be yourself,’ or parents might tell their children after a rough day at school, ‘They’re just jealous of you.’ But for awkward individuals, none of this advice makes much sense. When they hear it, they think, ‘I have trouble handling what’s out there,’ or ‘Being myself means being awkward,’ and ‘I highly doubt that kids are jealous about my social life.’ Most awkward people are not thinking about how to be charismatic or wildly popular; they would be happy to start with figuring out how to manage routine social situations and fitting in at school or work.

I wrote this book for awkward people who want insight into the vague rules of social life that govern things like the ingredients that go into a good first impression, the function of emotion, and the rationale behind social formalities. But I also wrote for non- awkward people who hope to understand how modern social life has become more awkward for all of us, as well as those parents, teachers, counselors, managers, and even spouses of awkward people who wonder what makes awkward people tick and how they can support their tremendous potential. Although awkward people share some psychological commonalities, it’s also important to note that not all awkward people are alike. They possess different combinations of awkward characteristics, and those characteristics can combine with other personality traits to create different styles of awkwardness.

When non-awkward people look past an awkward person’s social clumsiness and take the time to really get to know them, they often discover good people who simply have a different view of the world. Awkward people often tell me, “I wish that people would give me a chance because I think that they would like me.” This wish is congruent with studies we will review that show awkward people’s difficulty handling routine social interactions can prevent others from getting to know what they are really like, but awkward people often have less obvious characteristics that are interesting and valuable. So awkward people can benefit from understanding what is expected in routine social situations, why they tend to miss what is expected, and find a way to humbly make the characteristics they want people to see readily apparent.

There are a few things that this book is not. My goal was not to create any excuses for awkward people or the impression they have it worse than anyone else. Social expectations and cultural rules sometimes exist for a good reason, especially when those rules are rooted in ensuring that everyone gets a fair shot or feels respected. I think that awkward people could use a little extra patience from others, but they also have to do their best to improve their ability to manage social interactions.

I have given careful consideration to striking a balance between a healthy sense of humour about awkward situations while never intending to make light of someone’s social struggles. When awkward stories are about someone besides myself, I have created composite characters and mixed up some of the details in each of those stories. But I think it’s healthy to have a good laugh at some point about our awkward moments. A sense of levity about our social missteps can be a great antidote to the feelings of embarrassment or blows to our self-esteem.

I have been encouraged by the wealth of quality research about social awkwardness, but like any area of scientific inquiry, I sometimes found mixed results. Some research findings were steeped in jargon or complicated statistical analyses. I had to keep in mind that awkward people are prone to becoming so enthused by an area of interest that we can easily begin lecturing others about uninteresting minutiae. I have done my best to be fair about summarizing the theories and research findings in the book, but I felt a constant tension between complexity versus clarity and breadth versus brevity. Although I have done my best to highlight robust research findings, readers will find that not all findings apply to their particular situation. For the reader interested in more details about some of the original sources, the bibliography contains references to selected studies about key topics in each chapter.

In the end, an unexpected pattern of nuanced results emerged from the hundreds of scientific studies I reviewed and revealed surprising insights about why we’re awkward and why the psychological characteristics that make people awkward can also position them for prodigious achievements in other contexts. I hope that you find this wealth of scientific insight as helpful as I did for understanding why being awkward can be awesome.

Spencer was not one for semi-emotional rituals such as good-byes, and after I exchanged hugs with his parents by the front door, I waved good-bye from afar so as not to interrupt his Thomas the Tank Engine episode. But he leapt from the couch, ran toward the door, and gave me an awkward but enthusiastic side hug. He said, “It was nice to be your friend.”

Later that day on my plane ride back to New York City, I felt determined to find some answers about awesome people who also happen to be awkward. I opened my laptop and started on a document titled:

AWKWARD: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome

(Excerpted with permission. Buy the book here: http://amzn.to/2oCYTM3)

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