Awkwardness has never seemed like something to aspire to. The paralysing uncertainty of what to do at a party, the weird obsession with Dungeons and Dragons, the ill-considered fashion choices – exhibit any of these, and your social life is doomed.
But not anymore. Now, all you have to do is flip on your TV to witness the ascendancy of the bumbling antihero.
The Big Bang Theory, a show revolving around the lives of perhaps the most socially inept characters ever to populate a sitcom, is consistently the top show on television. Silicon Valley, a black comedy about neurotic coders and start-up culture, is a cult hit.
Now, there's Comic-Con, basically Coachella for nerds. Bachelorettes convene not at Chippendale's but at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
#MaytheFourthBeWithYou is a thing. And so is cosplay. And podcasts.
"It is," says psychologist and author Ty Tashiro, "the golden age of awkwardness."
And he's been waiting for it his whole life. Always socially awkward himself, Tashiro has become an evangelist for his kind, penning a book of research positing that there's an upside to all this nerding out, to the unemotional, hyper-focused qualities of people lacking in the social graces.
"Awkwardness is associated with striking talent," he says, because it's often coupled with obsessive drive.
The downsides, we're more familiar with: Offended friends and loved ones. A lifetime of embarrassing moments and misread cues.
An inexact science
Reading Tashiro's recent book, Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome, can be like trying to determine the source of a mystery rash by searching WebMD. Flipping through the anecdotes, the bar charts and the checklists, it's nearly impossible not to self-diagnose. You find yourself exhuming and examining a lifetime's worth of kale-in-teeth moments for evidence that you're not just unlucky but awkward.
Lots of people are secretly afraid that they might be, and chronically so. It's what makes Tashiro's premise so splashy.
Actually, the author thinks that only 15 per cent of the population qualifies for the designation. And even though he has studied awkwardness for years, he says that it's not always easy to recognise it from the outside.
Where's the line between a truly awkward person and that co-worker who can't walk into a meeting without tripping over a chair?
"It's kind of a sloppy answer," Tashiro says. "It's not a clean, 'This is definitely what awkward is.' "
"Some people are aloof. Some are more socially anxious. Some are really more spastic," he says. "The hard ones to pick out sometimes are the ones who have pretty good social skills, but they have this intense drive, so they get hyper-focused."
Basic common sense can elude the awkward. So can empathy and effortless banter.
But he does offer this: "If you have good social perceptions, you pick up on the absence of reactions, like when you say something you think is funny and no one else thinks it's funny, or you give a compliment and no one says thank you, because it's more of an insult."
A lifetime of training
In many ways Awkward, released last month, is a memoir, a reckoning with Tashiro's own backstory. It's packed with vignettes from the author's childhood, even as it loops in scientific studies and Darwinian theory.
As we settle into a banquette at a restaurant that doubles as a co-working space, others nod welcomingly at the author, whose previous book, about using a scientific approach to search for long-lasting love, was well received. Some stop by to exchange pleasantries. Tashiro is warm, unhampered by self-consciousness.
So, we ask pryingly, what exactly is so awkward about him?
"So many choices," he says, laughing as he ticks off a list.
Take his sweater and button-down shirt, finished off with a preppy tie. It's perfectly acceptable attire for a grown man and an academic. But he says that he has dressed like this, like a 40-something professor, since he was a child, starching his Oxford shirts while his classmates wore fire-engine-red Thriller jackets.
There's also the bull-in-a-china-shop way he seemed to move through the world; he couldn't even pour a glass of milk without disaster ensuing. There was the time, which he describes in the book, that he delivered Valentine's Day cards to his classmates, but only after he'd scratched out the word "Love" on every card and replaced it with a more honest, if slightly cold, "I Like You."
Tested for Asperger's and autism, Tashiro didn't meet the threshold. But he was decidedly different. (He believes that autistic characteristics, which include poor social skills, turn up in the general population all the time and that the awkward simply have more of them.)
His parents, high school teachers in the Boulder, Colorado, suburbs, were the ideal people to shepherd their son through what would prove to be not awkward years but an awkward couple of decades.
Among the things his parents told him was that social skills exist to make other people feel at ease. "Otherwise," they told him gently, "people might feel uncomfortable or that you're being rude."
It clicked. "I didn't want to be a jerk," he says now. As a psychologist, he's drawn to the idea of self-improvement. And so he improved, training himself out of his awkward tendencies.
It was only a few years ago, when an outgoing friend cornered him about her son, a mercurial little boy who struggled to fit in, that Tashiro recognised that he hadn't shed them all.
"Well, you're awkward," the friend told him pointedly as she asked for advice.
"I wasn't offended," he says now. "I was like, yes" – he sighs – "yes, I am."
When quirks become cool
Awkward people, Tashiro says, don't suffer from a lack of self-awareness. They just can't seem to help themselves.
"I've never met anybody," he says, "who doesn't deep-down know."
Ten pages into his book, I began to feel like I knew.
Before leaving, I share a story that I'm convinced marks me as awkward, something I'd said to a date that was so cringe-inducing that I still couldn't believe I'd done it. It was blunt, but not mean, innocent but completely thickheaded, tanking a warm moment and probably the whole budding relationship.
Tashiro breaks into a fit of laughter. "I love that," he says.
"You don't strike me as awkward," he adds, generously. "But that is quintessentially awkward."
Before he wrote Awkward, Tashiro, who is single, wondered whether lacking social graces affects a person's marriage prospects. But he's upbeat about what he found, including very happy marriages and that awkward people tend to be in longer-lasting relationships.
"If you don't think you can make those close connections that are essential for feeling like you belong, then a lot of things are going to go poorly," he says. "But I think we can have unrealistic expectations that we have to be wildly popular or be some kind of social-media star."
Our obsession with always being socially acceptable is unnecessary, he says. And, frankly, awkward people are thriving.
"Some of these quirks you have, some of these weird ways you see the world, that's going to manifest into something cool," Tashiro says.
"After writing the book, I have a deeper appreciation for awkward people."
The Washington Post