Khazan: Do you have a memory that sticks out in your mind of a time that you did something really awkward?
Tashiro: Oh yeah. There's a whole catalog of awkward moments I could certainly think of. [Once,] I was about 11 years old at the time, and I was at a family reunion with my cousins. We were at this mountain resort in Colorado and there were these bumper boats at the lake. We kind of were checking it out and it looked like a lot of fun. There were maybe 30, 40 kids that would go out at a time and just do these bumper boats. My cousins said, “We should do it.”
Awkward people want to be a good sport and we want to be participative, so I was like, “Yeah, no, okay. I'll do this. How hard could it be?” I got on. As the guy who was running the ride was giving instructions about how to operate the boats, I got distracted by his baseball cap. He had this Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap on. I had this strange interest in baseball statistics when I was a kid, so the hat triggered all of these memories about earned run averages and hitting percentages and stolen bases, all these random facts. I got lost in my mind in this minefield of statistics and so I didn't hear anything this guy had to say.
I got out to the middle of the lake and ... the first time I got hit by somebody else, it really startled me. I went to go bump the guy back that bumped me, so I cranked my handle to the left. I started going in this circle, which became a concentric circle, and next thing I knew, I was flipping around in circles in the middle of the lake.
Nobody was making fun of me, but it was a panicking kind of situation. Your muscles are tensing, you're sweating, and your judgment gets clouded when you’re in a really awkward moment that you feel you can't get out of. I just spun around for like five minutes in the middle of the lake. My dad had to get into one of these kids’ bumper boats and tow me back to the shore.
I like the story just because it's a classic example of an awkward moment. It's just a really slight deviation from what's socially expected.
Khazan: Your mention of baseball statistics reminds me, what’s the difference between awkward people and people who have Asperger's, or just people who are socially anxious?
Tashiro: Autistic symptoms are normally distributed in the general population along the bell curve. As you get out towards the 80th percentile, 85th percentile, on that bell curve, that's where you start to think, “Wow. This person's a socially awkward person.” You can follow that all the way up to the 99th percentile, and at the 99th percentile is where the cutoff general tends to be for autism. The Broad Autism Phenotype is oftentimes what they'll call it in academic studies.
Khazan: It’s sort of like sub-subclinical autism, basically?
Tashiro: Exactly. It's just like someone who’s really high strung doesn't necessarily have an anxiety disorder, or someone who's pretty melancholy doesn’t have a major depressive disorder. Someone who’s awkward doesn't necessarily have Asperger's or autism.