This article was inspired by something on social media that got me thinking about the whole concept of being socially awkward, and what it means for me.
Socially, I’ve never naturally fitted in with the vast majority of the people around me. I found there to be two main groups of people, based on thinking patterns. One group contained me and very, very few other people. Most of humanity was in the other group. These other people seemed to have their own social code of conduct — and it made no sense to me. Inside their social circles, certain things were just intuitively understood to be OK or not OK. Well, those things certainly weren’t intuitively understood by me. To me, their behavior was an incomprehensible web of complexity with no apparent rhyme or reason. I initially considered it an ideal to learn about, to strive toward. Mostly, it was exhausting and unpleasant, with high costs of failure during the learning process, in the form of ridicule and ostracism.
I preferred my own company, as in learning about jig-saw puzzles, creative toys, art supplies, guitar and piano — and books especially. As a teenager, I’d read at least two sets of encyclopedias and much of my parent’s bookshelf besides. I could read in four languages. I especially loved reading about anything automotive. I did, and do, remember vast amounts of detail.
When I was 10 or so, I went to school in Britain. That’s not where I had grown up, so British things were fairly new to me. Someone gave me a present: a jigsaw puzzle with each shire in the United Kingdom being a puzzle piece: Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Cornwall and so on. In the beginning these were pretty incomprehensible to me, but I enjoyed learning about each shire, and figuring out what went where. Eventually, I could build the puzzle so fast that I decided to turn the pieces and the frame over, and build the puzzle upside down, with only the shapes to recognize. I built it faster and faster. My mom’s surprised reaction, when she observed such things, made me gradually realize that typical people don’t do things like that.
After I’d read every interesting-to-me non-fiction book in my parents’ bookshelf (which meant, almost all of them) I started reading novels. They were mostly detective novels, murder mysteries or steamy romance novels. I loved the complex thinking of a detective solving a crime, and I loved the sexual excitement of intense novels.
By reading such novels, I learned how adults behaved. That would come in useful in future years. If you saw me function socially nowadays, you’d think I was just one more typical person, adept at this sort of thing. In fact, it didn’t come naturally. I had to learn it, and I learned it well.
Unfortunately, whatever social skills I was learning about by reading — they were not useful to a teenage trans girl growing up in the war zone of South African high school culture. I also liked reading about the adventures of other teenagers, including the books by Enid Blyton, and the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series. However, the teenagers in those books all seemed to be functioning at a high cognitive level, and that in no way translated into the chaos I saw around me. In the books I was reading, the teenagers had interesting, purpose-filled endeavors. For example, if one of the Hardy Boys found a clue, they’d use it to solve a mystery. By contrast, the teenage boys around me would instead say “let’s throw it at someone’s head” or “let’s hurt someone’s pet with it” or “let’s tie it around a brick and throw it through someone’s plate glass window” or “let’s go to the freeway pedestrian overpass and drop it on a car passing underneath.” I just couldn’t relate to that mind-set. I still can’t.
As a trans girl, I was told to behave like a boy and that meant socializing with boys. Had I tried to socialize with girls, such as I’d have preferred to, they’d probably have been disinterested anyway, since it was a huge faux pas, socially in British Colonial Africa. Besides, that would most likely have gotten me picked on worse yet, by the boys.
High school social life was exhausting and excruciating. The boys I was supposed to understand … they were mean, illogical and destructive. Fitting in with their culture meant doing dumb things. Cigarette smoking was, I learned, supposedly a way to be cool. So, when I went on a camping trip with more than a dozen fifteen-year old boys, we all smoked. I outsmoked them all. I smoked three packs on my very first day — which also happened to be the last day of my smoking adventure.
I finally found and befriended one shy, cerebral, wonderful boy who also thinks as I do. We became friends when I was 14, and he is still a close friend, even now, a thousand years later. As to the other boys, I gradually felt less and less of a sense of loss in failing to socialize with them.
It’s interesting to see the reaction that typical people have to the movie “The Allnighter” by Tamar Simon Hoffs. Its depth seems to be totally lost on them. As a cerebral shy girl, what I see in that movie is the main character being a cerebral shy girl, who has a hard time fitting in socially, including romantically. She knows she’s not neurotypical and it bothers her. For example, early on in the movie, she describes herself as neurotic, which is a good adjective for cerebral shy girls, when evaluated by typical standards. We know we’re different. For example, we’re always thinking — and fittingly, the main character in the movie is told that her problem is that she thinks too much. Because it bothers us that we’re socially different, we also near-constantly thinking with concern about not fitting in. The producer and director of this movie really hits the nail on the head, as to being sympathetic with the cerebral shy girl mindset. By my standards, it’s the ultimate cerebral-shy-girl movie.
As I’m writing, this, I now remember that the movie also has several scenes in which the main character finds herself in several situations that would be socially awkward when these are evaluated by typical standards. I recall reacting to each such scene with quiet and deep empathy. What makes this movie so special to me is that the main character finds herself in these situations in spite of her being logical and admirable. Properly, she is never portrayed as ridiculous.
The movie does a great job of showing to cerebral shy girls: see, you can be valued in typical culture, and you can fit in too; keep trying and things will work out. The mindset of the main character is very similar to mine at the time, even though the main character is straight and I’m not.
Sexually and romantically, I didn’t feel attracted to boys. I was, and am, intensely attracted to girls — especially shy, quiet girls who might (I hope) have the same mental wiring I do. As a teenager, sexually, I’d explored my own body in ways that, I learned subsequently, very few people do. I had also learned a great many things about sexuality and eroticism, from reading. I think I’d already read Masters & Johnson by the time I was 14. All that made me hypothetically ready to go enjoy the mind and physique of a lovely girl and to have her enjoy mine. Problem was, I had no way of translating my information into practical social dynamics.
For lack of a better idea, I went about things logically. South African high school romance social conventions, however, were far removed from what was logical. So, whatever I did logically ended up being socially awkward, excruciatingly so at an emotional level. When I think back at such things, two things happen: I cringe, and I laugh — not that it was or is funny. It’s not. It’s one of the most painful memories of my past. Even so, when I think back to an event when I was supremely embarrassed at something I did, something that was socially awkward, I have a weird psychological reaction: I laugh.
I’ve noticed that some movie-makers have had great commercial success by focusing on that excruciating level of social awkwardness. However, unlike “The Allnighter” these other movies intentionally present the awkward scenarios as ridiculous. The audience accepts it as such, and has the same reaction I do when I think about situations where I felt ridiculous: laughter. One example of such a movie is “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Many movies are visceral, but this movie is visceral in a way that explores social awkwardness. It has me cringing — and laughing. Even though, when I watch that movie, and I laugh — is it actually funny? I don’t know, now that I think about it. It’s certainly a dramatization of the essence of much of my teenage and early-adult social life. For me, it’s a highly unpleasant set of memories. Is it cathartic for me to see other people feel awkward too? Not really. If they think like I do, how could they not find social life awkward, when dealing with neurotypical people? So it’s not really a revelation to me. I’m still mildly puzzled by the connection between awkwardness and laughing.
As to my own awkward social life, there were many lovely girls in the same high school, but I was focused on a girl’s style, which was a hint of how she might be thinking. As to her looks, I basically rationalized them to be hot if I liked the girl’s style and implied mindset. For two years, I had a crush on a slender, slight red-haired girl. To me, her shape and her looks were just about as pretty as I could imagine a girl being. Later, I had a crush on an athletic blonde girl. Again, her shape and her looks became, instead, about as pretty as I could imagine a girl being.
The red-haired girl was socially about as invisible as a girl could be in high school. By general standards, she probably wasn’t all that pretty. I didn’t care. To me, she was the hottest person on the planet and in a sequence of events that personify awkwardness, I pursued her romantically. Nowadays, I realize that my abject failure to connect with her should have been my clue that she’s not shy and quiet because she’s a cerebral shy girl; she’s just shy and quiet. Several years later, after high school, she and I did end up briefly dating, and I found out that she’s nice and sweet but the mental intensity and connection I’d hoped to exist, by reading between the lines … it wasn’t there.
By contrast, the blonde girl was socially the most sought-after girl in high school. By general standards, she was very pretty. Again, I didn’t care. To me, she was the hottest person on the planet. In a sequence of events that exemplify awkwardness, I pursued her romantically too. I liked her but didn’t know enough about her. I needed much more information.
In South Africa, most of us went to school on foot or by bicycle, and based on all of us diverging from school in the afternoons, and observing each others’ general direction, it was pretty much known to everyone where everyone else lived, based on seeing that person walk or bicycle home, over the course of several years. So, no surprise, I knew where the blonde girl lived. I also knew that this girl was going to be at after-school basketball practice on a particular day.
So, that afternoon, aged seventeen, I dressed up in my best outfit, went to her house and knocked on the front door where this girl lived. I was carrying a bunch of yellow flowers, implying friendship. In truly wishful thinking, yellow is also the color of flowers one gives to the mother of the bride, but I didn’t think anyone was ready to hear that from me at the time. Her mom opened the door, and I gave her the flowers, saying they’re for her, and they were also a sort of bribe because I had a crush on her daughter and I’d appreciate any information the mom would be willing to share to enable me to pursue a relationship. The mom was on board with the idea and invited me in. For the next 45 minutes, she explained what her daughter did and didn’t like, and what would make things a “win” for her daughter, socially and romantically. This included mentioning a movie that her daughter had really wanted to go and see, and that her daughter was struggling with high school math.
I thanked the mom and left, then planned things out. I invited the girl to the movie, and also offered to help her with high school math. She accepted on both counts. We had good interaction but she was more intrigued than attracted. My attempts to win her over to become my girlfriend were most awkward, and they generally were a colossal failure. As it turns out, it was all for the best, because she is not shy and quiet because she’s a cerebral shy girl; she’s just shy and quiet.
At the time I didn’t know what another cerebral shy girl would be like; I had hoped to find one and I was looking for any clues that seemed hopeful. When I finally met one, we were eighteen, and at University. We clicked near-instantly. On our first date, we talked until three a.m. and we mentally connected like neither of us ever had, with anyone else. Not much later, she and I were each others’ girlfriends, and a year and a half later, we were married. We remained so for almost eight years. It was an intense dynamic, totally stripped of the social veneers valued by the people around us. With each other, we were open, candid and logical. For example, when we met, it wasn’t clear to either of us just how feminine I am, and over the years it became clear that, much as she valued me, she also craved some heterosexual sexuality, which I cannot provide. Even though I was born with male-shaped parts and they function: when I’m with a girl, it’s totally a female-female mental dynamic. That’s all I can do. I’m a girl, I think like a girl and I have sex like a girl. The shape of the plumbing is very much secondary to the mental dynamic. To put it bluntly, if a genetically integrated girl puts on a strap-on and has sex with her girl friend, the dynamic will still be that of two girls having sex.
Anyway, in our typically logical approach, we decided to get her a boyfriend to supplement the hetero experience she wasn’t getting from our marriage. She already had someone in mind, and things worked out well. Initially, the guy would park half way down the block and she’d walk from our apartment in LA, on Culver Boulevard, to go meet him, and then they’d drive away to go on a date. It wasn’t a bad neighborhood but I still preferred her to be walked from our front door to his car, and I’d learned by then that it would be extra awkward were I to walk her out to his car, so I suggested he’s welcome to come pick her up at the front door when the two of them went on dates. He did, initially nervous. As soon as we met the first time, I put him at ease. He and I became friends too, and all was well — but by typical standards, it was all very awkward.
When I finally came out openly as being a trans girl, I had two girlfriends at the time, both of them cerebral shy girls, as am I. They were each wonderfully supportive. One of them was really clear on the look I was going for, and she bought me a blonde wig (as shown in the accompanying picture) that looks, not-so-surprisingly, how my hair looks nowadays, a few short years subsequent. Being out and about in that wig, and dressed as the girl I am – I loved it too, living with full integrity, openly as who I am, brain-wise.
Even so, everything about it felt socially awkward and I felt ridiculous: I looked like a strange androgynous mix, with minimal skills as to dress code, make-up and so on. Aside from that, my walk, gestures and speech were very masculine due to decades of trying to initially blend into typical guy culture. However awkward I had felt as a teenager was a mere fraction of how awkward I felt as an “out” trans girl.
I worked hard to learn how to function socially as the girl I am. At the time I was living in a nice condo across from Virginia Lake, in Reno. Walking around the lake requires exactly one mile of walking. So I bought some 6″ stilettos, shown in the accompanying picture. At 4 a.m. I walked around the lake, learning and practicing.
Trying to fit in socially had been hard as a teenager, and yet I had to learn to fit in socially yet again, this time as a girl. I was highly motivated but it was very difficult emotionally. Most days I just wanted to stay indoors and not go meet people aside from my two girlfriends. But, on days when I went out, I went out bravely. I put on makeup, got dressed in a pretty feminine outfit, put on my wig and went out. I had very little sense of what was socially proper, including dress code. That made things much more difficult yet. Much of the time, what I was wearing more belonged on a street corner on Hollywood Boulevard late at night, or in a strip club or sex club. Sexuality was one thing never in short supply. I seemed to radiate it, and I got approached and hit on openly, by guys and by girls.
One day it all got to be too much for me. I went to the wig store and bought a mousy-colored wig, a sort of brownish color that was about as neutral a color as hair can be. When I told my more-candid girlfriend about my new wig, she gave me the speech that changed my life, to the effect of:
“I understand it’s hard for you. I understand every day is awkward and hard for you, not just being out but looking in the mirror. I understand you want to blend and become invisible, and you think this wig might do that for you. It won’t. You’re a tall, muscular trans girl. You will always stand out like a sore thumb. You cannot hide so it’s pointless to try. However awkward things are, deal with them. Over time, you can improve to make them less awkward, but you’ll always be atypical in general society, and that’s just something you have to accept and confront. That’s your life. Deal with it.”
Especially on that particular day, I didn’t want to hear it, but, I knew she was right. I felt so awkward with myself that if I allowed awkwardness to feature in the math of what I do, then I’d just stay indoors for the rest of my life. So, from them on, I resolved to remove that factor from my math, to dismiss it so that whatever I do, however awkward it was going to be, by social standards, I would not care any more. As long as what I was doing was logical (which of course included being ethical, not hurting people, etc.) then that was good enough.
It was difficult for me to pull that off. I pretty much fell apart emotionally. That included not being a good enough romantic partner. One girlfriend left. I begged the other one to leave me too, for her own good, as in, she deserves to be with someone who isn’t a total mess. Eventually, she left too. Someone else showed up, a cerebral shy girl who saw the merit underneath the chaos and didn’t care about the latter.
This period of intense difficulty happened about five years ago. Along with my morale, and my personal health, the health of my finances plummeted, as did much the US economy at the time. I was almost homeless, with the looming prospect of living in my $1,000 1991 Ford van, in the middle of a northern Nevada winter — a van whose heater and reverse gear didn’t work.
Tough times don’t last, and tough people do. I did. Things are financially much better, for me. I still have the same girlfriend who liked me five years ago, and our loving, open, polyamorous, long-distance dynamic is working well. I look better and I feel better. I function better socially as a girl, even though to most people, I still look and sound like a trans girl. I probably always will, and that’s OK. I AM a trans girl.
As to how I deal with awkwardness, I’ve pretty much learned to dismiss it. I try to multiply it by zero and most of the time it works, and the net result is zero. For example, I used to have masculine facial hair. Boobs, long blonde hair and five o’clock shadow … they don’t fit. I used to wax that hair away, and I’ve literally chipped my teeth from biting down from all the pain; I now know why they give people in Civil War movies a wooden stick to bite on before they amputate their leg without anesthesia. What little hair remains on my face isn’t going away with waxing, and it is too light for lasering so I undergo electrolysis, for which I’m supposed to let the hair grow out first. During a session, every follicle zapped is as painful as a bee sting, but I can prepare by putting on, an hour ahead of time, a thick layer of numbing cream, which happens to be bright white.
So, if you see a tall, muscular androgynous-looking blonde girl, her lower face covered in bright white paste, drive along highway 80 or walk through a business complex on her way to her electrolyis appointment, that’s me. And yes, I look strange before the session. After a session, I look like a pelican, as in: my neck and face are swollen up dramatically. Does it feel awkward to me? Actually, no. I don’t care any more.
The same principle applies to interpersonal dynamics. If I like someone, I make that clear early on, and I also make it clear who and what I am. If that other person is interested in friendship and perhaps one day more, great. If not, that’s fine too. By now I have attracted enough such people that I’m surrounded by high-quality girl friends who are nice to me and who think in the same atypical way I do. It’s a little community of sorts, of cerebral shy girls, and it works well.
Life is good.