Is awkward defined by the subject or the observer?

As an introverted child, I did a lot of people-watching. I noticed people who were boorish and didn’t notice others’ fake smiles and “oh look at the time!” exits. I saw people who droned on about disinteresting things and didn’t notice others’ eyes glazing over.

I was so scared about being one of those people, of not seeing and reading body language during a conversation, that I didn’t really talk much to people at all.

The adults in my family, and their friends who spent time at our house, cast judgment for sport. I heard what was wrong with any action or statement offered by anyone in their orbit, including the people who had been there last weekend.

That was my “normal,” and as such, I assumed for a long time that everyone was like that—friendly to your face, butcher you when you’re not in earshot.

This didn’t help my fear of interacting with people.

As I started to learn to interact with people—a distressing multi-decade task—I felt … awkward.

In my late 30s, I realized I was just an introvert (“just”) and that it was OK that making conversation with unfamiliar people didn’t come easy. This is me, I have many strengths, and that’s not one.

Throughout my 30s, I became more transparent about my experience, and through doing so learned that most of the time, I didn’t come across as awkward. I had a pair of colleagues who would give each other looks—thinking I didn’t see them—in response to things I’d say. Other than that, I haven’t had direct experience with people known to have my parents’ approach to interpersonal relationships.

Then I started to see people proclaiming their awkwardness everywhere.

They’re all people I have never perceived as awkward, even a little bit. I see them as genuine, true to themselves, and often engrossed by an interest: dancing, teaching, movies, reading, music, baseball, history. 

It’s not awkward—it’s animated and excited and uninhibited and wonderful, and we need more of it.

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