Dr. Nerdlove has a great takedown today of why "social awkwardness" isn't a valid excuse (read: reason) for men to treat women with disrespect or cross our boundaries. I'm a socially awkward woman and I support this post.
tl;dr of the Nerdlove article: truly socially awkward people are mortified by their awkwardness and apologize or flee when alerted to a social error; they don't use "social awkwardness" as a reason that their behavior should be tolerated. The people who do use "social awkwardness" as a reason that their behavior should be tolerated aren't awkward; they're manipulative gaslighters who hope to take advantage of the benefit of the doubt to engage in sexually predatory boundary crossing.
I've talked a bit about social awkwardness and why it's not an excuse for bad behavior in the comments on my Microaggression and Programming post and my post The Benefit of the Doubt II: Given Presumed Denied. In the first post, I paraphrase a Facebook conversation about some sexist microaggression that happened at a programming meetup. The first excuse that a guy made for the stranger who had treated a woman poorly was to make a joke about how "not socially awkward" nerds are. He discounted the opinion of a woman that he knew and who actually experienced the events, in favor of making excuses for a man that he didn't even know, out of a sense of in-group favoritism (explained in the second link Benefit of the Doubt II piece), by assuming that the man in question is socially awkward— the stereotype of a programmer.
Well, hi! My handle is Petticoat Despot and I'm a socially awkward woman who dates socially awkward men! Oh, I can tell you a lot about actual social awkwardness. The thing that many people don't understand is that people who have an inherent social awkwardness compensate for that in some way. My best friend compensated for it by being a jerk on purpose, to drive people away; now he throws an open-invite party once per week to force himself to interact with people. My ex-husband compensated for it by having a policy that he would only speak if he knew in advance that he had something valuable to say to someone who he knew wanted to hear it; he compensated by silencing himself. My most recent ex-boyfriend compensated for it with a mixture of silence, observation, and retreat. The guy that I dated before him compensated for it with alcohol. I compensated for it by a mixture of observation and studying human behavior.
After my fateful popular night at computer camp, I fell prey to the messaging around me and decided that I needed to give up computers if I were going to be popular with boys, since my primary goal as a woman is to marry someone good and start popping out babies. Thanks, Dad. In order to have a good selection, I would have to learn to be good at being a girl— first stop, the library for books on: manners, etiquette, dancing, meditation, stress relief, yoga, Buddhism, makeup, hair styling, body language, social interaction, and "dating rules."
Yes, there was a point in time where I knew how to place eating utensils on my plate in a way to signal wait staff; knew how to tell a cocktail dress from evening wear from symphony-appropriate garb from non-ball-gown formal dance dresses (ball gowns, ew); spent time experimenting with makeup and washing my face to start again; talked to my self extensively while examining/practicing my facial expressions in a mirror; ran laps up and down the stairs in 6 inch heels with a book on my head; and never, ever left the house without full makeup. I've forgotten much of this because it's actually not very useful information.
Then I started dating and that went pretty poorly, but at least I got invited to do things by guys who wanted to get into my pants, which sadly was an improvement. Finally, I ended up in college, in love with a guy so socially awkward that he compensated by walking like a gorilla, who was so mortified by me saying that I loved his "uniquely-[him] gorilla walk" that he stopped walking that way and 20 years later was undergoing reiki-influenced chiropracty and massage in an attempt to walk like a normal person. (Sorry, Bestie!)
In an attempt to figure out how to deal with him (and because he did this as a hobby), I started studying brain chemistry in the university library. We would go on dates to the cognitive science section of the library and read neuropharmacology books and make out. Seriously, people, I am a goddamned nerd and anyone who says otherwise is selling something (most likely a Meritocracy Myth of some kind). Even after the 40-somethingth breakup, I was still interested enough in biological aspects of cognitive science that I changed my major to chemistry with a psychology minor— and studied human behavior. I also went to therapy for years, in part to work out how to detect my own social failings and preempt them.
I think this is why my path diverged from a lot of socially awkward men; where they learned to shut up, I was taught that social interaction is how to achieve my ultimate goal in life as a woman— and I studied it. My mother was a writing instructor who nailed into my head from birth to know my audience, so I learned my audience. I tell people that any social skills that I have are learned but I'm not sure they realize what I mean by that. What I mean is: my total hours spent deliberately gaining social skills since middle school works out to several years.
Now I can go full extrovert mode, helped by my time working as a radio DJ, which allows me to lecture and write about programming in an accessible way, run a meeting, manage a team at work, hold my own at a party, etc. And then I go home for some alone time because OMFG. Many times, I look back on my social interaction and realize that I failed at humaning again. I still screw up socially all the time, typically by going into lecture mode and talking too much, especially if I've been drinking, especially about the psychology of my exes in front of their friends. Because seriously, I am people stupid and mortified by it.
You don't get to claim social anxiety as a reason that behavior should be tolerated because doing so is a sign of lack of anxiety. Signs of social anxiety are varied, but typically involve: apologizing too much; trying to change the subject in an awkward and sheepish way; not speaking to people; self-medicating; or quite literally leaving the situation.
This is one of the things that I resent most about the idea of social awkwardness as an excuse for why behavior should be tolerated: it does not and has not ever applied to me as a woman.
Are you socially awkward? Dude, you have my sympathies. Now go read a couple hundred books in an attempt to get some social skills. Are you a socially awkward nerd? Well, nerd the fuck up and study. That's what I had to do. If you can't even do that or learn to compensate in some way, then you aren't mortified by your behavior. And if you aren't mortified by your behavior, you're not socially awkward; you're just an asshole.