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Why Are People Socially Awkward? Part 1

Socially awkward people. I know them. You know them. If you can't think of anyone, then you're probably one of them. 

I don't mean to bash them. I'm just acknowledging what most of us observe. He's that kid who doesn't know how to carry a conversation. He's that guy who's unaware of physical boundaries. She's that girl whose stares make you feel uncomfortable. So we tend to avoid them - or we keep the conversations very short. 

I see this because I've interacted with socially awkward people all the time as both a high school teacher & as a pastor. They're not bad or mean. They just struggle understanding social norms, which causes us to not know how to interact with them. And this makes me worried. I worry if they can keep a job. I worry if they're capable of finding a spouse. I worry if they'll have any friends outside of their iOS.

But before offering solutions, how do some people end up being socially awkward? I've thought about this for a long time and here are some concluding thoughts:

1. Lacking Empathy
Socially awkward people tend to not know how others experience them. If they did, they would stop caressing that girl's hair when saying hello. But they don't stop because they struggle to sense how the other person is feeling. In other words, their actions often have a different impact than intended because they often struggle to see things from another person's perspective.

Note: Notice that some people do things that are socially awkward, but they make it all better by saying, "Sorry, I'm being awkward." This shows that they know how their awkward actions made you feel (i.e. empathy). It's almost as if their awkward action was a joke and they're letting you in on it by apologizing. So they end up being funny - and thus socially acceptable.

2. Unaware of Social Environments
In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman mentions a study that observed how children would join other kids who were already playing a game like Tag or Foursquare. Typically, most newcomers would simply watch the kids play for a time, join in tentatively, and then slowly (but cautiously) become more assertive. However some kids would join in and immediately try to take the lead in the group or play the game differently. These kids ended up being rejected by everyone.

In other words, according to Goleman, socially awkward people fail to understand the social settings that they enter into. While popular kids first observe a group and then slowly try to connect with them, awkward kids push their way into a group and try to draw attention to themselves.

3. Self-Awareness Issues
Socially awkward people tend to either not be aware of themselves or are overly aware of themselves. The ones who are not aware of themselves become awkward because they think they're funny or they think can sing/dance, but they really can't. And we feel weird responding to their bravado. 

The ones who are overly self aware become awkward because they're not comfortable in their skin. They are so self-conscious of their speech, posture and facial expression because they think all eyes in the room are on them. So they talk nervously or make weird body movements. And this tends to freak people out a bit.

4. Conversational Skills
We all experience moments where our conversations with others don't flow, endure awkward pauses, or end abruptly. However, for socially awkward people, this tends to be the norm rather than the exception. At best, it's because they just lack the skill set to keep a conversation going. At worst, it's because they don't listen to the flow of a conversation or only want to speak about what interests them.

This make it really difficult for us to connect with them because we know what's bound to happen if we talk to them. 


5. Pride
Socially awkward people often get bullied as kids or rejected as adults, so they seem like humble victims. But in my experience, a lot of their social deficiencies seem rooted from pride. They want to be the center of attention so badly that it turns people off. They are so aware of themselves that it makes them act strange. They are so focused on being heard that they don't bother seeing how others are responding. 

In other words, people end up being socially awkward when they try to be something they're not - when they have a self-aggrandized image of themselves and want others to see it too.

I'm sure there are many other reasons why people end up being socially awkward (e.g. isolation, low EQ, etc.), but I chose to highlight what resonated most with me. And I feel I understand this because when I look back at myself when I was a young, awkward kid, I saw some of these features in me. How did I change? How can socially awkward people change? I'll address that next week.