Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Social Awkwardness

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 9, 2012

Ned, thirty-three, “stiffens up” as he relates to me how his wife describes his behavior. “Well, we were watching a play, and we had to sit separately since my wife could not get two seats together. She always has me hold her cell phone. I don’t know why. She got three text messages during the play, so as soon as the play was over and we came together, I told her that her phone was going off. She got upset with me that I did not connect with her about the performance, or that I did not ask her how her seat was. She said I was socially awkward.” “Did you agree with her?” I asked, thinking that I am sympathetic to the wife’s point of view that she was probably anticipating reconnecting with her husband after the show and he was hyper-focused on making sure she knew she had messages to attend to. I could well imagine that this conflict of expectations created a large amount of tension, which had Ned been more socially astute he could have handed her the phone and asked her about the play at the same time. “Yes, of course, I am socially awkward,” Ned, readily agrees, “but I don’t know what to do about it.” Ned says with the innocence and sweetness of a child. “So, it was not intuitive for you to try to emotionally connect with her after seeing a show,” I ask, knowing the answer. “Yep, it was not intuitive,” Ned says with a confused tone as to how something like that would be intuitive. “Maybe you need to keep in mind that the moment of reconnecting, after a day’s work, or after any separation for that matter, is a sensitive time, and you should take extra care  to be attentive to your wife as a whole person, and not get so focused on one issue.” I say, stating what is obvious to most people, but what seems to need to be spelled out to Ned.

As I describe this interaction with Ned, I imagine my readers asking me about his diagnosis. Do I think Ned has Asperger’s? I imagine Shelly and Jon asking me. I think that social skills, like all skills are on a continuum, as are athletic skills, musical skills, math skills, etc. Ned’s social skills are weak, but I would not extend that to say that he has a social communication disorder. Ned is, for the most part, happily married, a father of two young children, and successful socially at work in that he gets along well with his colleagues. His issue is that he lacks social intuition that is helpful in close relationships.  However, he understands his deficit and so he is religious about coming to psychotherapy. He is motivated to make his wife feel more comfortable with him. Psychotherapy may help him be more socially conscious,  in a wooden way at first, in that he may sound rote, rather than warm, but over time, the warmth will be added to his reactions and so I am hopeful for the future of their marriage.

8 Responses to “Social Awkwardness”

  1. Jon said

    Your role in working with Ned seems to be one of a social skills counselor – not as a medication prescribing psychotherapist. This appears appropriate as Ned’s location on the social skills continuum seems to benefit most from gentle teaching then biochemical intervention. I, too, see a hopeful future for Ned’s marriage with your wise guidance helping the way.

    • Shirah said

      Yes, I agree, in that Ned is not particularly anxious in social situations, he is just awkward. If he had anxiety about greeting people, then there might be a role for medication. “Gentle teaching” are the key words in that there can be a fine line between teaching social skills and humiliating him for “getting it wrong.” Fortunately, Ned is not sensitive in that way, so he is open to learning how to grease the social wheel. Thanks, as always, for your comment.

  2. Shelly said

    You make me laugh! No, I don’t believe that everyone who is socially awkward has Asperger-like tendencies, especially if Ned’s problem doesn’t bleed out into other aspects of his life. Since he is gainfully employed and has friends both at work and outside of it, I wouldn’t think so. What do you see your role is here, to help him become more socially adept, as you say? To assist him to become happier in his marriage?

    • Shirah said

      Hi Shelly,
      One could question the quality of Ned’s friendships throughout his life, but he is certainly able to get along in a group setting, such as work and family gatherings. His issues come out when the relationships are more demanding of attention, intuition and sensitivity. The question of whether he is on the “spectrum” is an open question, since as a “spectrum” we all fall somewhere on it. Drawing lines is fuzzy business, hence my issue with my field which tends to both over and under diagnose conditions. My role is to help him see how his behavior gets in his way of enjoying his wife and his children. Helping people see how they self-sabotage is the bulk of what I do in my office. Ned is yet another example of that. In other words, if he could develop more sensitivity then he would enjoy his life better. His reluctance, up to this point, to look at how his behavior impacts others, has been getting in his way of relaxing into a comfortable relationship with his wife. Now, he understands that and he is willing to work on his issues. Hope abounds. Thanks, as always.

  3. Frozen Hamster said

    Disclaimer: I am just a random curious person from the internet who accidentally found your blog and started reading :). This post is remotely related to a concept that I’ve been struggling to understand, so I am using the opportunity 🙂

    I understand that your role in this case is to help Ned be happier, but how do you decide that the problem is just Ned and not Ned’s wife as well? Or rather, how do you decide which behavior is “normal” and who needs to adjust? Or is it because he came to look for help and agreed with the perception that he is socially awkward?
    If his wife is the only person he is having this issue with (and this is what I gather from the post), shouldn’t she work on adjusting her own attitudes and behaviors as well? It seems to me that asking about one’s seat or how they enjoyed the play is almost unnecessary formalism (especially in a close relationship in which one should be relaxed and allowed to fully express themselves).

    Basically, from my naive perspective, asking one to change such behaviors (almost to fake caring), in order to be able to “relax into a comfortable relationship” sounds like a paradox. Is individuality perceived as something that we should fake, mold, and change in order to fit in and make others happy, or is there a point at which we should be allowed to ask others to accept us the way we are?

    • Hello Frozen Hamster…please let me know what randomness led you to my blog.

      The issue that I wanted Ned to illustrate is the issue of theory of mind. In order to connect with others, one must have a good idea about how the other person thinks and what is important to them. The better one has “theory of mind” the closer relationships he can form. As you suggest, Ned is looking to be closer to his wife, and so, in this fictional tale I wanted to illustrate that one of his stumbling blocks is his lack of attention to what his wife might be thinking or feeling in the moment. He can learn to pay more attention to this issue, but this is hard for him, whereas for others this is intuitive and does not need to be taught. I hope this answers your question. Welcome to my blog. Thank you for joining the discussion.

      • Frozen Hamster said

        Well…, I got here from Tony White (Graffiti)’s blog, and I somehow ended up there because I was looking up the definition of id, ego, and superego. So, true randomness 🙂

        I really appreciate your response. Theory of mind is not something I’ve read about, and I definitely would not know it was (and how it was) related to this (now I see why you were mentioning Asperger’s). I’m excited that I have a new topic to read about :D.

        I will continue poking around your blog 🙂 Psychiatry and psychotherapy are completely unrelated to my field of work, but very interesting (and I know almost nothing!) 🙂

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