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Awkward? We’d better own it

We live in a golden age of awkwardness. Or so we’re told, by everyone from The Washington Post to Modern Dog Magazine. But we always have. A 1929 Life Magazine contributor writes, “These are awkward times, and I sympathize with the teashop waitress who approached a customer from behind and said brightly, ‘Anything more sir, I mean madam; I beg your pardon sir.’” What’s new isn’t awkwardness itself, but our upbeat attitude towards it; headlines tell us that post-Covid, “We’re all socially awkward now,” and public health campaigns urge us to “embrace the awkward” and talk openly about issues like mental health. But while reducing the stigma around mental health, addiction, and other issues is a good thing, we should be wary of our tendency to embrace awkwardness—or at least, we should be aware of the way in which we selectively celebrate awkwardness, and who gets left out of the embrace.

The idea that being socially awkward is a personality trait—and a sign of superior intelligence—has become a mainstay of writing about the (predominantly white and male) worlds of tech and finance. From Mark Zuckerberg to the recently disgraced Sam Bankman-Fried, the socially awkward genius is a familiar figure in the news these days. It’s found in fiction, too: Sherlock Holmes, even our beloved Mr Darcy. In these men, awkwardness is seen as not only excusable, but laudable—the true genius can’t be bothered with social niceties; he doesn’t notice such things. But this stereotype rests on a misconception about where awkwardness originates. In fact, people aren’t awkward—situations are. And one reason situations become awkward is because of individuals’ willingness to disregard others’ social cues, needs, and feelings. The myth of the awkward misfit is harmful when it’s used to license antisocial behavior, but it’s also used to exclude and stigmatize the neurodivergent, the disabled, and other marginalized groups.

That’s not to discount the fact that some people have more difficulty than others at detecting social cues; these individuals may feel, and be perceived as, awkward. But when we label people “awkward,” we attribute the problem to them, rather than to our failure to make social expectations clear. Programs like Rochester Institute of Technology’s Career Ready Bootcamp train autistic students in the so-called “soft skills” needed to succeed in job interviews and the workplace—skills such as where to look while talking (between the eyes, as a substitute for eye contact) and how to interpret and respond to open-ended questions (like “tell me something about yourself”). But this shouldn’t be a one-way process: employers can make interviews more accommodating, too, by asking more specific questions, or de-emphasizing the roles of small talk and considerations of whether a candidate will be a good “fit” in hiring decisions. 

Indeed, the emphasis on awkwardness as a personality trait disproportionately burdens people who don’t conform, for various reasons, to our social norms regarding speech patterns, eye contact, or body type. It’s no coincidence that the “geniuses” I mentioned above are all relatively affluent, successful white men. When we see awkwardness as a property of individuals, our choice about whether or not to accept or even celebrate it intersects with other forms of bias and prejudice.

Our cultural assumptions about awkwardness put women at a double disadvantage. Whether in the workplace or at home, women are disproportionately tasked with “emotion work” like facilitating social interactions, smoothing over social discomfort, and managing others’ feelings. When conversations get uncomfortable, it’s women’s work to repair them. On the other hand, we stigmatize conversations about salaries, periods, postpartum bodies, etc., and these conversations are bound to get uncomfortable. More problematically, we’re prone to see that awkwardness as caused by the person who brings them up, and not by the social norms or stigma around the issues themselves. Our fear of being perceived as awkward, or of being seen as “making things awkward,” can function as a form of silencing, suppressing conversations about important issues like salary gaps, menopause, and microaggressions.

I’m not saying that the desire to embrace awkwardness, and to celebrate self-proclaimed awkward people, is a bad thing. Our fear of awkwardness and our desire to avoid awkward encounters is real, and we would be better off, in many cases, if we got more comfortable with discomfort. But all too often, we treat powerful people as if they’re immune from social expectations, tolerating or even celebrating their disregard for social norms as a sign of intelligence. 

As long as we embrace or celebrate awkwardness as an individual trait, we risk embracing a solution that reproduces existing social biases and inequality. The intersection of awkwardness, gender, and status empowers some to disregard social conventions, while using those same conventions to keep others quiet. 

What’s the alternative? First, we should be aware that awkwardness is a product of all of our discomfort with certain topics. It’s not something individuals cause or have. It’s the result of insufficient or inadequate social guidance for how to handle an issue. Second, where we do feel uncomfortable talking about issues, we should take that as an indication and an opportunity to improve our social infrastructure, clunky and odd as that process may seem. For example, many professors now ask students to share their pronouns on the first day of class. For some older faculty, this process may feel awkward. Over time, it becomes less so. And often, avoiding awkwardness comes at the expense of someone else’s discomfort: for example, the students who faced the choice between being the only ones to share pronouns or being consistently misgendered. The work of discussing menopause or menstruation should be shared by everyone—not left to women. New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ recent press conference discussing menopause and women’s orgasms may have made many viewers (myself included) cringe, but it’s a step in the right direction. Making topics like sex, health, disability, and neurodiversity less awkward to discuss will take work, and that work shouldn’t selectively burden members of marginalized groups.

Finally, we should look for areas where our social cues may not be accessible to everyone, and make our expectations more explicit. And if, after all that, someone still seems to disregard others’ comfort and our social norms around workplace behavior? Maybe he’s not so awkward after all. Maybe he’s just a jerk.

Feature image by Campaign Creators via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Judy Lockwood

    A man discussing female orgasms in public is pervy unless he is a professional discussing research. It was quite appropriate that you felt uncomfortable.

  2. Graham Elliott

    When you write “we’d better own it”, do you mean ‘own’ in the sense of ‘acquire a proprietary relationship with’ or ‘take responsibility for’ or ‘have a share in’ or ‘claim’ or ‘attempt to determine the true value of’ or something else ? What do you actually mean when you ‘own’ a feeling or abstraction ?

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