The Axis of Awkward: A Psychological Theory

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 6.03% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

My friend Mishell Baker thinks the introvert/extrovert scale isn’t quite enough.  She thinks there needs to be three scales, none of which have anything to do with liking people:

  • Introvert/Extrovert: Are you drained, or recharged, by hanging around people?  (Introverts are drained.)
  • Shy/Gregarious: How you deal with strangers and acquaintances – will you huddle in the corner, or march right up and say hello?
  • Awkward/Charming: How do you come off once you’re comfortable with people?  (Everyone’s at least a little awkward when they’re uncomfortable, so shy people get the hose here in new situations.)

And I think that’s a pretty respectable set of axes to work off of, because the three are entirely different skills.  I know that I’m charming once I’ve gotten to know people, but I am criminally shy, and as a result I won’t talk to people I don’t know well unless specifically invited.
Basically, I’m an introvert/shy/charming person, which means that once you get me in a room where I’m comfortable I’ll usually come off quite well, and then retreat to my lurky-place after a few hours.  But we’ve all known extrovert/gregarious/awkward people, who have no idea that they’re not particularly wanted in this conversation but boy howdy are they confident about inserting themselves into it.
Which is a problem with this trifold axis: it’s one internal measurement that doesn’t matter at all to your friends but matters to you deeply in terms of how you have to husband your energy, one objective measurement, and one measurement that’s determined entirely of an average of how people react to you.  And you may misrepresent yourself on that awkward/charming axis.  Internally I see myself as awkward, but I’ve gotten enough positive feedback over the years to know that most of the time I come off okay.  But a lot of people see themselves as “charming” when they are not.
Mishell also points out the living hell of the extrovert/shy lifestyle, where you absolutely need people around to function but are too nervous to talk to them.  The gregarious introvert, on the other hand, sometimes gets a rep as “weird and moody” because hey, they walked up to you and started a conversation, and now they’re retreating to their office and slamming the door now that their introvert batteries are drained.
The other interesting thing here is how on one level this trifecta is as utterly useless as simplified as a Meyers-Briggs exam, and yet on another level it’s a good shorthand for crystallizing some concepts you may not yet have internalized.  I know my life got better when I started recognizing that “introvert” did not mean “hates people,” and I think adding the range of “shy/gregarious” to the mix focuses my attention on the ways that I need to interact.  Being introvert/shy/charming, I know that I have to plan out parties in advance so that someone I know is there to introduce me around, and introduce me enthusiastically enough that other people will want to talk to me.  Once that ice is broken, I’m okay until about 1:00 a.m., at which point I’m going to run out of fuel and crash.
And that’s okay.  That’s just knowing how I work as a person.
Maybe there are other useful axes, but I think past a certain point the axes pile up and you get more accuracy at the expense of usefulness – which is to say that it becomes one of those indecipherable “geek codes” where someone’s a WMAKTRMA2BLP that summarizes every fandom they’re excited about and yet nobody knows what the fuck it means but them.  I think you could have one more useful axis on this trifecta, but it’d have to be an axis that doesn’t intersect the others at all.  And hell, maybe it’s useful as-is.
In any case, I know I’m introverted/shy/charming.  That helps me know what I need to do to come off as well as I possibly can.  It works.

6 Comments

  1. Jerilynn
    Jun 30, 2014

    I’m definitely extroverted/ gregarious, and I THINK charming. Which means I’m really good at customer service and I’m pretty miserable when alone, which makes things like reading, writing, an other endeavors that require solitude quite a challenge

  2. Mishell Baker
    Jun 30, 2014

    I’m definitely extrovert/shy, and I guess if I have to pick a side on that axis I’d have to qualify myself as awkward, though people who have only seen me at conventions etc. might find that surprising. I have made such a conscious study of etiquette/social graces that if I’m in a good mood and have high energy I can fake it pretty well. I don’t think that counts as changing axes, though, because “charming” should really describe those people who are likable when they’re “being themselves.” You, as you mentioned, are most likable when you are relaxed and comfortable. For me, the more I relax the more likely I am to say or something incredibly awkward. I can only pass as charming when I’m being incredibly vigilant and actively filtering my every word and action, and sometimes that takes as much energy as I gain from social interaction. Sigh!

  3. Aerin
    Jun 30, 2014

    Perhaps the fourth axis could have to do with group size? I know I am shy in large group situations and gregarious one-on-one. Also, I’ve heard some people prefer either large parties or small parties.

  4. Yet Another Laura H
    Jun 30, 2014

    I like this, but I’d just like to say, because it has made a tremendous difference in how I frame my experiences, that the denotative definition of introvert is, basically, someone who is drained by not-awesome more than she or he is charged by awesome. The social thing is apparently just one of the more all-touching manifestations of that.

  5. Maggie
    Jul 23, 2014

    Love this definition. I’m definitely the introverted/gregarious type. I like to think in occasionally charming, but like you said, it’s hard to define oneself on that front. I hope I am! 🙂

  6. Beth
    Feb 17, 2016

    I get the distinctions she is trying to make, and long ago tired of trying to explain to people that I’m an introvert, not a shy extrovert. However, a behavioral trait like shyness or gregariousness does not belong in a typology of personality. Shyness, for example, is a behavioral aspect that can be changed. It is not an innate orientation to the world, like introversion or extroversion. A shy person can gain confidence and overcome their inhibition. An awkward person can learn to be charming. An introvert is never going to “learn” to be an extrovert, although they may adapt their external behavior to get along in the world. Likewise, an extrovert is never going to really become an introvert. Apples and oranges.

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