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The Science of the Socially Awkward Dad

And will post-pandemic life be painfully awkward?

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

The thought of socializing again after the world fully opens up post-COVID-19 is exciting for a lot of people. For many fathers, however, the thought of party invitations and office small talk after a year-plus absence feels absolutely chilling. Being an involved and visible dad can feel socially awkward and overanalyzed at the best of times. But after a year of private pandemic struggles, the shock of public parenting may be a lot for some to take.   

“If it hadn’t been the worst year of my life, this last year would probably have been the best year of my life,” says Nick (not his real name), a teacher and father of two in Vermont, whose wife filed for divorce in 2020. “The early drama of apocalyptic prepping strategies added real zest to life, but I will miss these days when I had a perfectly good excuse to not go to any parties, weddings, or really, anything I have to brace myself to tolerate.”  

While Nick’s inclination to avoid social awkwardness may have flourished too freely during quarantine, psychologists note it’s unlikely that people’s social skills will be impaired after the pandemic-inspired dormancy.

“People might be a little rusty, but it’s hard to say,” says Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., social scientist and the author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. “It’s not like we have well-controlled studies of this. We haven’t had a pandemic for a while.”

In attempting to predict how awkward post-pandemic life might be, it’s helpful to make a distinction between awkwardness in terms of social ability and actual social anxiety, or apprehension about social life, Tashiro says.  

“As far as social skills: Once lockdown ends, will we all be so awkward that we won’t be unable to comport ourselves appropriately? I don’t think so,” he continues. “The brain is so malleable, it will be like riding a bike. There will probably be a period of adjustment as we figure out ways to engage that feel appropriate and comfortable, but I’d be shocked if any rustiness or clumsiness people feel will continue long-term.”

There is reason to suspect, however, that men might have a harder time adjusting. Men are more genetically predisposed to social awkwardness than women; awkwardness is 52 percent heritable in boys but only 39 percent in girls, Tashiro notes.

“Because men are more likely to experience social awkwardness, it’s reasonable to expect dads to experience it more than mothers,” Tashiro says. “And it’s also likely that men could pass it along to their children.”

Decoding the Awkward Dad

In addition to a genetic predisposition for awkwardness, navigating the world as a dad tends to attract more attention than it does when mothers do because it’s — still — less expected. That subtle scrutiny can make some men feel awkward just doing ordinary things with their kids. 

Moms watching their children on the playground, for example, have an easier time than dads striking up a conversation with other moms, says Justin Lioi, a Brooklyn, New York, clinical social worker who specializes in treating men. Fathers might feel awkward in the same situation, he says, because they worry they won’t fit in or that their friendliness might be misconstrued as flirtation. Patrons at a coffee shop might stare, holding their breath, while watching a dad navigate his stroller inside the door, for another example, for fear he isn’t deft enough to manage it without his other child breaking free and running into the street. 

Eliciting such hyper-awareness can be awkward for dads, and popular culture hasn’t done much to challenge the perception that when it comes to relationships and child care, they’re likely to screw it up any minute. The doofus-dad trope has soldiered through the decades since “The Dick Van Dyke Show” in the 1960s, when Rob Petrie, a father and head writer of a comedy show, proved incapable of walking across his living room without tumbling over an ottoman.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of guys have anxiety in social situations because they grow up not learning how to have intimate relationships with other guys. “By the time they’re adults, there’s no reason to think they’ll suddenly be emotionally whole human beings who can relate to guys in intimate, meaningful ways,” Lioi says, “For many hetero men, their wives are their whole emotional life.”

The Awkward Brain

The way people born with a propensity for awkwardness see the world is fundamentally different, Tashiro says.

“Awkward people see the world in a spotlighted fashion,” he says. “Most people zero in on the main social cues and are adept at pulling up the social skills necessary to match the situation. 

Awkward people, he continues, don’t have that broad attention. “Their spotlighted focus tends to be on nonsocial aspects, so they miss social cues that are important to pay attention to,” Tashiro says.

One way researchers determined this was with an eye-tracking study. Subjects looked at images of people’s faces to see if they could accurately interpret emotions from facial expressions. Non-awkward subjects tended to look at people’s eyes, which are rich in social cues, Tashiro says, whereas the awkward trained their gazes at people’s chins. 

“So from the get-go, awkward people are not paying attention to important social cues,” Tashiro says. “And they’re therefore more likely to respond in ways that are a little off. Or off enough to create awkward moments.”

But unlike social anxiety, which can be debilitating, social awkwardness has significant upsides, Tashiro says. Awkward people’s concentrated focus makes them great at putting together pieces of a puzzle, whether an actual puzzle or scientific endeavor. That’s why the awkward tend to be overrepresented in the sciences, where their mastery of specific skills can be brought together to create an integrated whole, he says. 

“One of the reasons awkwardness is associated with giftedness is what researchers refer to as ‘striking talent,’ which is when someone achieves something sort of extraordinary or unusual for their field,” Tashiro says. 

One of the findings he loves to reference is a study that found the association between awkwardness and striking talent wasn’t explained by higher IQ.

“Rather, the relationship appears to be due to awkward people’s systematic way of looking at and understanding the world, and the persistence that comes along with it,” he says. “They’re able to put pieces together to understand a situation deeply.”

Awkwardness and Post-Pandemic Life

The question for many men about post-pandemic life, however, Tashiro says, might not be whether they have lost their ability to interact socially but rather, whether they want to.

“On that point, I’m less optimistic,” he says. “I think what a lot of people are feeling is social anxiety, that social situations won’t go well after the pandemic. And that’s totally understandable.”

During quarantine, people had time to reflect on which interactions and relationships they enjoy and which they don’t. Maybe it’s okay, Tashiro says, if one of the outcomes of the past stressful year is that people focus more on relationships that are meaningful to them and make them happy.

“During the pandemic, society had a collective chance to just sort of pause,” says Sean Davis, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist, researcher and Alliant University professor in Sacramento. 

“Everyone has been forced to simplify their circle of friends or acquaintances. The problem isn’t that we’ll all be awkward, because people were still talking to each other,” Davis says. “But I think there will be some collective grieving about playing the same game a lot of us don’t want to play again.”

In those initial moments when we do get back to normality, there will need to be some collective negotiation about how we interact and at what pace, Tashiro says: “That’s where awkwardness will come up, but I don’t think it’ll last too long, hopefully.”

Awkwardness might also crop up when people have to face those in their lives with different views about pandemic-related social distancing guidelines and vaccines. It could take some work to get past resulting resentment.

“There have been a lack of clear distinctions about what’s okay to do and when that I think is screwing with a lot of people,” Lioi says. “If people in your life came to different conclusions, you have to find a way to accept that, agree to disagree and find a way to move forward with them.”

The men Lioi sees in his practice sound like they’re up to the challenge, however, he says. And most of them are looking forward to resuming a more social life. 

“A lot of people will have questions we wouldn’t have asked before. I’m not sure what the proper etiquette will be for the half-vaccinated, which could be awkward, and there’s some trepidation about how we will protect our kids and ourselves,” Lioi says. “But I’m hearing incredible relief from patients about things opening up.”