Why it’s awesome to be awkward | Ty Tashiro

Nerds are all the rage. They may be social misfits but ‘awkwards’ see detail in glorious Technicolour

A few years ago, “awkward” became the term du jour for the socially clumsy. When I looked at the number of people who Googled the question “Why am I so awkward?”, I saw a spike that remained consistent for five years. The sharp rise in people’s interest in awkwardness may partly reflect the trendiness of the word, but also that more people are feeling socially awkward and wonder why that might be the case.

Today, it’s cool to be a nerd. We can’t get enough of awkward physicists on television shows like The Big Bang Theory or awkward millennial sex scenes on Girls. When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened, fans proudly posted their cosplay photos on social media with self-aware hashtags like #awkward and #cantstop #wontstop.

Although I am encouraged by the growing freedom awkward people have to embrace their unique interests and identity as such, there remain significant challenges. While awkward moments are sometimes uproariously funny, chronic awkwardness can threaten one’s social inclusion and there are few things more troubling than feeling you are on the outside looking in.

The roots of the word “awkward” come from the Old Norse afgr, which means “facing the wrong way.” It is a useful and relatively benign term compared to some of the names kids call each other, but awkward people already know that they see the world differently from most people. What awkward people need is guidance on how to navigate the social world with their unique perspective.

The imagery inspired by afgr gives us a useful clue for developing a more functional definition of awkward people. Afgr suggests that these people are facing the wrong way, but I like to think that awkward people are simply looking elsewhere.

When non-awkward people walk into a room full of people, they see the big social picture. They intuitively understand 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 view the world with a narrow spotlight that means they see some things with intense clarity. It’s similar to what researchers Francesca Happe at King’s College London and Uta Frith at University College London call “localised processing”, when people narrowly focus on some of the trees rather than the entire forest.

This group tends to create social narratives that feel fragmented and incomplete. Happe, Frith and others have found that awkward people are more likely than non-awkward people to process information in a detail-oriented way, which means that they sometimes have trouble seeing the bigger picture.

But what they do see is brilliantly illuminated and this gives them a deep, nuanced perspective about things that no one else takes the time to notice. The parts of the world that they can see are seen with remarkable clarity. There is a tremendous upside that can come from a spotlighted view of the world.

Awkward people are not better than anyone else, they are simply different. Although they may have abilities or dispositions that give them great potential in some areas, awkward individuals are challenged by social situations that come naturally to most people. Awkward people do not deserve special treatment, but they can certainly benefit from some patience, an open-minded approach to their quirks, and support for the things they want to achieve in life. It’s the same thing that any of us want, awkward or not.

Awkward by Ty Tashiro, is published on 1 June by William Morrow, at £20. Buy a copy for £17 from bookshop.theguardian.com

Ty Tashiro

The GuardianTramp

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