Dr. Ty Tashiro is a formerly awkward kid who grew up to be an all-around awesome psychologist, writer, and relationship guru. He and I had a lot of fun chatting about social awkwardness and I learned:

  • The difference between social anxiety and social awkwardness (and when they overlap!)
  • How to prevent (or at least minimize) awkward situations
  • That all the world's a stage, but awkward and non-awkward people perceive it differently
  • Why becoming less awkward is like learning another language
  • How parents can help awkward kids stand up to bullies
  • and more!

Press the "play" button to listen to our conversation, or just read the transcript below!

Today we are lucky to have with us Dr. Ty Tashiro. Dr. Tashiro is a psychologist, an author of The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love, and also what we’ll be talking about today, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward, and Why That’s Awesome. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time.com, TheAtlantic.com, and on NPR. Plus, he’s addressed TED at NYC, the Harvard Business School, MIT’s Media Lab, and the American Psychological Association. Ty Tashiro, thanks for being here today.

Ty Tashiro: Hey, thanks for having me on.

EH: Absolutely. So we are here to get awkward! First let’s define what we’re talking about. Who is awkward, and what are some characteristics of awkwardness?

TT: Yeah, to define awkwardness I like to start out with the root of the word. The root of the word “awkward” is an Old Norse word: “afugr.” “Afugr” means “facing a different direction.” I really like that as a way to introduce the concept of awkwardness because it explains why awkward people might miss social cues or social expectations that everybody else seems to see, but it also suggests that they might be looking somewhere different and have a unique perspective, and that could be of value and bring good things to the group or to a friendship.

I like to start out with that, but then there’s the more psychological way to define it, which is social skill problems, communication problems, and what I call obsessive interest — the idea that awkward people really, really love the things they’re interested in, which I think is actually a good quality, but sometimes then they miss more social information while they’re invested in their non-social interest.

EH: So I talk and write a lot about social anxiety. In your opinion, what is the difference between social awkwardness and social anxiety?

TT: That’s a good question. I gave that quite a bit of thought, and thinking about what the similarities were between those two things, and what the differences were as well. They’re correlated with each other, of course: people who are awkward tend to be socially anxious, and socially anxious people, as you say in your book, can sometimes create awkward situations because they get too ramped up and that over-excitability can create awkward situations. I think one of the differences is part of that nervousness or fear of impending social interactions is irrational. You think, “I’m gonna say something that embarrasses myself,” or “I’m not gonna know how to do the right thing.” For people who just have social anxiety, indeed, that’s often times unhelpful and inaccurate. For people who are awkward, it’s a little bit unhelpful sometimes, but it’s actually accurate sometimes.

EH: There’s a grain of truth.

TT: Yeah, yeah, there certainly can be. When I was a kid — when I was a teenager, it was actually true. There was a higher probability I was gonna put my foot in my mouth, or I wouldn’t see a certain social expectation that would lead to an awkward moment. I think one of the things that was helpful for me was to understand that that anxiety was actually motivating, and as long as it didn’t become too intense or debilitating, it actually motivated me to think ahead more about, “Okay, how can I prepare for this interaction so that I’m more primed to do the things that make this interaction go well?”

EH: Okay, so thinking ahead into, “What am I about to do?” “What are the first things I need to do to get a foothold, or get some traction?” and to hope that that would propel you into being appropriate.

TT: Exactly. So I guess there’s the reality that I tended to be more awkward, and then there’s the anxiety that comes with that, which, in the right dose, could be motivating. But then the essential component, then, was the preparation, because if I didn’t prepare as a consequence of anxiety, then the anxiety would get more intense for me.

EH: That makes sense. So I come at it, obviously, from the social anxiety angle, and so sometimes socially anxious people will create awkward moments because their bandwidth — their attention — is eaten up by their anxiety. They’re self-monitoring, or they're thinking about what’s gonna go wrong, and so there’s just not much bandwidth left for listening to your conversation partner, talking, or not spilling your drink on the person next to you. Therefore, this anxiety about making an error will often become self-fulfilling prophecy because there’s not enough attention to focus even on walking. So I advise people to turn their attention inside out: to focus their attention out onto the task at hand, like listening, looking at whoever you’re talking to, to just focus on what you’re supposed to be doing in the moment. So aside from preparation, when you’re in the moment, is there anything else you can recommend to people who know they’re awkward to help them minimize the possibility of making a social error?

TT: Yeah. I really loved the idea of bandwidth in your book and that idea that it just gets too narrowed, and often times narrowed to the wrong elements in a social situation. It was actually similar to something I had talked about in Awkward, which was that awkward people tend to get this spotlighted perspective in social situations.

EH: Yes, I loved that description. Tell us more about that.

TT: Sure. I say: If you could imagine that life unfolds before you on a stage, and that stage was broadly illuminated, you could see people come onstage, leave stage; you could gather social contexts. But you spend most of your time center stage because that’s where most of the key social information, the key interactions take place. That’s how most people see the social world. Awkward people, by comparison, tend to see that stage spotlighted and that intense, more narrow spotlight tends to fall a little left of center stage. So they miss some of the key interactions going on, and some of that key social information. But whatever falls under their spotlight, they see with a degree of brilliance and clarity, actually. So the analogy I give is that what awkward people need to learn to do is to recognize, “All right, I’m getting a more narrow aperture of these social situations, and so I have to think about where to shift that spotlight strategically,” so they could take your advice, for example, and do the inside out kind of thing, but also some sort of sequence where they get the right features in the social interaction so that they can respond appropriately.

EH: So to focus their narrow spotlight on, maybe, eye contact or on whatever is salient to that social situation.

TT: That’s right. Sometimes people who aren’t awkward, if I’m giving a talk, will say something like, “Yeah, it always feels awkward because I don’t know what to do with my hands," and I’m like, “That’s really high-level stuff.” The awkward person is more — let’s start with, you know, how much space are you leaving between you and the other person? — which is actually about arms’ length in the United States; about 18 inches. You don’t want to space invade people, but you also don’t want to be awkwardly a little bit too far away. And so eye contact, thinking about your spacing, the appropriate amount of eye contact — all these things are important and good places to send your energy when you’re actually in the interaction.

EH: There was a part in your book I really like. You liken becoming less awkward to learning a foreign language. How can socially awkward people use their strengths — things you talk about like their talents with systems, their "rage to master"--they really want to know things inside and out--their methodical nature — to learn the language of social interactions, to become socially fluent?

TT: Sure. That’s an insight I had when I was in junior high, actually, and I was taking Spanish class. I love Spanish; it was my favorite subject. It just kind of clicked. I had this light bulb moment in class when the teacher was laying out how you learn a foreign language. She said, “Well, you start with vocabulary, which is the smallest element of a language. Then we’ll do grammar, so you can think about how to sequence those and organize those, which create more meaning, and then we’ll also work on comprehension, and then we’ll work on culture — so now we’ll work on how do you speak in a way in a real situation, taking the big picture into account?”

And I thought, “Wow, that’s actually like social life because you have all of these hundreds of social expectations that you have to think about every day. Did I shower? Did I wear the right thing? Am I standing 18 inches away?” There are hundreds of social interactions, but really the key, then, is to start to think about, “Okay, how do I sequence these in a way that makes logical sense to other people? And the reason I’m doing that is to help other people feel comfortable and help them feel at ease so that we can have a personal connection.” When awkward people start to see it that way, it becomes a lot more manageable because now you can break down the social world, which seems so chaotic and complex, into little pieces that you can understand one by one. That really fits the awkward mind and fits how they like to learn and problem solve.

EH: Yeah, so, how can I break down this interaction into the different pieces--the grammar--and piece it together, put it back together, like a machine or something, so that it serves my purpose of making a connection or becoming closer to this person?

TT: Exactly. And then you take some of that cognitive psychology stuff and say, “Well, now it becomes a schema,” and so now instead of remembering eight things, you can remember one thing —

EH: You can chunk it.

TT: You can say, “This is my greeting schema,” and then those start to get chunked together and eventually, one of the things I really enjoy seeing is an awkward adult who’s actually become overly competent in some things. They work so hard on it. I have some friends who are awkward, and I think to myself, “Gosh, they’re actually a generous person or unusually kind in a lot of these different situations because they’ve worked so diligently at it across so many years.”

EH: They’ve turned themselves from awkward into perfect gentlemen, it sounds like.

TT: Yeah — it doesn’t happen for everything, but certainly for some things, that can definitely happen.

EH: Sure. So I have one more question. Unfortunately, many awkward kids will get bullied and unfortunately, awkward adults can also get bullied in the workplace, and it’s a tough situation because it really can cost other people social capital to stand up for an awkward person. Besides counting on other people to stand up for them, how can awkward people protect themselves from bullies?

TT: Yeah, it’s a real unfortunate mismatch for the awkward person because, as you know, bullies can often times have really good social skills so the awkward person is outmatched as far as pure ability in these situations and then the bully sees an opportunity with somebody who’s gonna be slower understanding the situation.

So I guess that’s one thing for the awkward kid to realize who’s in a position of being bullied, which is that the person who’s doing this is being opportunistic; they’re doing this for the wrong reasons. It’s hard for parents to convince their kids of this, but of course it is true that it’s not about the awkward kid who’s getting picked on; it’s about the bully having bad intent.

I also think it’s true that these things tend to diminish over time, but parents sometimes just say, “Oh, it’s going to get better,” or “Oh, they’re just doing this because they’re struggling with themselves,” but the awkward kid needs something more, and there’s where you can talk with the awkward kid about assertiveness training and talking about how do you really put your foot down in a way, not only verbally, with the content of what you say, but also with your body language and with your timing and with the tone of your voice. These are all things that would escape the awkward kid’s attention. So I think sometimes what I see is that the awkward kid has been coached to say the right thing, but they haven’t been coached about all the other things that are actually more important to convey to a bully, and then to the people observing the situation, that, “Hey, this is really not okay.”

EH: So for parents to maybe go through not only just the words to say, but maybe to role play and have the kid practice using the right body language or projecting their voice, rather than mumbling, or whatever’s not going well, to practice implementing more appropriate ways to stand up for themselves.

TT: Yeah, exactly. And I think it’s one of those things where it’s helpful in those situations where there’s some adversity, but awkward kids being awkward kids — they’re great at generalizing, and so they’ll eventually start to think, “Oh, well I could just roll this back a little bit, some of this body language and some of this projecting my voice,” and now we’re at confidence, actually, instead of being authoritative. I think a lot of times with psychology, I like the idea of pushing bounds, and pushing especially bounds that are opposite of what your disposition is. That can be a really useful thing, and then that makes it easier sometimes for the awkward kid to do things that would require confidence or other things that aren’t as tense as standing up to a bully.

EH: Right. Thank you so much. I learned a lot; I’m sure listeners learned a lot. And thank you so much for talking today.

TT: Thanks a lot. That was fun.

EH: Absolutely. Dr. Ty Tashiro is the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward, and Why That’s Awesome. and The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring LoveYou can pick up a copy of one or both of those wherever you buy books.