What It Means To Be Socially Awkward & Why It Is Okay

September 28, 2022

Table of Contents

About The Editor
About The Editor

Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Sara Graff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Florida.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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Table of Contents

Social awkwardness can cause much distress for people. It creates uncomfortable situations and rejection and can lead to anxiety or depression. Learning more about what it means to be socially awkward is the first step to making change and improving social interactions.

What It Means To Be Socially Awkward

When someone is socially awkward, they often say and do inappropriate things in social situations, seem off or have trouble reading social cues. People may say things at the wrong time or behave oddly. Their interactions result in an awkward or uncomfortable situation for those involved. They may end up feeling rejected, self-conscious and uncomfortable in social situations because of these interactions or how other people treat them. 

Signs that indicate social awkwardness include:

  • Limited awareness of social expectations and norms
  • Difficulty navigating common social situations
  • May intensely focus on particular topics in conversations, such as those related to rules and order
  • Lacking natural rhythm and skills for social interactions
  • Feeling fearful or intimidated by talking to other people
  • Trouble finding the right words for a conversation
  • Making inappropriate jokes or telling jokes at the wrong time
  • Feeling anxious or nervous around social situations

Social Anxiety vs. Social Awkwardness

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a mental health disorder characterized by anxiety that develops around interacting with others in social situations. People with social anxiety disorder may:

  • Have a deep and pervasive fear of being seen, evaluated and judged by others
  • Fear not abiding by the expected social norms
  • Avoid or try to escape social situations

A person with SAD has extreme fear of doing something out of line with social norms and being judged for it. This causes anxiety, which keeps them from socializing.

A socially awkward person, in contrast, just may not be aware of social norms. They ignore social cues and other stimuli that guide interactions. They may feel uncomfortable and even anxious when the social situation results in rejection, awkwardness or lack of acceptance by the group.

A socially awkward person will go to the party, not recognize the social cues and say something out of context. Other people at the party may laugh, ignore or walk away from them. The ridicule or awkwardness that develops from socially awkwardness can lead to social anxiety disorder over time.

What Causes People To Be Socially Awkward

Different factors and life experiences can contribute to someone developing social awkwardness. It can happen from one circumstance or a combination of different factors. 

  • Personality characteristics: Some people have personality traits making them more likely to become socially awkward. A cautious and anxious personality style can cause people to become more sensitive to stimuli, avoid social situations and separate themselves from social groups. Because they separate themselves from group affairs, they may lack the opportunity to learn and practice social skills, resulting in awkwardness. 
  • Lack of Confidence: A lack of confidence can cause someone to feel shy, have weaker social skills and be hesitant to interact with others. Situations such as bullying, teasing and getting picked on can cause lifelong problems with low confidence, self-esteem and tremendous fear about social interactions. These problems can develop from repeated incidents, just a few, or even one major event. 
  • Trauma: Childhood trauma can significantly impact social development, which can cause someone to become socially awkward. Some abuse victims want to protect themselves from others, so they develop behaviors that push people away from them. They become increasingly socially awkward through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
  • Societal Influences: Some influences from modern society can cause someone to be more isolated, lack exposure to social norms and have less opportunity for social engagement. These include frequently moving, a severe illness that leads to isolation or isolative technology influences.
  • Mental Health and Developmental Issues: Certain symptoms from mental health and developmental disorders can lead to social delays, anxieties and interpersonal difficulties, including:
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities

ADHD and Social Awkwardness

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health disorder. A person with ADHD displays an ongoing pattern of inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity. They have problems functioning at work and school, and in relationships. Many symptoms associated with ADHD can lead to social awkwardness because people with ADHD may have poor social skills and appear unwilling to engage with others appropriately; other people may pull away from them. Some ADHD symptoms that lead to social awkwardness include:

  • Appearing to not listen to other people in a conversation
  • Trouble focusing or being easily distracted during a conversation
  • Fidgeting
  • Seeming to be always on the go
  • Restlessness 
  • Talking a lot
  • Blurting out answers and interrupting others
  • Difficulty waiting for their turn

Social Awkwardness and Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects someone’s interactions with others, communication, learning abilities and behaviors. Because of the symptoms and impairments, someone with ASD may have trouble understanding social norms and expectations, communicating and navigating social interactions. They may develop anxiety surrounding social situations, which can intensify the awkwardness. 

ASD has many similarities with social awkwardness, but it is not the same. While quite often, people with ASD seem socially awkward, the disorder encompasses far more than social awkwardness. ASD impairs someone’s ability to communicate. They may not: 

  • Understand how to communicate and lack appropriate communication skills. 
  • Know how to read other people’s social cues
  • Understand the concept of personal space. 

Some people with ASD engage in odd behaviors such as self-stimulation or even aggressive behavior, which can create awkward social situations.

Is Being Socially Awkward Linked With Intelligence?

People with higher intelligence, or gifted people, have common traits that can lead to social awkwardness. For example:

  • Intellectual excitability: many gifted people are very curious, ask many questions and may talk intensely about topics they find stimulating. They strive to satisfy their intellectual curiosity and needs. This trait may contribute to awkward social interactions with others and lead to inappropriate conversations in social settings.
  • Anxiety: gifted children may experience a higher level of anxiety. They often do not feel comfortable or safe engaging in social activities away from their parents. As a result, they may have limited exposure to age-appropriate social norms and expectations. 
  • Perfectionism and fear of failure: a fear of failure that may limit their desires for social interaction because they may fear failing at social interactions. This fear may lead someone to feel uncomfortable and seem socially awkward.
  • Finding peers: it can also be difficult for gifted people to find peers with similar higher intellectual functioning with whom they can socialize. They may not find people who can talk about their interests or stimulate them cognitively. It may lead to them withdrawing from others socially, speaking inappropriately to people or not having a peer group to learn about social norms.

Is Being Socially Awkward a Bad Thing?

While being socially awkward can be very difficult and stressful for people, it is not always a bad thing. The feelings present during social interaction can serve as a personal warning system to pay more attention to communication skills such as social cues, body language and tone of voice. A socially awkward person may miss social cues and won’t recognize the social norms in casual social conversations, but they can easily engage in interesting and deeper discussions. 

Many times, however, social awkwardness can lead to distress. People may develop increased anxiety or depression because of feeling rejected, judged and uncomfortable in social situations. They may isolate themselves from others to avoid social interactions and develop low self-esteem. When social awkwardness interferes with someone’s functioning or well-being, it is time to reach out and seek help.

How Therapy Can Help You Be Less Socially Awkward

Working with a therapist can help a socially awkward person process and work through anxiety, depression or self-esteem issues that may stem from their social awkwardness. Learning why these behaviors and feelings developed and can help someone be less socially awkward. Therapy can also teach communication and social skills to help increase comfort and confidence in social situations. 

If you, or someone you love, is socially awkward, consider using the Nobu app. Nobu can offer support and assistance in dealing with social awkwardness. You can access free mental health support, including learning coping skills, journaling prompts and goal setting. You can also connect to a mental health professional to help you during online therapy sessions. The app is available for download on the Apple Store and the Google Play Store.

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About The Editor
About The Editor

Theresa Valenzky graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Arts in News/Mass Media Communication and a certificate in psychology.

About The Writer
About The Writer

Sara Graff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in Florida.

About The Medical Reviewer
About The Medical Reviewer

Dr. Angela Phillips is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher.

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