Social awkwardness and academic achievement


Let me start by saying that, having been trained in sociology, I’m about as qualified to give an expert opinion on social anxiety as I am about string theory. That being said, dealing with quite a significant number of academic over-achievers on a regular basis has lead me to form quite the empirically-based hypothesis that social anxiety is super fucking common at university and otherwise fully functional social scientists can be as awkward as the caricature depictions of hyper intelligent physicists on TV. Odd right? You would think social scientists might need a few social skills to be able to analyze society. Well, you would be wrong.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: there have been times in life where I was not quite that into school. In my experience, for people who have grown up hearing that they’re very intelligent things can go one of two ways – or possibly a combination of both at different stages of life:

a) They feel compelled to put that good ol’ brain of theirs to work and get crazy ambitions at a ridiculously young age, finish high school like it’s the most serious task of their life, enter uni at barely-legal age, finish their undergrad just as they are allowed to have a drink in the United States, start grad school just as they are completing their second year of the second decade of their existence and when they do, all the pressure and the rushing have made them into over-achieving and high strung nervous wrecks who feel and act a little off to most people who have been out in the world – you know, with other humans (the correct pronunciation here is hoomans) and stuff.

b) Their initial learning curve is very high, but eventually somewhere in middle or high school they stop feeling challenged or thinking that school is particularly relevant given that their intelligence has been legitimated in other ways. Meanwhile, secretly, they’re afraid that if they try harder in chemistry class and their grades don’t improve as much as their history grades do when they push a little harder, people will find out they’re not quite as smart as they appear to be. Through these transgressions of underachieving, they start coming into contact with all sorts of people. They learn how to socialize and make small talk and even enjoy it, but struggle being equally successful in academia as they are at the bar. They seem to be taking a long time to mature compared to the people in scenario a and they feel guilty about it, but their joie de vivre makes up for the guilt. Meanwhile, slowly but surely they move through the motions of obtaining the same level of education as people in scenario a. Without ever feeling the confidence in what they’re doing that ‘normal’ people supposedly do, the extra time they took to figure shit out and the interactions they’ve had with life outside academia have made their social and general networking skills quite advanced. To the naked eye, these over-analyzing, overly sensitive, overly-critical, cynical and hyper articulated individuals are pretty fucking close to normal.

The two scenarios I sketched out here are what sociologist Max Weber would call ideal-types. They are essentially hypothetical models which serve as units of comparison. I’m not making a claim about them being true so much as I am claiming that these two serve as fine units of analysis for understanding socially awkward behavior at different degrees for the nerdy social scientists I know.

Until grad school, the divide between over achievers and the rest of us good students was not quite so blatant. What I am finding increasingly surprising as I get closer to professors in social sciences and academic advisers in social sciences and graduate students in, you know it, god-damned-social-fucking-sciences, is that a surprising number of these people struggle in social situations. If conversation analysis has taught me anything is that giving off creepy vibes and not picking up on social cues seems like the kind of thing we should be studying and not doing, but that doesn’t always quite seem to translate.

I personally feel that ‘real deal’ social anxiety is a pretty fucking heart-breaking affliction but I have always really struggled to understand how it happens. Self-doubt is my middle name. Questioning everything is what I do best. But it works for me. It makes my creative juices flow. Being critical of myself and afraid to come short pushes me to be pretty fucking sure of things I’m doing before I do them. You could say that I’m academically awkward. (Can I get a round of slow clapping for the awful terminology?) Or you know, modest. But then there’s the people who are fucking confident. They are sure that they are the bee’s knees and the voice of a new generation of social scientific intelligentsia and they get angry when their self-professed amazing ideas are not applauded and rewarded with high grades and praise. Yet their behavior at, for argument’s sake, a party can be quite the opposite. Insecurity overruns their ability to act and it’s pretty weird.

This type of thing really makes me question the way in which we organize formal education. Let me remind you that I am not qualified to make the analysis I’m proposing here in any sort of scientific way. Let me also clarify that is not a post about shyness. I, like most fucking people on the planet, have fits of shyness. We all like to pretend we don’t and that’s all “awh so cute” but taking a while to loosen up in certain social situations is the human fucking condition. Also, this is not about enjoying solitude or any other such introspective activities that most people in academia tend to love by definition. What I’m talking about is becoming pretty close to paralyzed in normal social interactions, seeming to lack emotional intelligence and at times even empathy for others.

Like seriously, can we just for a moment stop and question what the hell is up with pressuring young people to rush through the formative years of their lives in order to arrive at the other side with a beautiful magna cum laude degree in whatever the fuck and the social skills of a fucking door? Not to mention the amount of perfectly good students with perfectly awesome social skills who beat themselves up to the point of having burn outs and panic attacks in their fucking 20s just to keep up. Or the social acceptability of smoking and drinking coffee just to cope with the stress and sleep deprivation. On what planet is this desirable?

I gotta say, I am concerned for my generation. Mental health is important, you guys. We are way too stressed out and by the looks of things we’re all very conveniently ignoring it hoping it will go away. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. With the economy the way it is, it’s probable that we will need the social skills to succeed in the job market and the coping skills to keep ourselves from drowning in fear and stress.

Isn’t it about fucking time that we start learning some of that at university as opposed to being pushed to exhaustion before we even really started our careers?

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