Tashiro, Ty. Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. New York: William Morrow, 2017. Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 here.
When it is appropriate, most people like being seen. Seen for who they are, for what they contribute, and for their creativity. Appropriateness depends on the context. In contexts of trust and support, people tend to like to be noticed and supported. This seems obvious. And, in many situations, people do not experience being seen. They are disconnected from others in those contexts. Recent global surveys seem to indicate that where people spend most of their time, at work, is one of those contexts where many people experience not being seen. What is the cost to creativity, to innovation, to organizational resilience and impacts when people are not seen?
To experience being seen, someone else has to be doing the seeing. What capacities are required for this seeing of another? What happens when people lack these capacities or fail to use them in specific contexts, like at work? In his recent book on awkwardness, psychologist Ty Tashiro explores the world of empathy, those who lack capacities for seeing another, and how the particular ways that they look at the world bring other gifts.
The World of Empathy. “Empathy is defined as the ability to understand another person’s emotional state and to deliver an appropriate response” (p71). To be seen is to be in relationship, a basic need of humans. Research finds that “humans’ psychological drive to maintain a few gratifying relationships was as fundamental as physical needs such as food and water…When we satiate our need to belong we feel a surge of positive emotion…The strongest predictor of happiness is not our job, income, or attaining our fitness goals, but rather the presence of gratifying social relationships…People with gratifying interpersonal relationships have better physical health and longer life expectancies” (pp9-10).
Specific contexts, and the ways that we agree to enter them, are making many of us more awkward. That we are always plugged into our devices, completely oblivious to what is happening around us, we become socially awkward, in a high percentage of the interactions we have with others.
The Costs of Empathic Inaccuracy. Empathic accuracy is the agreement between (a) what you think another person is thinking and feeling and (b) what they are actually thinking and feeling. How well are you perceiving what is actually happening in the other person? This is a critical capacity for being able to interact with others, to seeing and inviting their unique contributions, to being able to collaborate on creating something unique together. The lack of empathic accuracy leads to the costs of empathic inaccuracy. When we ignore others or talk at them, we have no idea what is actually happening inside of them. When this happens, none of their FREEE energy is being engaged towards the purpose we are inviting them into. Despite the obviousness of this, most people in most processes in most interactions seem not to do this. It requires curiosity, inquiring into the other, which most people, especially at work, seem not to do. The costs of this are huge. The potential energy that is always there does not engage. People get exhausted, contributing nothing. The lack of innovation and learning decreases resilience and increases the likelihood of becoming obsolete. The problem, and the resulting costs, do not seem to be a problem with the individuals, per se, rather with the ways people consciously choose or unconsciously accept to interact–the rules of the game, the agreements field they interact in with others. This is the good news, because we can agree to change our agreements much more easily than we can agree to change the basic nature of who we are and how we function as individuals.
Other Gifts. While social awkwardness seems to be increasing rapidly, and its costs are huge, we should not be too quick to judge all awkwardness. Some types of awkwardness bring other skills. “If you think about the vibe that characterizes your interactions with awkward people, there is often an agitated energy that underlies the interaction, which can make them appear nervous, irritated, or generally upset. But if you view the awkward person as someone who is experiencing the interaction as particularly intense, then the unusual vibe they give off starts to make more sense…Avoiding eye contact helps them avoid the strong emotional cues conveyed by faces and especially the eye region” (p75). This type of awkwardness results from a high capacity to focus, on very specific, reduced sets of information. One term for this is “localized processing style, which describes people who tend to narrowly focus on some of the trees rather than the entire forrest. When people are disposed to a localized processing style, they tend to create social narratives that feel fragmented and incomplete…Although awkward people are missing important social information that falls outside of their narrow aperture, what they do see is brilliantly illuminated and this gives them a deep nuanced perspective about things that no one else takes the time to notice. The parts of the world they can see are seen with remarkable clarity. They become experts in all things stage left and their clear, focused view on their specialized interests give them a unique view of that part of the world” (pp21-22).
Whether the social awkwardness we might experience in ourselves or in others is due to the way the person is or to the way we agree to interact, greater empathic accuracy can help us. More accurately interpreting what is happening in the other person’s thinking and feeling has great benefits in both cases, and it greatly reduces the costs of empathic inaccuracy. It is a choice.