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Social norms and cues, such as knowing when to say hello or giving people personal space, help you navigate social situations. You might have been directly taught some of these norms. Others, you might’ve picked up on by watching others.
When you witness someone fumbling one of these norms, you might cringe internally and feel embarrassed for the other person. Likewise, you probably feel your stomach turn over when you botch an introduction to someone new or slip up on your words.
But social awkwardness doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it might even benefit you in some ways. But that doesn’t make it any less distressing in the moment.
Here’s a look at signs of social awkwardness, tips for overcoming it, and reasons why it might not be such a negative thing.
Social awkwardness isn’t a mental health issue — there’s no diagnostic criteria or even a concrete definition. It’s more of a feeling, or a collection of feelings and experiences that form a pattern in your life.
These feelings and experiences often result from:
- failure to notice certain social cues
- misunderstanding or not noticing others’ body language
Heidi McKenzie, PsyD, explains that socially awkward people might have a hard time navigating conversations or working their way into a group. As a result, they might seem a bit “off” to others.
It can be hard to recognize social awkwardness in yourself because you might not even be aware of some of the social cues you aren’t picking up on. Instead, you might just notice that you don’t seem to fit in with your peers
Social awkwardness, in itself, isn’t a bad thing.
But it can become problematic if it leads to distress due to:
- people making unkind remarks
- spending a lot of time wondering if you’ve done something wrong
- frequently having trouble in social situations
- wanting to make friends but struggling to connect with others
- feeling rejected by others
In a perfect world, everyone would recognize that people are unique and have different skill sets. But in reality, this doesn’t always happen.
This can be tough to face. But it doesn’t mean you need to change who you are. Social situations may not be your area of strength, but there are things you can do to minimize your stress around these scenarios (more on this later).
Before getting into strategies to overcome social awkwardness, it’s important to understand that social awkwardness has a few upsides.
Internal warning system
If you find yourself in an awkward situation, you might think something along the lines of, “This isn’t what I thought would happen.” You might feel a little uneasy or uncomfortable and have the urge to get away as soon as possible.
But a small 2012 study suggests these very feelings can help by acting as a warning system of sorts. They help you realize when you’ve approached (or crossed) a social boundary.
As a result, you might experience physical symptoms of anxiety, panic, or fear, including:
- muscle tension
- flushed face
- pounding heart
This probably doesn’t sound beneficial at all. But this discomfort can motivate you to:
- take action in the moment
- take care to avoid missing similar social cues in the future
Deep conversation skills
Having a hard time with small talk and routine social interactions doesn’t mean you aren’t a good conversation partner.
Mackenzie notes that people who deal with social awkwardness “may struggle with small talk, but they’re often great at diving deep into topics they’re passionate about.”
Psychologist Ty Tashiro notes in his book Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome that socially awkward people tend to view the world around them in different ways.
They may be less likely to notice social cues or pick up on emotions but feel more driven toward systematic or scientific approaches. This unique perspective may stem from differences in the brain — differences that sometimes relate to high intelligence and achievement, according to Tashiro.
“Awkward people’s minds tend to make them natural scientists because they are good at seeing details, picking up on patterns in these details, and taking a systematic approach to problems,” he writes.
Social awkwardness can have its benefits, but you might notice some drawbacks, too. Perhaps you often feel misplaced or like you’re missing something. Or maybe you sometimes do or say things that create awkwardness at home, school, or work.
These tips can help you better navigate social situations and deal with the repercussions that come from inevitable slip-ups.
Spending a little time learning more about social awkwardness might help you feel more accepting of this part of yourself
Not sure where to start? Try visiting your library or bookstore. There are a range of books on this topic that offer interesting explorations of what social awkwardness is and isn’t, along with helpful guidance.
A few to consider include:
- Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome by Ty Tashiro
- Improve Your Social Skills by Daniel Wendler
- Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl
Remember that awkward situations happen to everyone
Social awkwardness happens, probably more than you realize. While there aren’t any statistics to back this up, it’s pretty safe to assume most of the people you meet in your daily life have experienced awkward moments of their own.
Say you drop all the groceries you were carrying in the middle of the supermarket. A jar of pasta sauce breaks, eggs smash, and cherry tomatoes roll out their carton and across the aisle. Every fiber of your being is internally screaming and telling you to abandon your groceries and run out the door.
But try to remember: You definitely aren’t the first person to do this in that particular store. Nor are you the last. And everyone who turned to look? They’ve likely been there before in some form or another.
Face awkwardness head-on
When faced with an awkward moment, whether you’ve made a social blunder or simply witnessed someone else’s, you’ll typically react in one of two ways:
- avoid or ignore what happened
- address the mistake
The small study discussed earlier concluded that avoiding or ignoring an awkward situation doesn’t help. Instead, this tends to just prolong the awkwardness and make future interactions even more uncomfortable.
The next time you realize you’ve done something awkward, try acknowledging it with a casual remark or joke instead of withdrawing.
This is a tip you can pay forward, too, if you want to help someone else feel better about an awkward moment. Try a smile or kind remark like, “Don’t worry about it! It happens to everyone.”
Practice interacting with others
If you struggle in social settings, you might find it helpful to practice conversation and communication skills with someone you know and trust.
Communication involves things like:
- knowing how to start a conversation
- recognizing when a conversation is over
- changing the subject smoothly
- knowing when to interject and how to avoid interrupting someone
But good communication also involves knowing how to read someone’s body language. This can help you recognize cues like discomfort, boredom, interest, and so on.
You can practice interacting with others by:
- taking social skills classes
- asking friends or other people you trust for advice and suggestions
- running through practice scenarios with friends or family
- putting yourself into more social situations
Worried about practicing your social skills in front of people you might potentially see again?
Consider taking your practice outside of your usual spots. For example, you could try striking up a brief conversation with the cashier at a grocery store you never go to or take your dog to a park that’s on the other side of town.
Try to stay present
Mindfulness techniques help you pay more attention to what’s happening in the here and now. Being more mindful as you go about your day can help you stay focused on your present surroundings.
This can help reduce awkward moments in two ways:
- If you’re more tuned in to what’s happening around you, you’re less likely to miss cues from others that might warn you about a possible mishap, like venting frustrations about a co-worker who’s walking up behind you.
- Increasing your awareness in the present moment can help you avoid thinking too much about awkward moments that have already happened. Instead, you might find it easier to let them go and move forward.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with social awkwardness. But it’s important to pay attention to how it makes you feel.
If you feel unhappy, distressed, or lonely in your daily life, you might want to consider talking to a therapist who can help you explore the reasons for these feelings. They can also help you develop new social skills and sharpen your self-identity.
A therapist can also help you identify underlying issues that might be playing a role, such as social anxiety. McKenzie explains that, while some people use the terms “social awkwardness” and “social anxiety” interchangeably, they’re two different things.
“People with social anxiety typically have average to above-average social skills,” she says. “You might feel like everyone at the cocktail party thinks you’re ‘weird,’ but odds are good that you’re coming off just fine to others.”
This anxiety can make you withdraw from certain social situations or just avoid them altogether.
There’s nothing wrong with being socially awkward. Whether you recognize your social awkwardness or not, it generally isn’t bad or harmful, unless it bothers you or keeps you from doing things you want to do.
But if you feel like you’re doing just fine, don’t feel pressured to change. Remember, everyone experiences a bit of awkwardness from time to time.