Have you ever said "bye" to someone only to realize that they're headed the same way as you? Awkward right? It's because this situation goes against the social norm. After we say "bye" to someone, we're supposed to go our separate ways; however, when that pattern breaks, we don't know how to respond.
This is the problem with socially awkward people. They break social patterns and, consequently, we don't know how to respond. I explain here why people act this way. But are they destined to stay this way? I personally don't think so. While socially awkward people will perhaps never be the life of a party, I do believe they can change.
From my perspective, the ability to socialize is not a gift we receive but a skill we develop. I'm sure some individuals are born with a greater capacity to socialize, but anyone can learn social skills. How so? Here are a few suggestions
1) Constant Social Interactions
Malcom Gladwell argues that the key to achieving success in any skill is to put over 10,000 hours into that skill. Therefore, if socializing is a skill, we need to put a lot of hours into it. The problem though is that socially awkward people tend to isolate themselves. They'd rather spend time playing World of Warcraft or watching the latest episode of Naruto. Consequently, they're not putting in the hours to learn how to socialize.
But it's through constant social interactions that we familiarize ourselves with social norms. We learn what topics interest others and what topics interest only ourselves. We learn the difference between appropriate touch and inappropriate touch. We learn how to carry a conversation and when it's time to end one. It may seem counter-intuitive to encourage socially awkward people to socialize with others - after all, aren't they awkward? But, as we learn from Gladwell's "10,000 Hour Rule," this is the only way a skill can be developed.
2) A Diversity of Influences
I mentioned last week that socially awkward people tend to only see the world through their own eyes. This is why they don't know how others interpret their actions. But why do they see the world this way? My guess is that if you saw their DVD collection, it'd be filled with only one type of genre (e.g. Anime) or if you met their friends, they'd all be cut from the same mold. In other words, socially awkward people tend to see things from a limited perspective because their influences are so limited.
The world though is filled with diversity. The best way then to participate in such a world is to include diversity into our own lives. This is why people who travel, who are well-read, & who have a variety of friends tend to be the most well-rounded individuals. They know how to see things from a different perspective & how to interact with all kinds of people. As C.S. Lewis argues, such people are trained to see the world through a "myriad of eyes." Socially awkward people need to be influenced by such diversity or they'll not know how to respond to anything/anybody different from them.
This one is tough but crucial: The more self-aware an individual is, the less awkward they become. This takes an understanding who you are (e.g. strengths and weaknesses) and being comfortable with it. Once you learn this, you can interact with others better.
Ex: Before when people would ask me why I'm not talking much, I'd just shrug and say, "I don't know" and it'd get all quiet & awkward. However when people ask me now, I usually tell them, "Yeah I know - I'm pretty introverted" and they'd reply how they're an extrovert and our conversation would move on towards our Myers Briggs. The point is that as I've grown to know myself more, my social skills coincidentally increased.
4) Vocal Individuals
If a guy talks to a girl and then, out of nowhere, gives her a creepy shoulder massage, she'll likely give her friends a nervous glance and slowly walk away. In the mean time, this awkward guy won't think much of that incident and continue his rampage onto the next girl he encounters. But it's moments like these that individuals need to say something.
The problem though is that we tell people they're awkward in a way far too general for them to understand. If we see someone doing something weird and all we say is, "You're awkward" - they just won't get it. We have to be much more specific. And we can't wait until later to sit down with them one-on-one & list all the ways they've been awkward. I've tried that before. It just doesn't work.
From my experience, the best thing we can do is say something to them immediately after they do something awkward. Ex: If you see someone laugh at a joke 30-seconds longer than everyone else, we should tell them right then and there, "Hey hey - calm down. That's too long." They may not change right after that, but if you keep letting them know that this specific action makes people feel strange, they'll more likely make the connection. You may feel like you're being mean, but see it as your small way of helping them find a future wife.
At the end of the day though, a person overcomes social awkwardness by not only seeing that they're awkward but also by seeing they need to change. And this requires a lot of humility. I mean, who wants to admit they're socially awkward? Who wants to see themselves as being socially unacceptable? It's so much easier to ignore it or to just push everyone away.
But people have to realize this if they hope to change. And they can't just admit that their behavior is awkward - they need to see that something is going on inside their hearts that's producing this awkwardness. Maybe it's pride dwelling in them that makes them project themselves in a distorted way. Or maybe there's pain hidden in them that makes them want to be heard. Something is going on and their awkward behavior is likely just a symptom of the true disease.
Why do I feel aware of all this? Because looking back, I was a pretty awkward kid. But praise God for places that forced me to socialize, friends who were vocal about my strange habits, and grace that convicted me to change. By no means am I now Mr. Smooth, but I think I've grown socially - and this self-reflection makes me believe others can too.