Socially awkward people have what science calls “spotlighted focus,” which means we have a rich inner life and are often lost in our own thoughts.
Hi, my name is Kyra, and I’m socially awkward.
I like to get that out of the way early because — let’s face it — things will probably get pretty weird from here.
Since I’m socially awkward, I’ve spent my life being uncool, saying dumb things, and generally not fitting in. As an introvert, socializing isn’t my favorite thing to begin with. But add on the countless cringey memories I have peppered throughout my past and it’s no wonder why I mostly keep to myself.
Being an introvert doesn’t necessarily mean you’re socially awkward, but the two do sometimes overlap. Certainly, as in my case, the fear of feeling anxious and awkward in social settings can cause us to lean into our introversion. And in a society that tends to favor extroverted personalities, having an introverted nature can make us feel awkward.
A Lifetime of Being Socially Awkward
For the majority of my life, I assumed that my social struggles were personal, subjective, and unique. Throughout my childhood, I’d watch other kids chatting with each other and marvel at their ease of being. How did everyone else have this specialized knowledge about making small talk, welcoming new friends, and avoiding public embarrassment? It was like I’d been absent from school on the day when everyone else had received the “Guidebook to Being Cool.” As I got older, I held out hope that if I could just get my hands on a copy, I would finally be able to figure it all out.
Much to my surprise, a few years ago during a trip to the library, my day finally came. Ty Tashiro’s book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome was sitting face-out on the self-help shelf. Reading the title, my heart skipped a beat. Could it be that this was the book I’d been waiting for?
In the following week, I raced through the chapters with reckless abandon, overcome with relief. While the book didn’t teach me how to get rid of my awkwardness, it did tell me that I’m not alone in being awkward, and it helped me understand some of the ways that my awkwardness could actually be considered a gift.
What Is Social Awkwardness?
The opposite of social awkwardness is “social fluency.” Socially fluent people are lucky enough to have the social interaction center of the brain set permanently to “on.” This means that whenever they encounter a person and begin a conversation, their brain is already primed for social interaction.
Not surprisingly, there’s a well-documented connection between social fluency and extroversion. In studies, extroverts (particularly in childhood) demonstrate a more seamless ability to communicate verbally in social settings than introverts.
By contrast, socially awkward people have the social interaction center of the brain set to “off.” While we can eventually activate this part of the brain (like when we enter a social situation), we’re always beginning from a cold start. Think of it like placing your keys in the ignition of a car that’s been sitting overnight in the snow. Sometimes the engine needs to turn over a few times before you can get it started.
All socially awkward people are familiar with this scenario:
Socially Awkward Person: “Hi, how are you?”
Socially Fluent Person: “I’m good thanks, how are you?”
Socially Awkward Person: “I’m good thanks, how are you?”
Socially Fluent Person: “You just asked me that.”
It’s a perfect example of how our brain needs a few minutes to catch up before being able to comfortably ease into conversation.
Is There a Purpose to Social Awkwardness?
Socially awkward people have what science describes as “spotlighted focus,” which means we have a rich inner life and spend lots of time thinking about the things that fascinate us. Most introverts can relate — we’d much rather dive into a great book and take time to examine all the thoughts and feelings it stirs within us than head out to a loud party.
While spotlighted focus doesn’t do much for our social lives, it does contribute greatly to society. Think about it: If everyone was built the same way, and we were all focused on interacting with each other, we would miss out on the kind of discoveries that can only be identified from outside existing systems and cultural practices. Socially awkward introverts are most at peace when we have plenty of time alone to recharge. It’s exactly this comfort with being on the outside looking in that makes us uniquely equipped to see patterns that people who are more tightly woven into the social fabric might overlook.
The fact is that it’s more difficult for the socially awkward among us to form friendships. Unlike our socially fluent peers, it takes a bit of digging to see the goldmine lying just beneath the surface of our nervous, social-anxiety-laced laughter (and in my case, snort-laughs; tell me I’m not alone here). But when people do choose to welcome us in, it’s my belief that socially awkward introverts make the best friends you will ever have. Here’s why.
Why Socially Awkward Introverts Make the Best Friends
1. They’re perceptive — all their thinking (and overthinking) comes in handy!
Introverts think… a lot. And since they are so accustomed to sitting on the fringes of social interactions and watching what’s taking place, they’re adept at identifying patterns and providing valuable insight. If you’re looking for a friend who can offer stellar advice that opens your mind to a brand new perspective, they’ve got you covered.
2. They’re sincere — they have no reason not to be.
Socially awkward people have no game. When you chat with them, they’re not posturing for popularity or strategizing to manipulate a particular social outcome. Instead, they speak from the heart and are honest about their feelings. Since socially awkward introverts are mostly content to be alone anyway, you can know that if they choose to spend time with you, it’s because they genuinely think you’re great.
3. They’re empathetic and care about how you feel.
Socially awkward people are painfully aware of how different they are (based on society’s standards, at least). Most of them have spent their entire lives being excluded and ridiculed. This makes them super empathetic to others in similar situations. Did you totally bomb at your big work pitch today? Did you say something dumb in front of a new love interest? With socially awkward friends, you can freely share your cringiest moments and be rest assured that you won’t be judged.
4. They know how to lighten up life’s tough moments.
Socially awkward people are so accustomed to life’s facepalm moments that they’ve cultivated an ability to find humor in just about anything. They know that a little self-deprecation can go a long way in dispelling a tense situation. They’ve experienced life’s low points and are uniquely equipped to help others find a smile during hard times. If you’re searching for a friend with a dark sense of humor who’s not afraid to be silly now and then, look no further than a socially awkward pal.
5. They’re intensely loyal.
When socially awkward people do finally find friends who “get” them, they’re fiercely loyal and protective of their friendships. Introverts tend to form deep bonds with the select number of friends they choose to bring into their circle, and the socially awkward among them further understand how rare and special it is to connect with someone who values what they bring to the table.
In the eternal words of the late music journalist/author/musician Lester Bangs, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone when you’re uncool.” If you want a ride-or-die homie who will stand by you through thick and thin, socially awkward friends are your best bet.
Bonus: How to Befriend a Socially Awkward Person
On my Instagram page, I have an ongoing series of Reels in which I explain complicated concepts using items I have laying around the house. Recently, I made one about social awkwardness, using a lit candle to represent a socially fluent person, and an unlit candle to represent a socially awkward one. As the lit candle seamlessly begins a conversation, the unlit candle fumbles with a lighter, panicking as it tries to ignite its social interaction brain center.
In the comments, one of my readers who is not socially awkward shared a kind insight that brought tears to my eyes: “Love this perspective,” she said. “We should have more grace and less judgment when we first meet (awkward people). Give them more space to warm up without pressuring the situation.”
Socially awkward introverts have so much to offer. We just need a little grace — a little time to get comfortable — before you’ll be able to see what’s so special about us. Just give us some understanding and allow us to warm up, fumble a bit, and get back on track.
And if you’re a socially awkward introvert, why not try extending that grace to yourself? Rather than criticizing yourself for every social transgression, take a deep breath and remind yourself that your brain just needs a minute to warm up. Remember that you have a great many gifts lying just beneath the surface, and that those around you are lucky to have access to them. Then, if you’re up for it, throw in a good old-fashioned snort-laugh on my behalf. At least we’ll be reminded of the fact that we’re not alone.
Follow me on Instagram, @kyra_evans_writer, for more insight on social awkwardness, introversion, and healing from self-criticism.