Wel­come to the golden age of so­cial awk­ward­ness

All you have to do is flip on your TV to wit­ness the as­cen­dancy of the bum­bling an­ti­hero

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - LAVANYA RA­MANATHAN

Awk­ward­ness has never seemed like some­thing to as­pire to.

The par­a­lyz­ing un­cer­tainty of what to do at a party, the weird ob­ses­sion with “Dun­geons and Dragons,” the ill-con­sid­ered fash­ion choices — ex­hibit any of these, and your so­cial life is doomed.

But not any­more. Now, all you have to do is flip on your TV to wit­ness the as­cen­dancy of the bum­bling an­ti­hero.

“The Big Bang The­ory,” a show re­volv­ing around the lives of per­haps the most so­cially in­ept char­ac­ters ever to pop­u­late a sit­com, is con­sis­tently the No. 1 show on tele­vi­sion.

“Sil­i­con Val­ley,” a black com­edy about neu­rotic coders and startup cul­ture, is a cult hit.

Now, there’s Comic-Con, ba­si­cally Coachella for nerds. Bach­e­lorettes con­vene not at Chip­pen­dale’s but at the Wizard­ing World of Harry Pot­ter.

#MaytheFourthBeWithYou is a thing. And so is cos­play. And pod­casts.

“It is,” says psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor Ty Tashiro, “the golden age of awk­ward­ness.”

And he’s been wait­ing for it his whole life. Al­ways so­cially awk­ward him­self, Tashiro has be­come an evan­ge­list for his kind, pen­ning a book of re­search posit­ing that there’s an up­side to all this nerd­ing out, to the un­emo­tional, hy­per­fo­cused qual­i­ties of peo­ple lack­ing in the so­cial graces.

“Awk­ward­ness is as­so­ci­ated with strik­ing tal­ent,” he says, be­cause it’s often cou­pled with ob­ses­sive drive.

The down­sides, we’re more fa­mil­iar with: of­fended friends and loved ones, a life­time of em­bar­rass­ing mo­ments and mis­read cues.

Read­ing Tashiro’s re­cent book, “Awk­ward: The Sci­ence of Why We’re So­cially Awk­ward and Why That’s Awe­some,” can be like try­ing to de­ter­mine the source of a mys­tery rash by search­ing We­bMD. Flip­ping through the anec­dotes, the bar charts and the check­lists, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble not to self-di­ag­nose. You find your­self ex­am­in­ing a life­time’s worth of kale-in-teeth mo­ments for ev­i­dence that you’re not just un­lucky but awk­ward.

The au­thor thinks that only 15 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion qual­i­fies for the des­ig­na­tion. And even though he has stud­ied awk­ward­ness for years, he says that it’s not al­ways easy to rec­og­nize it from the out­side.

Where’s the line be­tween a truly awk­ward per­son and that co-worker who can’t walk into a meet­ing with­out trip­ping over a chair?

“It’s kind of a sloppy an­swer,” Tashiro says. “It’s not a clean, ‘This is def­i­nitely what awk­ward is.’”

“Some peo­ple are aloof. Some are more so­cially anx­ious. Some are re­ally more spas­tic,” he says. “The hard ones to pick out some­times are the ones who have pretty good so­cial skills, but they have this in­tense drive, so they get hy­per­fo­cused.”

Ba­sic com­mon sense can elude the awk­ward. So can em­pa­thy and ef­fort­less ban­ter.

But he does of­fer this: “If you have good so­cial per­cep­tions, you pick up on the ab­sence of re­ac­tions, like when you say some­thing you think is funny and no one else thinks it’s funny, or you give a com­pli­ment and no one says thank you, be­cause it’s more of an in­sult.”

In many ways “Awk­ward,” re­leased last month, is a mem­oir, a reck­on­ing with Tashiro’s own back­story. It’s packed with vi­gnettes from the au­thor’s child­hood, even as it loops in sci­en­tific stud­ies and Dar­winian the­ory.

As we set­tle in at an East Vil­lage restau­rant that dou­bles as a co-work­ing space, oth­ers nod wel­com­ingly at the au­thor, whose pre­vi­ous book, about us­ing a sci­en­tific ap­proach to search for long-last­ing love, was well re­ceived. Some stop by to ex­change pleas­antries. Tashiro, who has taught at uni­ver­si­ties in Colorado and Mary­land, is warm, un­ham­pered by self-con­scious­ness.

So, we ask pry­ingly, what ex­actly is so awk­ward about him? “So many choices,” he says, laugh­ing as he ticks off a list.

Take his sweater and but­ton-down shirt, fin­ished off with a preppy tie. He says that he has dressed like this, like a forty-some­thing pro­fes­sor, since he was a child, starch­ing his Ox­ford shirts while his class­mates wore fireengine-red “Thriller” jack­ets.

There’s also the bull-in-a-china-shop way he seemed to move through the world; he couldn’t even pour a glass of milk with­out disas­ter en­su­ing.

Tested for Asperger’s and autism, Tashiro didn’t meet the thresh­old. But he was de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent. (He be­lieves autis­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics, which in­clude poor so­cial skills, turn up in the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion all the time and that the awk­ward sim­ply have more of them.)

His par­ents, high school teach­ers in the Boul­der, Colorado sub­urbs, were the ideal peo­ple to shep­herd their son through what would prove to be not awk­ward years but an awk­ward cou­ple of decades.

Among the things his par­ents told him was that so­cial skills ex­ist to make other peo­ple feel at ease. “Oth­er­wise,” they told him gen­tly, “peo­ple might feel un­com­fort­able or that you’re be­ing rude.”

It clicked. “I didn’t want to be a jerk,” he says now. As a psy­chol­o­gist, he’s drawn to the idea of self-im­prove­ment. And so he im­proved, train­ing him­self out of his awk­ward ten­den­cies. But a few years ago, when an out­go­ing friend cor­nered him about her son, a mer­cu­rial lit­tle boy who strug­gled to fit in, Tashiro re­al­ized he hadn’t shed them all.

“Well, you’re awk­ward,” the friend told him as she asked for ad­vice.

“I wasn’t of­fended,” he says now. “I was like, yes,” — he sighs — “yes, I am.”

Awk­ward peo­ple, Tashiro says, don’t suf­fer from a lack of self-aware­ness. They just can’t seem to help them­selves.

“I’ve never met any­body,” he says, “who doesn’t deep-down know.”

Ten pages into his book, I be­gan to feel like I knew. Be­fore leav­ing, I share a story that I’m con­vinced marks me as awk­ward, some­thing I’d said to a date that was so cringe-in­duc­ing that I still couldn’t be­lieve I’d done it. It was blunt, but not mean, in­no­cent but com­pletely thick-headed, tank­ing a warm mo­ment and prob­a­bly the whole bud­ding re­la­tion­ship. Tashiro breaks into a fit of laugh­ter. “I love that,” he says. “You don’t strike me as awk­ward,” he adds, gen­er­ously. “But that is quintessen­tially awk­ward.”

Be­fore he wrote “Awk­ward,” Tashiro, who is sin­gle, won­dered whether lack­ing so­cial graces af­fects a per­son’s mar­riage prospects. But he’s up­beat about what he found, in­clud­ing very happy mar­riages and that awk­ward peo­ple tend to be in longer-last­ing re­la­tion­ships.

“If you don’t think you can make those close con­nec­tions that are es­sen­tial for feel­ing like you be­long, then a lot of things are go­ing to go poorly,” he says. “But I think we can have un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions that we have to be wildly pop­u­lar or be some kind of so­cial-me­dia star.”

Our ob­ses­sion with al­ways be­ing so­cially ac­cept­able is un­nec­es­sary, he says. And, frankly, awk­ward peo­ple are thriv­ing.

“Some of these quirks you have, some of these weird ways you see the world, that’s go­ing to man­i­fest into some­thing cool,” Tashiro says. “Af­ter writ­ing the book, I have a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion for awk­ward peo­ple.”

Au­thor Ty Tashiro

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