“There’s huge cultural component to it—an anthropology of awkwardness.”

awkwardconversation2

“Awkward people see the world differently than non-awkward people,” Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and academic, writes in the opening pages of his new book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. But that argument doesn’t always hold water, especially when he uses himself as an example.

In one anecdote, Tashiro tells the mortifying story of his first awkward dance with a girl in junior high. As he fumbled with what to do with his hands and she “egregiously violated the conventional eighteen inches of distance” between their faces, the young Tashiro felt nervous and clumsy and unclear on what exactly he should be doing. Or in other words, what every single person on the planet has felt at some point in his or her life.

But that’s the subtle genius of Awkward. It treats awkwardness as a unique condition, and then explains it in a way that’s entirely universal. It’s like a book that argues that pizza is the best food, and insists only you and the author share that belief. Tashiro doesn’t spend much time trying to instruct readers on how to overcome their awkwardness. His central thesis seems to be, “You feel awkward sometimes? Me too! That’s why we’re so cool.”

We called Tashiro to talk about the deep insecurities and fear of public displays of stupidity that nobody else understands except he and I, and probably you. Just the three of us. Don’t tell anyone.

I was really impressed that you waited till page 49 to make your first Star Wars analogy.

[Laughs] It probably got edited out. I’m sure I tried to make it earlier.

I would have done it by page one.

Wow. That’s impressive.

I’m the first guy in any social situation to quote Ben Kenobi. Does that count as awkward?

Well, it’s probably quirky.

Because I don’t feel guilty about it. Is guilt necessary for true awkwardness?

It’s really about context. If you were a high school student and you were surrounded by meathead jocks who aren’t into Star Wars, then yeah it’s probably a little awkward. But if you’re anywhere else, I think you’re probably okay. It only gets awkward when people go into excruciating detail.

Like if I said, “I’m so stuffed, I’m like a Sarlacc after eating Boba Fett”?

Yeah, that would do it.

So how are you defining awkward? What’s the criteria?

Well, I like to compare it to the Old Norse roots of the word awkward, which is afgr. It means facing a different direction. I like that because it explains why awkward people would miss social cues or social concepts that everybody else seems to be picking up on. But it also opens up the possibility that sometimes they’re looking at something cool, or just looking at something in a different way. I like that as a broad definition, but you could also talk about the differences between awkward moments versus awkward people.

What is the difference?

Awkward moments turn out to be pretty easy to define in the psychological sense. They’re just deviations from minor social expectations. So, things like forgetting to zip your zipper, or getting spinach stuck between your front teeth. To be a truly awkward person, you have to go above and beyond that.

Give us an example.

About me?

Yeah. What was your most awkward moment? I’m talking top tier mortifying.

Oh geesh. There are so, so many.

The kind of story where even remembering it makes you a little queasy.

I’m having a panic attack just thinking about it. Okay, well, there’s one that sticks out in my mind. I was in middle school, not even a teenager yet, and we went to a family reunion at a Colorado resort. My cousins and I got on these bumper boats, and I guess I just got overzealous. I turned the steering wheel all the way it could go, and then I hit the accelerator all the way down, and I just started spinning in concentric circles for like five whole minutes.

That is a long time.

It felt like an hour. All the other kids, none of them really made fun of me, they were just staring, like “What is this guy doing?”

Couldn’t most awkwardness just be in our heads? We’re terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, but in most cases the reality isn’t nearly as bad as we think.

There’s huge cultural component to it. There’s actually an anthropology of awkwardness. [Laughs.] Well, kind of.

That’s not an actual science?

I kind of cobbled it together. But all the pieces are there. There’s an anthropologist, Mary Douglas, who wrote this great book in 1966 called Purity and Danger, about how social expectations evolved in hunter gatherer groups. It’s pretty interesting because for a lot of human history, for thousands of years, the average life expectancy was around 40 years old. The odds that you or your entire group would die of starvation were relatively high. You couldn’t have somebody slacking on the hunt or the gather. Deciding who you socialized with, who you spent your time with, was a life or death decision.

There isn’t that much at stake anymore.

Not even close. Etiquette and social expectations are kind of a brilliant survival instinct, because it provided an early alarm system for groups to detect people who weren’t pulling their weight or who might betray them to another group. Which is probably why we’re so sensitive even today to these small deviations.

That’s actually really fascinating. So when somebody does something awkward or embarrassing, it’s not that we really think it’s a big deal, but it’s something in our old brains warning us, “This guy is going to starve the tribe?”

That’s right.

Should we be trying to get past this? Worrying about awkwardness, or being judgey about other people’s awkwardness, is such a stupid waste of time.

I think there are simple fixes. When I first started getting the idea to do the book, I started by observing my awkward friends. These are great people who give a lot more than they take from the world, but I think if they could just skip the first five minutes of social interactions, they’d be okay. It’s just this minutiae of social life that trips them up.

Whenever I’m feeling awkward, it always manifests itself in the same way. What do I do with my hands?

Well sure.

Has anybody cracked that code yet? Where the hell do you put your hands? In your pockets? Nothing seems quite right.

There’ve been some studies where they tried to separate bodily movements, looking at awkward versus charming, so they could quantify it a little bit. I was at the MIT Media Lab a year or so ago, and I visited some of the robotics labs. They were struggling with some of these things, because they have data about what kind of human gestures are seen as endearing or engaging. Even something as simple as body lean was really tricky for them. I interacted with a robot who made pretty good eye contact, and it wasn’t creepy at all. But then the body lean still felt robotic.

Maybe that’s good advice for people struggling with awkwardness. “Try not to act like a robot.”

Sure, yeah, that’s a start. It’s all complicated. Maybe just think about 18 inches of personal space. That’s a good start. If you’re a space invader, that can be weird. First things first. Let’s get the spacing right.

Do you feel less awkward than you did before writing this book?

More than anything, I felt grateful. I was like, “Oh man, I’m really glad things worked out.” Cause if you made a bet on me at age five, you might have been like, “Hmm. I don’t know. That kid has some issues.” But if you take a look at the whole sum of my life, I’ve had great friends, great family, great relationships. I’ve been a nice guy, so I think that bailed me out of a lot of situations. I’ve come a long way.

You’re out there promoting this book, talking to lots of strangers. How’s that been?

It’s been okay.

Really? You’re a guy who identifies as awkward, and your job now involves talking with an endless stream of new people. Is that not uncomfortable?

Every time, I die on the inside a little bit.

Hahaha!

No, no, wait! I also enjoy it.

Too late!

No, you need to mention this. When I get to the end of talking to somebody new, I’m like, “I really enjoyed talking to this person. And I’m really grateful that they’re interested in talking to me.”

You’re just saying that.

No I’m not! But when I walk into it, I’m like, “This is hellish.” It can be real tough for me. But it’s interesting what happens I would say two-thirds of the time. As soon as I walk in for an interview, the other person says, “I’m so happy we can take it easy and relax, because I’m awkward too.”

There you go. We’re all awkward messes.

Recognizing that brings fluidity and comfort to any interaction. In their minds I think they’re like, “I can be real now.” And that leads to an interaction being so much cooler and genuine.

Maybe that’s how we should be beginning every conversation. “Nice to meet you. I’m extremely awkward and uncomfortable in my own skin.”

Exactly. You start with that level of honesty. I’ve wondered about that. I feel like I’ve got some magic here which I should bottle up. I don’t know if you’re a college basketball fan, but Geno Auriemma at UConn said this great thing. He was talking about how hard it can be to recruit purely enthusiastic kids, because the culture now is so much about being cool. I thought that was a great distinction. There’s so much pressure to be cool, and to have this polished presence on social media. This is what I love about awkward people.

They don’t give a shit about being cool?

They really don’t. Left to their own devices, awkward people just don’t care as much. They might have their moments in junior high and high school, or even into adulthood, when what other people think about them seems like it matters. But they get over it. They’re mostly like, “Screw it. I’m going to introduce myself to somebody with a Ben Kenobi line. That’s who I am.”

Right? How is that a wrong way to live?

They’re very enthusiastic, passionate people. And I hope this book reinforces that instinct, and reminds them to be unapologetic about who they are.

[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VICE Tonic.]