Being Awkward vs. Being Shy

I am not shy, as most people who get to know me soon realize. I am, however, something of an introvert and selective when it comes to interactions. If I am interested in a person or a topic, it's easy to recognize that I overcome any social anxiety and engage. I narrowly focus, though, often to the point of ignoring other people or social niceties.

If I'm talking about anything of interest to me, I am consumed by that topic at that moment. Nothing else registers.

Yes, I like to hide in corners and avoid crowds. But, that does not mean I am shy — it means I know my limitations and how uncomfortable I can make people. I can be intense when discussing my interests, so it is often best not to talk to anyone in a new setting.

I find it safest to avoid public gatherings and group situations; they are seldom enjoyable or of interest to me. When they are of interest to me, I don't navigate the social aspects well at all. I miss the non-verbal signals of when to move on, when to stop talking — and when to leave.

You might describe me as socially awkward. Great on stage, good teaching a class with a clear structure, but lousy one-on-one or in smaller groups.

As I write this, I am preparing an outline for a conference paper on collaboration. The challenge in school and at work for autistic students is that groups are inherently social. Whether the autistic is shy or socially awkward, the results are similar: you remain an outsider.

I recall studies that suggest autistics respond micro and milliseconds slower to some social cues. A mere half-second or less can make others in a group extremely uncomfortable. It's hard to imagine, but humans respond instantaneously to each other. Raise an eyebrow, lower your voice, flinch a muscle, and people react. Micro-expressions are real, and often analyzed unconsciously. What happens when your mind doesn't process the micro-events at standard speed? Other people sense you are awkward, even if they cannot explain why.

I'm awkward. That's why I avoid many situations. This leads to people assuming I am anti-social, asocial, or have severe social anxiety. But, none of that is accurate. I'm not shy, and I don't have social anxiety or I couldn't speak in public as often as I do.

When you are awkward and know it, you simply try to avoid situations in which that awkwardness is impossible to ignore. And yet, my impulse to engage some topics of interest means I often forget the safety of sitting in corners or standing on the margins of gatherings.

Humans don't realize how much conversations and relationships are either entirely non-verbal or based on the moments between the words, the pacing of our interactions. Consciously, you might not be able to explain why someone makes you uncomfortable, but you know something about how that person interacts seems "weird" or "off" in some way. That's me… the awkward person with whom you don't really want to be forced to spend hours.

Knowing this, I know (sometimes) to stay home when I'm too tired to consciously monitor my interactions. When I forget, I also have a wife who can tell me when it is a good day to stay away from people.

Those awkward days are days best spent writing alone.


  1. I am the same. I teach math and English in one school in Japan. Every year I am the extrovert on stage for the Christmas play, I'm the only one capable, yet one on one I am terribly hard to have a conversation with. I can't even eat in front of people outside of my immediate family. I have ASD, mostly adhd and aspergers, and yet, on stage, people turn to me to sort out the situation, and present the show.


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