Review: Awkward by Ty Tashiro

We think of awkwardness as something to make fun of, or maybe something to pity. It makes us uncomfortable.  This book looks at awkwardness in a different way, explaining what it is, why some of us have it, and how we can deal with it.  This book was really interesting because it explained a lot of the things I’ve often struggled with.  It’s not a cure and it doesn’t have easy answers, but it does provide a helpful framework for thinking about what awkwardness is and what it is not.

Tashiro’s basic theory is this: individuals who have more of a big-picture perspective will see and understand the social interactions around them.  In contrast, those who are awkward tend to have more focus on specific things, and therefore those individuals never develop a good understanding of social interactions.

When non-awkward people walk into a room full of people, they naturally see the big social picture. They intuitively understand things like the emotional tone in the room or how formally they should act. By comparison, awkward people tend to see social situations in a fragmented way. It’s as if they see the world with a narrow spotlight that makes it hard to see the big social picture all at once, but their spotlighted view means that they see some things with an intense clarity.

Tashiro gives an example I found helpful: say you’re watching a production of The Lion King.  Are you seeing the stage and the story as a whole, or are you thinking more about how they got those costumes or the stage effects to work?  Having seen The Lion King recently, I’m definitely in the latter category.

I’ve studied how children develop language, and Tashiro’s theory seems consistent with that.  Children absorb language by listening to those around them.  The more language a child hears, the more they have a sense of how words work (e.g., how sentences are put together), until at some point the use of language becomes mostly intuitive.  Tashiro’s theory of awkwardness is similar – the child who’s absorbing the interactions around them will come to develop an understanding of social expectations, while the child focused on a book or the stars or whatever captures their attention will miss out on some of that understanding.

Tashiro frames this book in three parts.  The first is about the consequences of awkwardness, and how to help a child improve his/her social understanding. The second looks at how our awkwardness as a society may be getting worse because of technology and changing social expectations.  The third is about the particular gifts of the awkward, and how those can be valued rather than diminished.

While awkward moments are sometimes uproariously funny, chronic awkwardness can threaten one’s social inclusion and there are few things more troubling than feeling that one is on the outside looking in.

He provides an interesting discussion of what awkwardness is NOT.  It’s not a spectrum disorder like autism or Aspergers, although there are some similiarities.  It’s not introvertedness, because someone can be introverted but still socially adept, or they can be extroverted and awkward.  It’s not the same as giftedness.  And it’s not even shyness. All these might be related but they aren’t the same.

I found the first part most useful, but also a bit difficult to read because it hit pretty close to home.  Tashiro describes the awkward in a way that describes how I feel perfectly: like there’s a guidebook out there on how to talk to people and I didn’t get it.   He talks about how the awkward have difficulty making conversation in four areas: extracting meaning from what others say, saying too much, not knowing what to say, and inadvertently being too blunt.  He also describes most awkward individuals as hyper-independent, those who struggle to lean on others.

It would be easy to say, that’s just how I am – but Tashiro emphasizes that there are negative consequences to being awkward because they may be perceived negatively by others, and he argues it’s important to make some effort to conform to societal expectations.  He explains why manners matter, and how they can be learned, even if we’re never completely comfortable with them.

He does emphasize that the awkward have strengths, and these should be supported. He poses the question: if you gave a child the choice between intense focus and social popularity, which would they choose?  What would I have chosen?  Since choosing isn’t an option, he suggests some middle grounds that I think would be very helpful for parents.

His parents did not try to reduce his impulses or energy, but rather thought about channeling his energy into generative outlets. They laid out clear expectations, gave him a sound rationale for their rules and routines, and they were fair about enforcing these expectations. Science was one outlet that they provided, but they also expected that he be open-minded about other subjects, and they wanted him to be active in at least one extracurricular activity of his choice.

I found the third part a little random – some of it useful, some of it (like the focus on dating and sex) not terribly useful at all.  I think the book really lost focus there.

If you are one of the non-awkward, I recommend reading this book because you would get a better understanding of the way many of us see the world differently.  And I think parents would really benefit from this book if they are concerned about their child’s social interaction.  I wish I’d known a lot of the things Tashiro writes about when I was growing up.

Tashiro’s approach sometimes seems a bit oversimplified, but the research is interesting and this is clearly a book that’s aimed more at non-academics.   At times this book  described me to a startling degree — other times not so much, but of course we’re all a mix of different characteristics and none of us can be put in simple boxes.  Tashiro isn’t suggesting we’re all one extreme or the other.  Overall I found this a fascinating read that helped me put my own strengths and weaknesses in perspective and also helped me to think about positive strategies for self-improvement. And maybe, the next time I say the completely wrong thing to someone, I won’t beat myself up quite so much.

Note: I read this book for the Read Harder 2018 challenge (a book on social science) and the Nonfiction Reads challenge.

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