Awkwardness, Why?

The author of a new book explains the science behind the cringeworthy feeling—and how to overcome it.

Volker Bouffier touching Angela Merkel's elbow
Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters

It’s when a fist bump unwittingly meets a high-five. It’s when Ben Carson tries, unsuccessfully, to walk onto a stage. It’s trying to introduce an acquaintance to someone else at a party and then realizing you don’t actually remember their name. It’s awkward, and like so many other things, you know it when you see it.

We all experience awkwardness, of course, but some people seem chronically susceptible to it. In his new book, the appropriately titled Awkward, the writer and psychologist Ty Tashiro explores why certain people seem more prone to these cringe-inducing moments, and what they can do about it. I recently interviewed Tashiro; an edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: Do you consider yourself awkward? What are some of the awkward things you do or used to do?

Ty Tashiro: I think most people you talk to who are socially awkward will say that they’ve been awkward for as long as they can remember. I think that would be the case with me. I think when you’re younger, you don’t have a label for it, like you don’t realize you’re a nerd or that you’re awkward or anything like that. As you get into grade school a little ways, you start to recognize that social situations are harder for you to understand or that you don't know what to do in certain social situations more often than your peers, and then definitely by the time you get to junior high. I think junior high is peak awkwardness for everyone, regardless of whether they’re awkward or not.

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.

Khazan: Another thing you mentioned was meeting the majority of social expectations, but deviating from one or two. Can you clarify why it is that it’s one or two deviations that makes for an awkward moment?

Tashiro: As humans, we’re so attuned to deviations from social expectations that if there are one or two things out of place, we’re really good at picking that up. That’s why if you have spinach stuck in your two front teeth, there’s really nothing offensive about that, but our reaction to it is pretty strong. I sometimes think it’s like stepping on a partner’s toe during a dance. You could get everything else right, but if you step on their toe once during a five-minute performance, it’s something that definitely sticks out and is noticeable.

Khazan: You write that awkward people read faces differently. How so?

Tashiro: Most people will look immediately to people’s eyes when they’re having an interaction, and that’s because the eye region is by far the richest in terms of social cues and being able to extract what the person might be thinking or feeling. In eye-tracking studies, they find that awkward people tend to look at the chin or the ear first instead of looking at the eyes. Obviously, the chin and the ear areas aren’t very rich in emotion cues, so they miss out on information, and then that makes it hard to make an accurate read on what somebody else might be feeling.

Khazan: I was wondering if awkward people can ever seem kind of rude because of the lack of eye contact. I know you mentioned at one point that it’s important for awkward people to study etiquette—is that why?

Tashiro: Awkward people aren’t great at picking up on social subtleties. I’m a huge fan of manners, but manners are pretty subtle. A lot of times they’re non-verbal and they can easily escape the awkward person’s highly focused perspective. I think it’s great for awkward people to study manners in the same way that they would study a second language. It provides all of the cues and a way to organize those cues in a way that social situations can become more seamless and more fluid.

When I was a kid, I was prone to not noticing that there were lines, like in restaurants or convenience stores. Cutting in line is rude. I would cut, not because I was trying to go first, I just honestly did not see that there was a line that had formed. All I saw was that there was an open register. That’s when my parents would say, before when we’d go into stores or restaurants where we would have to order at a counter, they would prime me to look for a line.

I still do it actually. You’d laugh if you went into a store with me, because when I walk into a store and there’s nobody in there, I’ll still do a double take. Double check to make sure there’s no line. If I’m at a situation where there’s a buffet, even if my table gets called, I feel great anxiety going before other people, because also one of the strategies was that I would wait to go last for a lot of things just to make sure that I didn’t jump the line.

I don’t know if I’ve ever known a likable awkward person who doesn’t think significantly more about how to prepare for a social situation than the average person. They’ll research guest lists or research what to wear or the appropriate gift to bring, and might even practice in the mirror certain sayings a little bit more than the average person.

Khazan: Finally, what is the “rage to master,” and how can awkward people use it to their advantage?

Tashiro: The rage to master comes from research on giftedness. The term was coined by Ellen Winner, who’s one of the leading researchers on giftedness. It means that gifted kids have personality dispositions that make them very passionate about not only learning area of interest or field, but wanting to learn everything they can and completely master their interest or their field.

It’s really interesting to watch a gifted kid and watch their rage to master because they will persist for far longer than your average kid will, and they do it with a methodical nature that’s also unusual.

Awkward people tend to have this sharp focus, they tend to see details with quite a bit of clarity, and they’re extremely enthusiastic about what they love. It has a lot of parallels to the rage to master. Given the overlap between giftedness and an awkward disposition, it’s actually a really nice marriage between those two qualities. If someone has an area of giftedness and they have this obsessive interest and this enthusiasm for it, it’s a great combination to either achieve expertise or even innovative breakthroughs.