Causes Of Social Awkwardness
I've noticed people who struggle socially are often interested at looking into their childhoods and speculating about what caused them to end up as shy, awkward adults. I've also gotten a few emails asking me questions along the lines of, "What do you think causes poor people skills? Such and such happened to me as a kid, and I feel like that was a reason for me. What do you think?"
This article will list many of the inborn and life experience factors that can lead someone to have weak people skills or a lack of confidence around others. I use the word 'causes' in the article's title for simplicity's sake. I don't want to imply that if a factor is present it automatically and directly leads to problems. It's more that they can nudge some people in the direction of becoming more socially awkward. However, not everyone who experiences them is affected to the same degree.
Social problems are often brought about by a combination of these factors, which interact with and reinforce each other. They mainly affect people by leading them to:
- Become more insecure and unconfident about their self-worth
- Become more doubtful about their ability to do well in social situations
- Feel more anxious and worried in social situations
- Miss chances to gain social practice and experience
- Pick up unhelpful social behaviors and beliefs, instead of learning more-useful ones
I tried to organize the factors into rough categories, but some probably could fit under more than one.
Certain inborn personality traits seem to predispose people to having social challenges as adults. Again, having a particular personality doesn't mean you're destined to have social issues, just that if you're already leaning toward being awkward, some life events can more easily 'activate' it. I'll go into some of those life events farther down.
If a core personality trait does lead someone to become shy or socially inexperienced, it also doesn't mean they have no hope of getting better. Yes, some underlying aspects of our personality can only change so much. Someone who's always been highly cautious will almost never become an extreme careless daredevil. Self-confidence and social skills are shaped by our innate features, but they themselves can be improved.
An inhibited, anxious temperament
This one is the classic. Some people are born with a more inhibited, anxious approach to the world than others. Their nervous systems are just wired to be more reactive or sensitive to stimuli. Even as babies and toddlers they'll have a stronger negative response to change and novelty in their environment. They also tend to take longer to 'warm up' to new situations.
An anxious temperament is often associated with the development of shyness, and the insecurities and avoidance of social situations that go along with it. It can also make people be overly-cautious, risk averse, and thin-skinned.
The higher sensitivity to stimulation that's built into this temperament means that people may also be put off by activities that others enjoy. A well-known example is an adult feeling irritated and overloaded at a loud, bustling party. Compared to other people, who may not be as fazed, they're put at a disadvantage when they have to interact in these settings.
People who are more cautious and intolerant of risks can also fall behind their peers because they're not as eager to jump right into things like dating, partying, or learning to drive. This can create situations where, say, all of a high school student's friends are dating, but they don't feel ready for it. Eventually they may grow apart from their social circle due to having different priorities. Additionally, in many cultures children are seen as weak and flawed for being too hesitant and sensitive.
A lower drive to socialize
Some people seem to have a smaller built-in need to socialize and spend time with others. They'd rather stay home and read, or work on a project, than go out with friends. When they're not around others they don't feel as much pain or loneliness either. That's all fine. Not everyone has to be a social butterfly. However, if someone spends a ton of time on their own they can miss chances to develop their social skills, and lag behind everyone else.
Being extremely smart
Some intellectually gifted people have problems adjusting to the social world. A common explanation is that their minds aren't only sharper than the average person's, but also work on a somewhat different (not necessarily better) wavelength. This difference can give them difficulty in understanding and applying aspects of socializing.
Their intelligence may also give them problems in relating to their peers. However, not every highly-intelligent person has social difficulties. Many do just fine with other people. The thing is they can slip under the radar. The gifted people who do have social problems stand out more, and can create the impression that everyone with high intelligence is destined not to fit in.
Being rigid, inflexible, and intolerant of change
This one can be related to being naturally anxious, but not always. Some people have trouble going with the flow, and coping with any changes to their plan or routine. The social world is often unpredictable and improvisational though, which can cause problems for people who are more rigid.
Having any personality traits that don't mesh well with the norm
This section could get too big if I let it, so I'll keep it brief and vaguely say that all kinds of non-typical personality traits may be related to social issues later in life. For example, if a kid is really eccentric, artsy, and creative, and most of her classmates aren't, you could see how problems could develop.
If people have certain interests it may make them more likely to experience social problems down the road. Some interests may lead a person to get picked on, not be able to connect with their peers, or cause them to feel misunderstood and alienated. Others may lead them to miss chances to practice their social skills.
Not being interested in the same things as most members of your gender
Some studies of men who were socially awkward later in life show that as kids they weren't into typically male things. Mainly they were unathletic and didn't like team sports. They also weren't into roughhousing and being physical and aggressive and competitive. Anyone who's been through this themselves can attest to the rift it creates between you and your classmates.
Similarly, I've read accounts by socially awkward women explaining how as kids they were never into typically "girly" things, and the friction it caused with their peers.
Having too many solitary interests growing up
There's nothing wrong with doing things on your own in and of itself. However, as I mentioned above, spending too much time alone can cause your social skills to fall behind. A person pursuing solitary interests may be doing so because they just prefer being on their own, because they're too anxious or gun shy to attempt to be with other people, or a combination of the two.
Lack of, or disrupted, social education
Although some kids naturally pick them up more easily than others, every child has to be taught good social skills to one degree or another. Sometimes this occurs in an indirect, organic way, as children observe everyone as they go about their lives. At other times adults teach them proper social skills in little lessons here and there. Some children will also be formally taught communication skills in the classroom or therapy groups. Sometimes kids don't get the social education they need, or it keeps getting disrupted, preventing them from properly learning what they have to.
Poor social skills role models
Some kids may be set back because they don't have anyone good to model while growing up. Maybe both of their parents were a bit awkward and unsociable themselves. Maybe their friends in school had social problems and shouldn't have been copied. Their whole extended family could set a bad example for specific behaviors, like how to respond if you feel insulted.
Some people will even look back and blame their entire culture for their social awkwardness. For example, I've heard this from guys with Indian or Chinese backgrounds who are living in Western countries. They feel like their culture's social style, and its emphasis on academics over socializing, has left them with some catching up to do.
A sheltered childhood
Some adults with social issues point to their overly-sheltered upbringing as the main culprit. Because they were sheltered, they either didn't get a chance to practice their social skills with other kids, or they learned things that weren't all that helpful when they got out into the wider world. Some people report just being an only child made them sheltered enough to develop social difficulties later in life.
There are a lot of ways kids can be sheltered. An interesting one is that studies show parents who are more socially awkward and anxious themselves tend to restrict the activities their kids can do. This may be because they want to protect their children from what they see as a scary social world. It may also be because the parents want to avoid the socializing they'd have to do if they allowed to child to get out more (e.g., having to chat to other parents).
Moving around too much as a kid
Some children seem to adapt well enough to moving around a lot, but others have a tougher time with it. Constantly being the new kid and having to make a fresh group of friends may be too much for them, or may amplify other vulnerabilities they already have.
Being very sick as a kid
You can't exactly get much practice with other children if you're in and out of the hospital, or too physically frail to go to school or be around your peers.
Immigrating to a new country
It's not hard to think of ways that moving to a new country may affect some children's social development. They're in a whole new environment, with a new language to learn, new cultural customs to adapt to, new unspoken social rules to figure out, and on and on. Not to mention that some kids and teachers can be prejudiced jerks and ostracize someone who's from another part of the world.
Immigrating can impact adults as well. In their home country they may have been quite socially capable, but they feel lost and self-conscious and unsure of themselves in their new location.
Being picked on
A number of factors related to shyness and weaker social skills have to do with someone being picked on when they were younger. Being bullied or excluded can kill people's self-esteem and make them anxious about future interactions. It can also leave someone feeling wary and bitter about other people and socializing in general. Ongoing rejection is obviously a problem, but sometimes just one or two intense instances of being threatened, mocked, or disliked are enough to create social anxiety.
When a child is teased it can also make them feel really confused and off-balance, and cause them to act in socially inappropriate ways as they flail around testing out behaviors to try to get the teasing to stop (e.g., yelling out weird things at other people in an attempt to 'fight back' or drive them away).
Children typically get picked on by their peers, but they can also feel put down and bullied by their parents, siblings, relatives, or other adult authority figures. Some people report being constantly teased by their older brothers, sisters, or cousins. Others mention insensitive, unsympathetic teachers or coaches.
Sometimes it's not being ostracized or embarrassed itself that damages someone's self-confidence, but a lack of support afterward. If a kid is made fun of, tells his parents, and they're understanding and make him feel better, he can come out okay. If his Dad rolls his eyes and tells him not to be such a wimp, that reinforces a sense that he deserved it because there really is something wrong with him.
Standing out in some way physically
The world isn't fair. If people have any kind of noticeable physical difference they're more likely to be picked on. Some common ones are being skinny, being overweight, being short as a man, and being very tall. I could go on and on. Some other ones are:
- Having bad skin
- Having a physical feature that stands out (e.g., buck teeth, big ears)
- Hitting puberty much earlier or later than everyone else
- Having a physical disability
- Being a different race than most of the children at a school
Really, anything that other kids can latch onto is a potential target. Sometimes a kid doesn't even have to be directly teased to develop poor self-confidence. It may be enough that he or she just feels like they stand out and have something wrong with them.
A unique problem with having a physical difference is that it provides a convenient spot for someone's insecurities and social anxiety to attach to. Most of their social worries and low self-esteem can become about how supposedly weird-looking they are. Even if they could improve their social skills and self-confidence in theory, everything can come back to, "Yeah, but what's the point? I'm still too funny-looking. No one is going to like me because of that."
Getting picked on for other reasons
Physical differences are easy targets, but children can get picked on by their classmates for all kinds of other reasons:
- Their supposed personality flaws (e.g., being a loner, a cry baby, a wimp, annoying, 'weird', etc. What really keeps a vicious circle going is when a kid is teased for being shy).
- Their unpopular interests
- Their clothes
- Being bad at sports
- Being poor
- Coming from a family with a poor reputation
- Their religion
- Their ethnic background
- Their sexuality
- Their unique first or last name
- Their accent
When people recount how their parents or other adults gave them a hard time, it was over things like:
- Not being like their siblings
- Not being outgoing enough
- Not being interested in the 'right' things
From other authority figures:
- Being too quiet and afraid to speak up in class
- Being too clumsy and unathletic
- In combination with a prejudiced teacher, being a different race than most of the kids in the class
In regards to authority figures, some people say their fears and insecurities go back to scarring incidents where a teacher or coach put them on the spot and embarrassed them in front of everyone. More on that in a second.
Other confidence-destroying experiences
It's easy to see the harm in being picked on. People have also mentioned other childhood experiences that damaged their confidence and sense of self-worth, which affected how they related to everyone.
A single super-humiliating event
Many people say their social anxiety started, or jumped to the next level, when something really embarrassing happened to them, like they peed their pants on a school trip or froze up during a class presentation and everyone made fun of them. They felt so mortified at the time that it got seared into their unconscious, and they live in fear of being disgraced like that again.
Being in the shadow of a more successful sibling or peer
Some people report losing their self-confidence because a sibling or friend was just so well-loved and popular. They felt inferior and like they couldn't compete, and checked themselves out of the game.
Experiencing a childhood tragedy
This is another sub-category that I've heard personal accounts about. As an example, a child's parent may die suddenly. The loss throws them for a loop and their self-confidence and sense of feeling safe and secure in the world is never the same. Their bereavement may understandably cause them to withdraw from the world. Some grieving children are even ostracized by their classmates for being sad all the time.
Experiencing serious abuse
Abuse, whether it's physical, sexual, emotional, neglectful, or being brought up in a hostile, chaotic environment, can be horribly damaging to a child's development. This includes the possibility that their social development will be totally thrown off course:
- Some children who have been abused will become much more shy and withdrawn.
- Other kids will do the opposite and start acting out and getting into lots of trouble.
- A child may become distrustful of others and guarded about sharing their thoughts and emotions.
- Their self-esteem can plummet, as they see themselves as worthless and somehow deserving of the abuse they've received.
- In order to create a sense of safety for themselves some people will adopt a tough, unpredictable "Don't mess with me" stance that drives their peers away.
- Abuse can lead to the development of some pretty severe mental health issues, which cause their own set of problems.
Many thinkers have identified broader forces in society that could make it easier for someone to develop a more socially awkward, isolated existence. When talking about this stuff there's always a tendency to portray the past as some uniform Golden Age where none of our current problems existed. That's hardly true. It's more that each era has its own mix of strengths and weaknesses. It's not like we can turn back the clock either. Still, it never hurts to be aware of these issues.
If someone isn't good with people these days they have plenty of options for entertaining themselves. They can go on the internet, watch movies, or play video games. Even easy access to books is something that's relatively new in our history. All this can prevent someone who's already predisposed to being awkward from gaining social experience, and keep them in a rut. Like I was saying, I don't want to paint a rosy, simplified picture, but I think overall it's safe to say that in the past people had to go outside and interact with each other much more often.
Even when people are being social with each other, technology makes it easier to avoid face-to-face communication, which can be the most anxiety-inducing, but also provide the most learning opportunities. In the past we had to have most of our conversations in person. Even awkward people had no choice but to face their fears and gain more social experience. Nowadays we often don't even have to talk on the phone if we don't want.
In the past most people lived a rural existence. Today most of us live in cities, which can be isolating places. I wouldn't say they get in the way of kids developing social skills as they're growing up, but they can certainly make things more difficult for adults. For better or for worse, in an old-timey tight-knit farming community, everyone interacts and knows each other's business. When you live in a big city you can be surrounded by millions of other people, but still feel alone.
This article goes into more detail about these trends:
Mental Health Issues
This section doesn't have the space to be exhaustive, but a variety of mental health problems can lead to social difficulties:
Some people who are dealing with loneliness and social awkwardness are depressed about their situation. The symptoms of depression can clearly interfere with someone's efforts to turn their social life around. If someone is depressed from a young age, or during a formative part of their life, the condition can also get in the way of their social development. Everyone else may be out with their friends, while they're at home feeling worthless and lethargic and unmotivated.
Of course, social anxiety is already an interpersonal difficulty. And the avoidance it inspires can hinder someone's social development going forward. Other types of anxiety can also lead to problems. If someone's afraid of germs, or driving, or snakes, or being far from home they may miss a lot of social opportunities. They may be rejected for having a fearful demeanor, or for being afraid of things most people don't see the harm in. Someone may feel so ashamed and broken because of their nerves that they don't put themselves out there.
More serious mental health concerns
You could make a case that any type of mental health issue, if it's severe enough, can lead to interpersonal problems. For example, someone who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and who hoards countless boxes of old knick knacks is going to have their social life disrupted in all kinds of ways. The mood swings inherent in Borderline Personality Disorder severely undermine relationships. People with schizophrenia, arguably the most severe mental illness, have a wide range of social deficits.
A variety of neurological or developmental differences are known for leading to social problems. Again, going into too much detail about them is beyond the scope of this article, but in general they can cause children to have trouble learning and 'getting' aspects of socializing. They can also cause children to act out in ways that annoy their peers and cause them to be excluded. Some of them are: