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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 April 2019

Feeling embarrassed? Meet the guy who wrote the book on why social awkwardness is actually awesome

Relationship expert Ty Tashiro tells us why the ‘eek’ doesn’t have to be bleak

Ty Tashiro, author of 'Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome'. Courtesy Brandi Nicole
Ty Tashiro, author of 'Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome'. Courtesy Brandi Nicole

I’m tempted to turn up for my interview with Ty Tashiro, author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, with some spinach in my teeth. Most people don’t seem to know how to react to such a social faux pas, but Tashiro, who has a PhD in psychology from the University of Minnesota, must have a better idea than most.

In the end, though, I decide it might just be too awkward. What if he doesn’t mention it? That would be even more awkward, right? What a minefield this life is.

So instead, I just ask him outright. Ty, what should you do if someone has spinach in their teeth? “Point it out,” he says without hesitation. “It’s a relief for everybody.” And he even has the science to back this up. “There have been studies on blushing, which show that when people blush after a social blunder, they are actually liked more than people who didn’t commit a social blunder at all. If it happens, you should feel blessed that you’ve done it.”

'Extra guts'

It is reassuring slices of information like these that have made Tashiro’s book so popular. Thousands of people turn up to hear him speak, something that Tashiro admits occasionally moves him to tears. “If someone is awkward and they showed up in the first place, that actually took some extra guts,” he says. “For people to share these emotions with me has been really cool.”

Part of the reason people feel comfortable doing this is because Tashiro is unflinching in his book about his own awkwardness. As a child, he was obsessed with baseball statistics and struggled to negotiate everyday social situations. He remembers his parents telling him that he should shake hands with a little more force. The next time he shook someone’s hand, he nearly pulled their arm off.

Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro. Courtesy HarperCollins
Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro. Courtesy HarperCollins

But slowly Tashiro managed to work things out. He is living proof that awkward people can be highly successful and sociable. This is why, for all the humour surrounding awkward moments, Tashiro is determined to celebrate the things that make people different. “My parents had this phrase I still like,” he says. “‘You need to learn to fit in without losing yourself.’”

One in five people feel awkward regularly

Tashiro estimates that about one in five people feel awkward on a regular basis, a figure that is only going to increase. In the US, he explains, the parameters of socially acceptable behaviour were historically dictated by religious institutions and a sense of patriotism. Today, people are looking elsewhere for guidance.

“I think that’s fine, maybe even a good thing, that people have more freedom,” he says, when we meet after his talk at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. “I’m all for multiculturalism and tolerance but it also means we have this awkward phase where we have to figure out how to actually connect with somebody who has different beliefs or has a different cultural perspective.”

If I'm awkward on Twitter, it's hundreds of people I've embarrassed myself in front of

Ty Tashiro

Added to this, social media has increased the potential for awkward moments and amplified the response when they occur. “If it’s you and me and I try too hard, I’m just awkward in front of you,” says Tashiro. “But if I’m awkward on Twitter, all of a sudden it’s hundreds of people I’ve embarrassed myself in front of.”

If changes in society and the ways we interact have ensured that awkward moments are more prevalent than ever before, the reasons we cringe at others and for ourselves go back millions of years. Our survival depended on being able to function as a group, so those who strayed from what was considered normal – or not awkward – were viewed with suspicion.

“If you think about sharing the kill or what has been gathered, you can see if someone is being selfish or trying to get away with something,” says Tashiro. “That’s why we have such a strong reaction to deviations. Humans have evolved this mental machinery to pick up on things that are not socially expected.”

A useful characteristic

That’s all well and good but it doesn’t sound too positive for awkward people today. Knowing that society views you with suspicion is unlikely to stop you tripping up the stairs or bungling a high five. Fortunately, Tashiro has some better news. The reason awkwardness was never eradicated through evolution is it can, for all its problems, also be an immensely useful characteristic.

“Let’s say the awkward person is obsessed with gathering food, they might stay out and forage longer,” he says. “They don’t need to talk as much, so all of a sudden this becomes positive for the group, even if it’s a bit odd in a purely social sense. That’s the bet groups made on awkward people. It was good to have a few of these folks around.”

The stakes are less high today, of course – whether or not you get your fair share of dinner probably won’t come down to how awkward you or the people around you are. “It was very Game of Thrones for thousands and thousands of years,” says Tashiro. “Now we have this luxury [in a time of abundance] to try and redefine how we relate to one another.”

I think it's good that people are just more candid now

Ty Tashiro

And in a strange inversion of the norm, awkwardness has actually become an almost aspirational quality. Look at popular television shows, such as The IT Crowd or The Big Bang Theory. The main characters are socially awkward nerds. Similarly, we adore Jennifer Lawrence for her goofy antics.

“When I was a teenager in the Eighties, if you’d told me that nerds would become cool one day, I’d have thought no way that’s going to happen,” says Tashiro. “I think it’s good that people are just more candid now, like, ‘Hey, I don’t know what to do in this situation, I’m feeling really uncomfortable.’

“A lot of us, whether we’re awkward or not, have these moments when we feel insecure and don’t know what to do. If we can just talk about that, what a better direction to go in than trying to come off as an all-knowing person.”

Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro is out now, published by HarperCollins

Updated: March 30, 2019 05:18 PM

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