Normal is a Dryer Setting, Awkward is for Life

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Normal is a Dryer Setting, Awkward is for Life

In the spring of 2013, Kaelyn overcame her discomfort with public speaking and gave a talk at TEDxFSU. Portions of the talk are excerpted here.


Kaelyn Badura

Florida State University

I can kind of be awkward sometimes. To be even more honest than that, it's more often than not. I'm never in my comfort zone. I don't even think I have a comfort zone. I would like to share with you what makes me uncomfortable and, well, that's a lot of things . . . from spiders to public speaking to high heels.

Did you know that when you search the word "awkward" on the Internet, there over 100 million results on Bing alone, and that there are over a 8.5 million books written about it? For something that has a negative stigma, it's pretty popular.

But do we really understand what it means to be awkward? One thing I've learned as a physics major is sometimes the best way to answer a question is with another question. So in what department or what college on the university campus would you expect to find the most amount of socially awkward students or even faculty?

I guess I have no shame. I actually went to the class of 2016 page and posted this and got some pretty interesting responses. 5.36 percent of people assume that it might be in arts, human sciences, media, communications, or even music. 94.64 percent thought it might be science or engineering or math. So this kind of got me thinking. If people who are in some fields are expected to be awkward and that's where the prevalence is expected to be, how do they identify themselves?

My physics teacher was kind enough to allow me to just give this actual survey [about whether being awkward is good or bad]. And it is amazing to me that the people who don't identify as awkward are almost twice as likely to think that being awkward is bad.

Twenty percent of the students surveyed in the STEM fields thought that being awkward has some benefits. 79.9 thought that it was inherently detrimental and hindered your personal growth. 50.2 percent of that group identifies as awkward themselves. That's a pretty negative connotation from something a lot of people are experiencing.

But what if I told you that being awkward was what you made it? What if I told you that being awkward was all about your attitude? But what if I told you that being awkward could be the key to success?

I had this moment of realization one day driving home back to central Florida from Tallahassee. Just zoning out while driving, like I'm sure many others do. And I happened to glance over and the girl in the car next to me was going the exact same speed, and we made eye contact. I'm used to feeling uncomfortable in situations like this. But I stood my ground because I wanted to see what she did. It took all of ten seconds for her to speed up and we did not meet again.
But then I realized being awkward isn't just a social convention. It's part of the human condition, and rather than it being a lack of ability to respond to people, it's a hyperawareness. I mean, I think it's pretty hard to respond to people or to actually be coherent sometimes when I'm wondering, “What are they thinking? Am I talking too much? Am I talking too slow? Did I wear the right thing today?”

If you're put into a situation where you experience discomfort, your body also responds. Your sympathetic nervous system effectively prepares you to cope with sudden stress. Your adrenal glands release adrenaline and other hormones that increase breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, which would explain blushing, shaking, difficulty speaking, the lack of coherence.

But did you know that the same hormones allow your senses to be sharper, allow for better memory, and allow for better tolerance for pain? These same stressful situations are the ones that provide the perfect stimulus. Viktor Frankl once said, "In between the stimulus and a response there's a space. In that space lies the power to choose our response and in our power lies our growth and our freedom." The secret's in the spaces. PhD Elisha Goldstein poses the question, "What if awareness of that space, in that moment, could change the rest of your life?"

Although being awkward and having awkward situations does cause stress, it's important to remember that there's such a thing as eustress, a good type of stress, and that it's a healthy and important part of life. It also releases norepinephrine, one of the principle excitatory neurotransmitters, increases your good mood, and makes situations that would be otherwise challenging seem like a better opportunity for you to grow.

Refining this awareness, or in this case, hyperawareness of spaces allows you to be more flexible in your decision making, to develop methods that allow you to calm yourself back down when you're put into a situation that would normally cause you to freeze up. And when you lose your coherence, it makes it possible to come back from it. It promotes greater focus, empathy, compassion (both toward yourself and others), and a better understanding of your values, your aspirations, and your personal skills.

It's all about attitude. You have to be willing to embrace these uncomfortable situations and these awkward moments. Because what does this lead to? Increased self-awareness, introspection, increased hormones that make you happy, better focus, memory, and resilience, and stimulation of brain growth.

What do all these things equal long term, when you're willing to put yourself out there and to grow? You're more likely to pursue higher education. If you get your college degree, you're a lot more likely to make an even greater professional salary. And these skills you develop while you're combating the discomfort and while you're releasing these hormones make for longer-lasting happiness.

So I would like to leave you with this: normal is a dryer setting, but awkward is for life. //

Another Awkward Survey

Kaelyn's Survey of STEM Students

What intrigued Kaelyn was the number of self-reported awkward people who thought that being awkward was detrimental (red) as opposed to beneficial (orange). Many people in each group thought that being awkward could be either detrimental or beneficial (blue).


Student Responses: Beneficial

  • "Personally, I feel as if awkward situations can be beneficial to one's personal growth."
  • "More beneficial than not. It can open up more friendships and other connections."

Student Responses: Detrimental

  • "Awkward = detrimental."
  • "Detrimental. I can't make any friends or deal with situations that are embarrassing."
  • " just means you're different."

Student Responses: Both

  • "I think it's situation dependent whether it's helpful or harmful. For example, it could be harmful if being awkward causes you to freeze up [in an interview], but the interviewer could like that so it's positive."

Watch the Talk

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