My friend Peter gave a long comment in response to last week’s post about social awkwardness and I really appreciated both its length and insight – so I’m posting it as a blog post as well as leaving it in the comment to my other post. Hope that’s okay Peter!
Sorry for the delay, I’ve been thinking about this off and on a few days. Perhaps I can light a small candle upon this confusing sight, since I am both “that guy” and preternaturally articulate. My theory may be wingnutty, so discontinue use if irritation or contradiction occurs. Do not mix with ammonia.
These people continue to get social signals wrong because socially awkward adults are treated differently than socially awkward youngsters. If an adult violates a social norm, they do not get corrective feedback – they get social punishment without explanation. Well, sometimes they get an explanation, but it’s usually so coated in rage or derision that there’s no practical way to extract a lesson from it. I strongly suspect that well-adjusted adults do not have a well organized dialectic concerning normative behaviour, and that the less critical the behaviour is seen to be, the less it is able to be discussed. Almost anyone can discuss rationally the pros and cons of taking things that are not yours, few can discuss rationally whether that lifting of the left side of the mouth means you should move back half a pace or hold out your hand.
Imagine on a fine summer eve, you’re waiting in line to grab two beer while B grabs a table. Doofus beside you says, “Hey, odd shoulder posture you’ve got there, do you play fiddle too?” Nobody would be horrified if you replied “Yeah, I’ve NEVER played at this bar before, and you’ve never seen me on stage. Worst.Line.Ever.” followed by a withering stare, and then a lifted nose.* But what is Doofus McGone’s take-home from this in terms of how to correct and improve his small talk skills? He’s been in Van for five weeks, just asked a brilliant icebreaker question (demonstrating that he’s paying attention to more than your cleavage), and he gets a serious smackdown that shows he has done something wrong, but what? The didactic value is zero.**
Every time we say, “It’s not my job to teach people this stuff” when confronted by it, we worsen the problem. Years of therapy have shown me that social skills -can- be learned, but $LC_DEITY abandon(), it’s really hard. Really. I still suck at it, and nobody’s ever accused me of being unable to learn. If someone’s a bit behind everyone else by the time they’re perceived as an adult and lacks coherent ways of learning more, they’re fighting an uphill battle for the rest of their lives.
These men, by and large, KNOW their clumsy feet are not the impediment. What they do know is, they do small talk wrong. They’re too direct, or too obtuse, but nobody tells them which. They hold eye contact for too long or not long enough, but there’s no genuine feedback as to which it is. They stand far away from someone, they don’t keep that person’s interest. They stand closer, that person gets creeped out. Every single aspect of social convention which you (and other well adjusted adults) take for granted, such as vocal volume, ma-ai, glancing away, not asking about your dead cat… they have doubt about. The death march stare is not for you, it’s for the ten thousand women who walked away rather than say “Please give me some elbow room”.
Kudos for trying to demonstrate (practice) that socialized people engage in small talk. If you can think of a way to tell them you’d rather they engaged in small talk poorly than not at all, do so. But be prepared for bad conversation that upsets you in ways you find hard to articulate, and be prepared to do the hard work required to articulate exactly what it is that upset you. Saying “shut up” if they blunder socially just exacerbates the problem for the next lady they dance with.
* this is not meant to be a realistic portrayal of you.
** “The didactic value is zero” sounds like it could be a line from a Primus piece. But I wrote it here, first. Fact.
*** Captcha: niftiest while