Our Brains Are Struggling with Basic Social Skills
Understanding the science of awkwardness
This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.
My fiancé and I have a special voice we use with our dog. It’s not a sweet, high-pitched voice; it’s a low, silly, mannish voice with drawn-out vowels, and it usually ends in upspeak. We use it to ask her if she’s the best girl or where her stuffed elephant, Mr. Elefante, is. It’s weird, no question about it, but I think most people with pets do something similar. (Right? Please tell me we’re not the only ones…)
The thing is, though, I’ve noticed this voice creeping into the way we speak outside of the house, too. We use it to ask each other questions or to talk about other dogs we see in the neighborhood. One time it slipped out in front of a friend, and it was pretty awkward.
It turns out that the uncomfortable, cringe-worthy feeling you have when you’ve called someone by the wrong name or told a joke that fell flat or used your dog voice out in public is actually a useful signal from your brain. Awkwardness indicates that a social faux pas has occurred and hopefully prevents you from repeating the same mistake in the future.
Psychologists think that the feeling of embarrassment after an awkward moment evolved to keep you in line and getting along with others so that you wouldn’t get kicked out of your tribe, something that could be deadly for your early human ancestors. Expressing self-consciousness or remorse signals to others that you are trustworthy and want to be accepted — you’re “prosocial,” in psychology speak.
In his book Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, psychologist Ty Tashiro writes, “On some subconscious level, we know that too many violations of small social rules can lead to social exile. Our minds have an overly sensitive emotional trigger when it comes to alerting us to unmet social expectations because our need to belong is so essential to our well-being.”