Social graces come easily to some — and not so easily to others. The good news? There’s an upside to being awkward. In our latest podcast, Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., social scientist, TED speaker, and author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, tells Q Wunder creator Sofia Dickens why awkwardness can be an asset — and how to help an awkward child develop the social skills they may lack.


SD: What distinguishes those with the occasional awkward behavior from somebody who’s chronically awkward?

TT: If you think about what makes you feel awkward, they’re often really small moments, like saying the wrong thing. But some people have more awkward moments than others. We’ve found through studies that the brains of socially awkward people are organized a little differently. They have trouble processing some social cues that come naturally to others, like facial expressions or what’s expected in routine social situations like parties. This can make day-to-day life pretty stressful sometimes.


Yet there’s a silver lining to being awkward — it’s linked to extraordinary achievement, being gifted, and entrepreneurship. Why?

The awkward person really commits to whatever they’re doing. That overenthusiasm can make some people think you’re a little weird or nerdy, but there’s a bit of envy there too. Here’s this person who’s unapologetically passionate about the things they love. Awkward people channel that energy through the sharp focus that they tend to have, which allows them to engage in what psychologists call deliberate practice. Heard how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something? Persisting at a task is the best predictor of achieving extraordinary things.


You mention in the book that awkward people tend to focus more on the mouth and chin and miss out on important social cues that they would be getting if they were looking at the whole face.

Most people, when talking to somebody or trying to read their emotional state, reflexively look to the eye region, because the eyes are the most information rich part of the face. But awkward people tend to look at the chin or the corner of the ear, which are far less rich in social information. The reason they do that is that it dampens the emotional intensity of the situation. When they look someone in the eye, it’s almost like looking into the sun. It’s just too intense an experience, so they learn to avert their gaze from the eye region. That tempers the emotional intensity of the situation and can actually help them attend better to what the person is saying. Now, other people might think the awkward person is being disrespectful or is disinterested in what they’re saying, and that’s understandable, but in fact what the awkward person is trying to do is to create a situation where they can listen and be attentive.


You say you were awkward growing up. I was inspired by how your parents coached you when you arrived at a library or a birthday party and let you know what was expected of you. Tell us more about what they did.

Awkward kids are really responsive when you meet them first with, “Hey, I get your passion, and I’m going to support that, but let’s work on these other things too.” I was lucky that my parents allowed me to dive deep on the things I was really interested in, but also worked with me on developing my social skills. When I was 10 or 12, my parents would park the car at Wendy’s, for example, and say, “All right, Ty, it’s time to mentally prepare.” They’d say things like “When you walk in the door, what’s the first thing you need to look for?” It would take me awhile and then I’d say, “Oh, I need to see if there’s a line.” Sometimes I would cut the line, not because I was trying to cheat or get ahead — and this sounds wild to people who aren’t awkward — but because it didn’t register in my mind that the line was there. Having this mental preparation to recognize the line and get in the back, to get my order in mind and my money ready, to think about what I needed to say to the cashier to be polite — all of these things we had to review dozens of times for me to get the hang of them. I’m sure I wasn’t the most patient in these situations as a kid, but boy, as an adult, I am sure grateful that they were persistent in making sure I had these social skills going into adulthood.


For more on how to help awkward kids build social skills, including harnessing the power of the threes, download the Q Wunder app and listen to our latest podcast!

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