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On Awkwardness and Terrible Social Interactions

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Have you ever wondered if “awkward” came from “awful”? Well, it’s not, because there’s also “awesome”.

As a member of the tech community at a tech school, I’ve learned and mastered the concept of “awkwardness” in the past 2.5 years of college. I consider it as a way of sacrifice for all the “awesome” knowledge that I’m gaining.

Before college, I didn’t know what “awkward” meant. Was I awkward? Probably: I’ve mispronounced hundreds of english words, and pronounced words when I wasn’t supposed to, such as dropping the F-bomb without knowing what it meant (in 4th grade). Or asking my gaybestfriend out because I thought he “used to” be gay, but no longer. Well, that was awkward. But no, it wasn’t, because I didn’t know what “awkward” was.

Though, not everyone from a tech school is awkward. (There are many socially capable young people as well.)

I want to be clear, that there is the “normal” person’s idea of “awkward”, and then there’s the awkward person’s idea of “awkward”.

The Normal view:

Normal awkwardnesses are the ones made famous by the awkward penguin. Simple because they have been filtered by a large population which makes the popular ones more representable. That includes situations like (courtesy of Awkward Penguin)

  • Watching a movie with your dad, sex scene’
  • Singing out loud with headphone in the study room,
  • Nobody thinks your joke is funny and silence fills the room all of a sudden,
  • … and many more

But these are just the commonly accepted awkward situations. However, awkward people takes “awkwardness” to a whole new level. Here are some examples:

  • 3 seconds of silence with your close friend or 1 second of eye contact when neither of you has anything to say.
  • After working/coding/p-setting for a long period of time, your mind is still stuck in problem-solving mode, someone asks you “how are you”, and you get stuck because you realized that there really isn’t a good way to answer that question. I could say I’m good, but I’m not, and that’s lying, and that’s awkward. I could say I’m not, but that’s just awkward too.
  • Informally given a return offer from your boss. Thinks to self: JUST WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO SAY  NOW? There’s really nothing you can say to avoid awkwardness, unless you are good at acting. No wonder this is all done via email nowadays.
  • Saying goodbye to people when leaving a job/internship. How the heck do you do it without making it awkward?
  • Hugging one of the person you are parting with, but not the other one, or hesitate and then decide not to give them a hug. At least you are parting with them. It could be worse.
  • … and many many more

So I’m going to officially diagnose myself with awkwardness when I’m in problem-solving mode. I don’t think I should engage in any synchronous conversation, unless there is a technical problem, period. Conversations are hard. Required to synchronize with other people’s social intentions is even harder.

But really, I wonder if we were never introduced with the idea of “awkwardness”, would we still be so conscious of it all the time? If we were never told that there is an elephant in the room, would we still notice it? I found that if I just believe that things aren’t awkward, if I pretend to be an airhead and not care about my effect on anyone, I can forget about it. Then three seconds later, the awkward devil knocks on my door again.

A couple tricks to avoid temporary awkwardness: focus and ask questions.

Focus: Often we think socializing is easy, because it couldn’t possibly be harder than setting up databases or writing simple scripts. We dismiss the preparation necessary to be a good socializer. In reality, we need to seriously switch gear. (It’s easy for some people because they are never in the programming-mode.) Take a deep breath, really think about the impression you want to make and your attitude (that’s not lethargic or apathetic), and then make your first move.

It’s like when we prepare ourselves for career fairs and behavioral interviews. We need to get pumped. Remembering back to career-fair day, I was not in my average mindset.

Ask questions: If they asks you “how are you”, and you aren’t prepared, just say “how are you!!??” back. Then simply wish that they are prepared to answer the question.

I know this takes a lot of brain power. After a long day of work/study, I often give up on trying.

So to conclude,

Social interaction is hard, it’s as hard as doing calculations and problem solving. It takes practices to get better. It also takes a conscious choice to switch-gear often for those of us that work too much.

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2 thoughts on “On Awkwardness and Terrible Social Interactions

  1. How to not be awkward? Practice.

    Or just accept that you’re awkward and roll with it, using it to your advantage. As a fellow awkwardite, I’ve embraced awkwardness as part of my identity and it’s been great. Being able to laugh at yourself works wonders 🙂

  2. a really fun read : ) a few questions: so what is the reason behind the awkwardness? I mean what does it mean to feel awkward anyways? Is it just unease that something is not going smoothly? I could see how communication takes practice, to hone the skills to be expressive and engaging — I guess that ties into the focus part you mentioned. On the other hand, small talks are boring and when there is no real need to communicate, why waste the time? (I really don’t like how are you type questions…)

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