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That’s Awkward

Feeling like you missed a memo in social situations

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was a major bestseller. It’s not hard to see why: reading the book is an affirming and hopeful experience for introverts and an enlightening and educational experience for non-introverts.

What Susan Cain’s book did for introverts, Ty Tashiro’s Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome should do for awkward people.

Awkwardness barely needs explanation. We’ve all seen it and we’ve all experienced it. Just think of the guy who insists on telling you all about Game of Thrones even though you’re clearly not interested. Awkward people are not socially fluent because they are often unable to read the social cues and follow the social scripts that other people take for granted. The stereotype of the awkward person is the nerd, like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory.

Although awkwardness is not a clinical diagnosis, nor should it be, it comes in degrees. Even the most socially fluent person occasionally experiences awkward moments when he or she feels uncomfortable in a situation and does not know what to do or say. Still, some people are on the extreme end of the awkwardness spectrum.

Ty Tashiro, the author of Awkward, is himself rather awkward, and his book is full of great stories. One in particular stuck with me. Tashiro’s high school chemistry teacher (Mr. Z.) deliberately taught him about life by making him show every step of his work in solving chemistry problems. Tashiro had been too focused on outcomes, and consequently often did not get the results he sought. Mr. Z taught him that process is important too. You cannot skip steps and reliably get the right outcome in chemistry or in life, but awkward people tend to skip steps to achieve outcomes.

As a cynical and awkward teenager, I saw small talk and manners as phony and wanted to skip them to get to the outcome of friendships with deep, heartfelt conversations. Likewise, I didn’t understand the steps in the game of flirtation required in adolescent courtship. When it came to girls, I felt like I missed out on some memos or scripts that everyone else got. This wasn’t far from the truth. Other kids were working from basic social scripts that they had intuited from observation. I lacked the scripts because I lacked the intuitions, not because I missed a secret meeting. I was just awkward.

Throughout the book, Tashiro presents awkward people in a sympathetic light. For example, the reader feels sorry for Tashiro’s friend who doesn’t realize he should pull the plug when his PowerPoint presentation is infested with pornographic pop-up ads. Indeed, many awkward people need and deserve sympathy. With the help of family, friends, and teachers like Mr. Z, awkward people can become more socially fluent and maybe even awesome.

So Awkward should be a major bestseller like Quiet. But it’s not.

I have a theory as to why: Nearly all introverts are aware of their introversion, but many awkward people are not aware of their awkwardness. In fact, there are several people to whom I would love to give copies of Awkward, but that would be … well … awkward.

Some people who cause awkward situations are just jerks—that’s not a clinical diagnosis. They are aware of what they are doing, but don’t care that it impacts other people negatively. Awkward people often appear to be jerks. But if an awkward person doesn’t know that he is negatively impacting other people, then he is not a jerk, not really. He may, however, be culpably ignorant. He may be like the person whose house smells of cats but doesn’t realize it. The cat person is nose-blind and the awkward person is self-blind.

Know thyself is the most basic human imperative. So if you have any suspicion that you may be awkward, read Tashiro’s book. A revolution awaits. “Awkward people of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your inability to decode social situations.”