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'Ted Radio Hour': How to embrace the embarrassing

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Larry David, the king of cringe comedy, just wrapped up his last season. Madonna was recently trending on social media for an embarrassing moment at a concert. Pop culture is obsessed with watching and dissecting awkward situations. But is there a difference between an awkward moment and a person who seems to always struggle with awkward interactions? Well, that is one question TED Radio Hour host Manoush Zomorodi has been exploring on her latest episode, which is called So Awkward.

Manoush, I mean, life is full of awkward moments and awkward people in those moments. But you wanted to understand the psychology behind why some people just feel like they don't fit in.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, BYLINE: Yeah. A, I have two teenagers at home, so we are talking nonstop about navigating embarrassing situations. And we all experience awkward moments, especially during periods in our lives like middle school. But I talked to psychologist Ty Tashiro who told me that, yes, there is a difference between everyday, awkward interactions and people who are inherently awkward. Ty calls himself an awkward person, and he says he and his fellow awkward folks typically show three tendencies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TY TASHIRO: They have a hard time knowing what's expected in a social situation and also have a hard time executing the right social skill. They have trouble communicating what they intend to other people. And the third thing is obsessive interests.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Manoush, I mean, awkwardness is often associated with being on the autism spectrum. But where does autism fit into this conversation?

ZOMORODI: Right. Now, A, this is a delicate subject. We absolutely do not want to minimize the seriousness of autism, which is a neurological and developmental disorder that can include symptoms well beyond struggling with social skills. There's been a growing awareness of autism, which is just one reason why more people are getting diagnosed. And there's a growing acceptance of neurodiversity generally. But Ty and many other psychologists believe that some people are self-diagnosing or being diagnosed with autism when they don't necessarily meet the criteria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TASHIRO: Psychology and psychiatry have kind of taught us to think about mental diagnoses as categorical, as either-or kinds of things. And that's actually kind of unhelpful, because the average person actually has maybe just a couple of awkward or autistic traits in a mild kind of way.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So someone may not necessarily meet the clinical definition of autism, but that doesn't mean they aren't struggling.

ZOMORODI: Exactly. And that's why clinicians might give someone a diagnosis so that they'd qualify for services, therapy, because, yeah, they could still use some help. But an official diagnosis is often the only way that insurance will cover it.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So clearly, being awkward can be really, really tough, but you also heard about some of the benefits - and I can't wait to hear about this one - about the benefits...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: ...Of being awkward.

ZOMORODI: Yes. So channeling or harnessing that third trait we heard about earlier, hyperfocus, into a passion can be life changing. So, for example, we talked to New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck, who has made an entire career chronicling her awkwardness. And she really sees her work as a service to the many, many people she hears from who also experience the world differently from those who seem to kind of glide through life, A.

MARTÍNEZ: Definitely not me. I ain't gliding anywhere.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MARTÍNEZ: I'm stumbling and a-bumbling (ph). That's TED Radio Hour host Manoush Zomorodi. Their latest episode is called So Awkward. Thank you so much.

ZOMORODI: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.