Social Ineptitude: From social butterfly to social outcast, do you know where you stand?

Social Ineptitude: From social butterfly to social outcast, do you know where you stand?

Tags: , ,

By: S. Amanda Ali

Driven by the digital revolution, the Information Age is characterized by our ability to easily access and transfer information, an ability that is changing the way we communicate, learn, and conduct business. With any revolution comes fundamental change to society, culture, economy, and politics. Our increasing reliance on internet-based networking is weakening the basic skills we require to effectively interact with other people. This phenomenon is known as social ineptitude. Affecting mainly children and young adults, but touching the lives of everyone in one social setting or another, the prevalence of social ineptitude is on the rise.

Texting, tweeting, Facebook use, and the world of web-based communication have become ingrained in our society. In 2009, 32% of wireless customers in Canada had a smartphone, up from 25% in 2008. These people used their smartphone for personal (non-business) purposes 70% of the time, with social media applications being the most frequently downloaded (1). In 2010, 78% of Canadian households reported having a mobile phone, and 50% of households in the 18-to-34 age bracket used mobile phones strictly, with no traditional landline telephone (2). As of this year, Facebook reports having 955 million monthly active users (543 million of which use Facebook mobile products) and 552 million daily active users (3). Making our addiction blatantly obvious, 34% of Canadians would be willing to give up alcohol, 31% would sacrifice chocolate, and 27% would forgo coffee to retain their internet access (4). Finally, this current back-to-school advertisement from Future Shop confirms our indoctrination: Student 1, “I learned to type before I learned to write.” Student 2, “Initial data indicates that ‘Likes’ are better than hugs.” Student 3, “I was born on the internet…true story.”

The reality? There’s no need to see someone to tell them you like their new haircut; you can simply click “Like” on Facebook when they upload a picture of it the instant they leave the hair salon.

As face-to-face interactions become less frequent, people become less cognizant of acceptable behaviour in social settings. Ineptitude can manifest in many ways, including neglected personal hygiene, poor manners or lack of consideration for others, and the inability to read cues (known colloquially as the inability to “take a hint”). Unfortunately, it’s not too difficult to think of people who commit these offences. Like the person who has persistent bad breath or body odour, or who forgets to wash their hands after using the bathroom, or who coughs without covering their mouth. And the person who walks into your home and opens your fridge, and who interrupts or raises their voice to speak over others instead of speaking in turn, and who keeps others waiting by taking longer than needed when using common equipment–be it the chemical fume hood or a bank machine. Or the person who decides to sit down and continue talking (after you’ve said how much work you need to get done) while you glance at your watch, check your cell phone, and/or rigidly stare at the task in front of you.

Social ineptitude exists along a spectrum ranging from mild and occasional mistakes to severe and frequent transgressions. An individual may have no difficulty in social settings and still respond to a particular situation improperly, but this only makes them human and capable of error. To be inept is to consistently respond to situations inappropriately, making those around you uncomfortable and less likely to pursue future interactions with you. It is a self-perpetuating cycle because skills regress without practice, so the socially inept are doomed; their inability to engage people limits their opportunities to practice social interaction. Based on our societal norms, social ineptitude is worse when offenders fall into particular categories. Speaking out of turn is more accepted from a child or teenager, and less accepted when it is from an adult (or new Master’s student), because they are expected to know better. Social indiscretion is also less tolerable when coming from a co-worker with whom we are forced to interact. The expectation is that co-workers aim to make good impressions on each other by demonstrating common courtesy, but the reality is that common courtesy isn’t so common anymore.

Science careers, among others, select for the socially inept, and then propagate the ineptitude. The television show The Big Bang Theory features astrophysicist Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali who suffers from social anxiety disorder in the form of selective mutism, which prevents him from speaking in the presence of women. The popular culture stereotype of scientists as socially-awkward nerds is evident, but is there any truth to it? Science generates experts on very specific topics, and it can be ostracizing to the individual. Certainly there are collaborative efforts and groups who study the same organ or signaling pathway or gene, but the purpose of a PhD is to train an individual in a particular way of thinking to answer a unique question. To achieve this, a significant amount of time is spent alone at a lab bench or animal facility, or with eyes down on a journal article, or sitting at a computer compiling results and writing reports. Opportunities for social interaction arise occasionally at lab meetings, seminars, and conferences, but these are usually anxiety-provoking events, challenging scientists to speak in public, defend their work, and actually engage in conversation. While this field probably attracts introverts, even social butterflies can expect to lose some of their skill by the end of the extensive training. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits,” a nerd is also a “socially inept person” and as such, scientists are truly nerds (5).

But who cares?

Social ineptitude is building to the point of compromised language skills and cowardly dating customs. To send messages quickly, texting lingo is commonly used, replacing words like “to” and “too” with the number “2,” or “your” and “you’re” with “ur.” Efficiency is good, but not if the price is literacy. Replacing different words with the same shorthand denies children (and some adults) the practice and comprehension of how each word should be properly used. Furthermore, it is difficult to compartmentalize texting lingo from proper writing, and these shortcuts may enter into homework assignments or formal correspondences. With this new language comes a new dating strategy. The latest urban legend claims that 1 in 5 relationships now start online. Simply fill in age, height, and hobbies, upload a photo, and start messaging to meet your soul-mate. No effort required for choosing the right outfit, going to the newest social spot, or finding the courage to approach a person in real life. One popular online dating website even offers a test to gauge social ineptitude, recognizing that a large part of its target audience is likely unskilled at socializing. Test results range from the socially obsessed, who collect friendships and consider them as reflective of social status, to social pariah, who are essentially social rejects with no friends (6).

The value of these tests may be underestimated because the worst quality of the socially inept is their complete ignorance of their own ineptitude. Social offenders are mostly unaware of the barriers they create between themselves and the outside world. A study by Kruger and Dunning highlighted the dilemma of being too incompetent to recognize your own incompetence, and social incompetence is no exception (7). If, for example, scientists are surrounded by equally inept scientists, then who corrects whom? Is it the responsibility of parents to teach their children how to behave appropriately in social settings? Should mentors at school and work provide mentees with training and guidance on social skills? Will we ever overcome the discomfort associated with telling an oblivious offender that they have behaved inappropriately in a social encounter? As students become more formally educated and less socially adept, it can be expected that those who demonstrate interpersonal flair in interviews will stand out, and ultimately be successful. So instead of emailing the person sitting across from you, consider speaking up to practise those rusty social skills, and prevent the larynx from becoming a vestigial structure.


  1. J.D. Power and Associates 2009 Canadian Wireless Customer Satisfaction Study. [updated 2009 Oct 27; cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  2. Residential Telephone Service Survey, Statistics Canada. [updated 2011 July 5; cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  3. Facebook Newsroom, Company Info: Key Facts. [updated 2012 June; cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  4. Rogers Innovation Report: What would YOU give up for the Internet? [updated 9 May 2012; cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  5. Merriam-Webster, An Encyclopaedia Britannica Company. [cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  6. The Social Ineptitude Test, okcupid. [cited 2012 Sep 10]. Available from:
  7. Kruger J, and Dunning D. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999;77(6):1121-34.