How not to be socially awkward

Learn how not to be socially awkward by getting why and how uncomfortable situations happen - and then how to mitigate, prevent and solve those awkward situations.

How not to be socially awkward

We all have our weird moments dealing with people. But if you just seem to say something ‘weird’ too often, you might want to know how not to be socially awkward anymore.

So does any of the following ring true?

  • You struggle to talk to people
  • You're often not certain how to react to others
  • You're afraid of being judged
  • You suspect people avoid talking to you  
  • Your remarks are often followed by a silence and people looking away
  • When you talk about a subject you like, you somehow lose everybody's attention
  • Making and maintaining eye contact is hard
  • You have a hard time relaxing when you're around new people

What happens in these cases? What do you do wrong? Why don’t you get this?

Let’s figure that out and put a stop to feeling bad about socializing.

Ideally, you always have something interesting to say. Keep conversations going with ease. You’ll have no trouble stepping up to people. And if there is silence, you still feel comfortable and confident. Grounded even.

You won’t be boring, you won’t feel lonely - but connected to others.

This is a very human skill, and like any other skill, something you can learn and get better at. No matter what stage of your life you are at.

1. Social awkwardness vs social anxiety

First, let's make something clear. There is a distinction between social clumsiness, resulting in awkwardness, and social anxiety.

Social anxiety is a strong fight or flight response in social situations. A strong visceral response, sometimes even by only thinking of socializing.

It often stems from bad experiences and/or upbringing that were hurtful.

As were awkwardness is not the gut reaction and anticipation to socializing. But the inability to handle social situations gracefully.

They are intertwined of course. Being awkward can result in anxiety and the other way around. But they don’t have to be linked.

You can be clumsy and not like socializing - without feeling scared shitless of it. Or the opposite, you can dread talking to people - while being pretty good at it.

charmander the only awkward out there

Awkwardness is not something bad or evil

Navigating social life is hard. You're not inherently stupid or bad that you don’t get it (yet). You’re just lacking some experience and knowledge.

That’s all.

But you can learn and practice to make up for that.

You don’t have to feel bad because of it.

2. What makes situations feel awkward

2.1 Social rules structure our interactions

Socializing is not logical. I repeat - our social dynamics are not logical. The 'rules' are much more fuzzy and vague than coding. Instead, they are often very primal.

We have our inherent non-verbal communication, like facial expressions that communicate our moods, desires, and more. And in our society, we have a set of cultural behaviors that dictate how people interact.

So both instinctive and learned behaviors. They differ a bit per place and time.

For example, in the UK you shake hands when meeting, in Korea you make a bow.

In general, they make interactions predictable. They are a communication ritual. Some rituals are stricter than others.

There is some leeway and there are interesting ways to break the mold. But in general - sticking to the format helps you communicate and connect. Especially with people, you don't know.

Without these generalized rules, it would be impossible for people to coordinate. We need to speak the same “social language”.

Beyond the literal words we speak, we need to understand what someone else does, thinks, and feels.

If you look at business settings, the rules are even clearer. It's more ritualized and impersonal. Individual differences (of communication) should not stand in the way of working together. Think of how corporate people introduce themselves in a meeting, shake hands, and dress. Outside of work the guidelines are often a bit looser.

2.2 Social ambiguity - not knowing what to do

A situation becomes awkward if one, or both people in a social setting don’t know what the next step is. Often this is within a conversation, but it can also be a different social encounter.

Usually, because there is a strange or unknown situation - or one person did something weird. Something that doesn't fit the ritual.

This causes ambiguity. An ambiguous situation offers no clear predefined way to act. There is no sure social path to choose.

guy throwing rubber chicken

If you would throw a rubber chicken at your boss during a meeting - everybody will be stunned. What the heck is this? What is the appropriate response?

Theoretically, there are a million ways to react to this. A lot are great fun. Like "feeding" the chicken some coffee beans. But in general, most people will be very confused.

In a ritualized environment people look for the right next move. Improvisation is hard and not counted upon. So people blank.

They stop.

The social stagnation and ambiguity feel weird.

Obviously, this goes for a rubber chicken incident. But lesser (perceived) social missteps will create the same effect.

So what can cause these awkward moments in you or others?

troy walking into chaotic scene
You when encountering a new and exciting social situation

2.3 Causes of awkwardness

There are several causes of awkward moments - the most common are:

  1. Not knowing the social mores/etiquette
  2. Anxiety paralysis
  3. Missing clues
  4. Not picking up on the mood
  5. Being caught in your own mind
  6. Common situation without clear social rules
  7. No experience or unprecedented situation
  8. Mistakes and errors of judgment

2.3.1 Not knowing the social mores/etiquette

As alluded to - there is some ritual and pattern to how we communicate in our culture. That makes it predictable and comfortable.

If shaking hands is the way to introduce yourself, but you go in for a fistbump - it creates a weird moment. What next? Does your fist hit their palm?

There is this pause and anticipation of what next?

The unwritten rules of socializing dictate a lot. Not knowing those, makes it uncomfortable and awkward for you or others.

The rules are different over cultures. And some are very explicit, where others are very subtle.

my when I try to make new friends or try to socialize - totally missing the social cues

2.3.2 Anxiety paralysis

If you dread how you are going to be perceived. When you're afraid of being judged negatively. People tend to overthink what to do -or- blank out internally.

You stop in your tracks.

You have no or a stunted response - making you feel uncomfortable and awkward.

You are afraid to do something wrong and effectively do nothing. Ironically making it weird because you were afraid of making it weird.

You’ve become too nervous to be yourself.

2.3.3 Missing clues

We give off a lot of social cues. But if you are not experienced in picking up on those - you don’t know what is going on. Think of body language, facial expressions, and tonality.

If you don’t register these, or misunderstand them, you will easily give a ‘wrong’ response. You may react to what is literally said - and not to the subtext. Not to what is, for most people, clearly communicated - just not with words.

Especially eye contact is important to know what is going on. If you are unpracticed, or simply don't look people in the face - it's totally unclear what people mean.

frodo missing social cues

2.3.4 Not picking up on the mood

Related to missing clues - is not picking up on the general mood of someone, a group, or a setting. If you don’t feel - or recognize - the mood you can make yourself look foolish. Again, how people signal through their behavior and social cues indicates the mood.

If you don’t pick up on a serious or sad mood - and start cracking jokes, you instantly make it awkward.

For instance, someone just broke the news their father is very sick. All people around are being considerate and consoling. You create a lot of tension, if you then start passionately telling about your great day.

In such a case, you are communicating on a different emotional level. There is a social disconnect. Making it weird.

2.3.5 Being caught in your own mind

Sometimes because you don’t know what is expected, you fall back to talking about what you like.

Especially if you're a more rational/technical person. You can start focusing on topics such as engineering, logic, or mathematics. (But it might be something else for you.)

As you talk intensely about what you like, without knowing the other person is "as interested" - it can get awkward.

A physicist friend of mine does this all the time. He likes to go on a tangent about some quantum mechanics problem or some other difficult subject. Most people will zone out or move on. He has to nudge himself back to subjects everyone can and likes to talk about. Or learn to slowly introduce these interesting, but difficult, topics.

2.3.6 Common situation without clear social rules

There are also familiar situations, that have no clear social etiquette.

Like seeing an acquaintance coming down the hallway. Something many people struggle with. When do you make eye contact? When do you say hi? Do you even acknowledge each other?

Somehow it always feels wrong.

No rules mean confusion, which can make it awkward.

ron awkward smile when passing someone

2.3.7 No experience or unprecedented situation

There can be situations you are simply not familiar with, or that don’t have any social precedent.

What happens if you drop your ice cream on your neighbor's dog? Few people have been in that kind of situation, so how do you know how to act?

2.3.8 Mistakes and errors of judgment

And of course, there are honest mistakes.

Mishearing someone and going on the wrong tangent. Or confuse the subtext of someone and answering something of color. Or cracking just the wrong kind of joke.

You fuck up sometimes. It happens to everybody.

3. How to defuse awkward situations!!

So an awkward situation is a moment where you and/or someone else don’t know what to do. It being vague or ambiguous.

So what do you do to defuse the awkwardness?

You take away the vagueness and insecurity.

  1. Focus on the other or outward
  2. Take the initiative
  3. Ask if you don’t know
  4. Acknowledge the awkwardness
  5. Step away
  6. Breathe away your rambling
  7. Letting awkwardness slide
winning awkwardness by more awkwardness

3.1 Focus on the other or outward

People tend to focus on themselves in awkward situations. On how you feel, what to do next, and stopping in your tracks because you can’t figure it out.

But - if you focus on the other person, you can get out of your loop.

So try instead to make the other person comfortable in the situation. Show interest, ask questions, or revert to a previous subject you seemed to click on.

Or bring back your focus to the situation. Try to experience the environment. How does the temperature feel? Is there any wind? What can you see? What are you observing?

By focusing outward you lose focus on feeling weird. You can even use it to comment on the shared experience you have with the other person.

3.2 Take the initiative

If the situation stagnates into awkwardness. Create clarity by taking the lead.

Decide what will be the next step.

You take away the vagueness by creating a clear new step. So you might switch the subject, decide the next activity or choose to leave.

Moving on, regardless of feeling awkward, to create a situation that has no vagueness. Takes some guts and practice - but it works!

So let's say someone you vaguely know walks down the street. You don't know whether to say hi, minimally acknowledge him or ignore him.

Instead of waiting it out, while feeling a dreadful suspense, choose confidently.

In this case, you are going to say hi, as if a good friend comes by. You take the initiative, you set a clear course - doesn't really matter if it's exactly the "right course" - because there is no real right or wrong here.

But you take away the vagueness, set a clear course, and by doing so feel better about the situation.

3.3 Ask if you don’t know

Sometimes situations are weird.

If you are unsure what to do. In a professional situation, or somewhere where other people have more experience. Just ask what to do next.

Ask for some clarification. Ask what is going on. Or explain why the situation seems weird to you - or ask: "So, what do we do next?"

3.4 Acknowledge the awkwardness

Some people are for - others against. But if you have some confidence, this can pay off. If things get awkward - acknowledge the awkwardness.

State that the situation (not the other person or you) is awkward. And move on from there.

Or if you realize what you said made it awkward. Acknowledge your mistake, take it back - and say you want to try over.

It’s not fun - but it takes the sting out of the situation, and allows you to re-connect again.

3.5 Step away

Sometimes situations are over. Either abruptly or slowly faded. If you don’t recognize it is time to end the conversation - it descends into awkwardness.

Want to wait till it’s weirder? Nah, at times like these you can step away and move on with your day.

if you don't know how to leave a situation, just roll away

3.6 Breathe away your rambling

Maybe you are someone who starts rambling to fill the void. Making a situation more uncomfortable.

Try to catch yourself before you will desperately fill the silence. Take a few deep breaths. Focus on that. Deep breath in 3 seconds, keep it in 3 seconds and 3 seconds out. Try that a few times.

You stop your rambling and lower your heart rate, creating some more peace of mind.

3.7 Letting awkwardness slide

You can also show social grace.

If a situation becomes awkward because of one of you. Don’t acknowledge it, just let it slide by.

Shrug it off and move on.

walking dead, letting it slide

Not acknowledging weirdness can be a strong reaction. Both internally and externally. Because you let yourself and someone else off the hook.

Let's say the person you are talking with asks you a very personal question. Something that you find actually inappropriate, like: "What are your favorite condiments?"

Too personal!

So it gets weird. Choose to just let it go, and move on with the conversation. You ignore the mistake and allow the conversation to move on regardless. You can do this as well if you yourself would make a blunder.

4. How to prevent awkward situations

  1. Get to know the social mores
  2. Learn to make eye contact
  3. Learn about body language, tones, and other social cues
  4. Be positive and energetic
  5. Keep conversations going - be genuinely interested
  6. Be prepared
  7. Focus on making the other person comfortable
  8. Don’t seek approval or acceptance
  9. Test the water when making jokes
  10. Recognize the end of a conversation
  11. Don't overshare
  12. Be the director
  13. Give the right kind of compliments
  14. Handle compliments with grace

4.1 Get to know the social mores

Socializing can feel like a minefield of mistakes to make - but being prepared makes it easier.

Learn how to interact with people. That means not just knowing 'what' to say, but 'how' to say it. And what the small rituals and uses are.

Seems obvious, and it is. You can read up on books like how to talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere, check out the small talk cheat sheet, and observe real-life situations. Learn to recognize patterns. See the difference between what is literally said and how people act.

I’ve written a lot about very general social graces. But small nuances are always changing, and there are big differences between (sub)cultures. Like how we changed to greet each other during the covid pandemic.

Learn to use the (unwritten) rules in your own social environment(s).

4.2 Learn to make eye contact

Since our eyes project so much of our meaning. It is important to start paying attention to them. There are many ways to practice making eye contact.

By establishing eye contact, you connect to the other person's inner life. You can estimate how someone else is feeling and vice versa. It takes away a lot of your blindspots. This really helps to finally understand people.

4.3 Learn about body language, tones, and other social cues

Furthermore - how people move, indicates what they mean as well. Again, look at books like The Definitive Book of Body Language and observe in the wild.

But next to that, HOW we say things also is a big part of communication. Practice listening to tonal differences. When is someone sincere? When sarcastic? And when formal?

4.4 Be positive and energetic

People easily forgive the person who lifts up the conversation. If you can be upbeat and lively, you add a lot of value to the dullness of life.

You can say stupid, awkward stuff. But if you do it with a positive vibe, your mistakes are easily forgiven.

4.5 Keep conversations going - be genuinely interested

Learn how to keep conversations going. A big part of that is staying genuinely interested in other people. Cultivate this interest. Keep asking away and find what makes people tick.

You can use the FORD framework of;

  • Family & friends
  • Occupation
  • Recreation
  • Dreams.

Or go a bit further and ask people about their

  • Pets
  • favorite Media (music, movies, books, games)
  • their Travels
  • Food & Drinks they like.

(So; FORD-PMTFD - easy to remember 😬.)

Once you find something people like to talk about, dig deeper. Ask more why and how questions.

If you hit the right spot, you don’t have to talk too much. It is even better if you find a common interest. So you can both indulge in talking about a favorite subject.

You'll get these easy conversations by being interested.

tom realizing he has to talk to people to form relationships

4.6 Be prepared

To make things easier. Be prepared.

Have a few canned openers, and questions at the ready to start or keep a conversation going. Use them well depending on the situation. This can make thinking about what to say less taxing. Besides, it can take the sting out of an oncoming awkward situation.

Here are some examples for an informal setting;

Openers:

  1. Hey, what brings you here?
  2. Hey, nice to meet you, I'm [player_1] btw, who are you?
  3. Hi! How's your day so far?

Keeping a conversation going:

  1. So you've got any passion project you're working on?
  2. Any cool weekend or holiday plans you're looking forward to?
  3. You've got any good series or movies to recommend?

4.7 Focus on making the other person comfortable

It may be surprising because if you feel nervous you tend to focus on yourself. But making other people comfortable will ease your nerves.

They can also stress out about socializing.

First of all - it takes the focus on yourself away, and second, it makes the conversation that much more pleasant.

Easy little tricks are being the first one to smile or offering a compliment. Take a look here for more on feeling and making other people more at ease.

4.8 Don’t seek approval or acceptance

You are here to socialize, not validate yourself.

Somehow, people who look for acceptance don’t get it. It’s one of those illogical things. But the neediness of being accepted causes people to disrespect you. It's almost like others can smell it.

But if you come in, with self-confidence, accepting yourself - other people will most likely embrace you as well. Think of being of added value to someone or a group.

This is something you'll learn over time. If you are struggling with socializing, it might be hard to embrace who you are. Still, try and learn. Find the respect first inside, and don't seek it in others.

4.9 Test the water when making jokes

Humor is very complex. It’s hard to explain why things are funny and other things are offensive (closely tied though.) Besides it differs from person to person.

Therefore check out if people have the same kind of humor as you do. A joke in one setting is a gross insult in another. Test the waters, gradually try out your sense of humor and see if people react positively. Only if they do, go a bit further.

You wouldn’t be the first to ruin a good conversation by making an off-color joke.

making a joke, people laughing, riding those vibes the rest of the day

4.10 Recognize the end of a conversation

There are some social cues that people are done with the conversation. Has nothing to do with you perse.

If people, slowly step, look, lean, or twist away. Those are clear cues that the conversation is ending.

Let people leave gracefully. By acknowledging they probably have other matters to attend to. Or take the initiative and step away yourself.

4.11 Don’t overshare

Being honest is great. But don't be too forthcoming with personal information. It makes other people uncomfortable and creates cringy situations.

Only be vulnerable and open with people you have build enough rapport with.

Being vulnerable and open is a way to create deeper connections. But you can't just dive into the deep end. Take it step by step.

You open up a bit, you connect more. They open up a bit. You connect more. You share. They share. Etcetera.

Instead of oversharing immediately, by telling about that strange rash on your back or your deep fear of pigeons. It's uncomfortable, how do others react to that if they poorly know and trust you.

But opening up about a small mistake at work that day is being vulnerable and simple enough to bond over. If people share back, you can over time take it up a notch. In the end, by growing ever more vulnerable and sharing about your inner life you build new friendships.

oversharing and realizing it later

4.12 Be the director

So vagueness and ambiguity cause awkwardness. But if it is clear where a conversation goes, that’s not a problem.

As said, you can get out of awkwardness by taking the lead. But you can also never get into awkwardness if you take the guide the conversation. By being a director you can steer clear of vague situations.

How?

Do things like; Being the first to smile. Being the first to reach out for a handshake. Showing interest first and confidently ending a conversation when it is over.

By guiding how a conversation goes, while still giving plenty of space to others to be themselves, you can create a comfortable atmosphere for people to connect in.

4.13 Give the right kind of compliments

Some compliments can be very nice and flattering. Some can be weird.

This all has to do with our social norms. So it's context-dependent.

An extreme example: complimenting someone’s bubble butt in the club, can be a great compliment. Trying the same thing with a client at the office,.. rough and awkward.

You would do better to give a more acceptable compliment, like how someone brightens up the room. No matter how much you like their butt.

4.14 Handle compliments with grace

For some people receiving a compliment is awkward in and of itself. Because it is unclear how to react. There are actually two great ways to receive a compliment - you compliment back or you say thank you.

So next time someone says something nice, give an appropriate compliment back. Or just say thanks!

It's that simple!

(Also don't dismiss their compliment - they are probably on to something and you can look more positively at yourself as well!)

when you don't know how to react to a compliment and give a weird smile

5. How to overcome/prevent the awkward mindset

  1. Don’t assume it’s going to be awkward
  2. Challenge negative thoughts
  3. Embrace discomfort, insecurity, and silence
  4. Build confidence
  5. Everything is practice and not the endgame

5.1 Don’t assume it’s going to be awkward

If things have gotten awkward in the past - you might assume it will happen more often. But the past doesn't guarantee the future.

Convince yourself that situations don’t have to be awkward.

Go into a conversation with the mindest that 'everybody likes you.' Most people can be your friend, it’s gonna be fun.

Not convinced? Just see it as fooling yourself a bit. You are doing just the same now, but with a negative mindset.

If you believe things will get awkward, it’s pretty self-fulfilling. Your mind will be set to anticipating awkwardness. Fat chance you’ll make it awkward.

But when you set your mind on ease and fun - that outcome is much more likely.

It’s not that changing your mindset is magic or 'the way'. But how you think colors your experience. Because how you think, how you process information IS your experience.

So if over time you can look at social situations positively, they will become more enjoyable.

Take a look here if you want to learn more about changing mindsets.

5.2 Challenge negative thoughts

Because of negative patterns (mindsets, beliefs, habits) there can be a lot of negative thoughts swimming through your head.

They make you overthink and doubt yourself.

But you can also challenge your active negative thoughts. By interrupting your habitual thought loops. And by gradually transforming your thoughts into something more positive.

By overcoming your negative thinking patterns, your day to day experience become more relaxed and positive.

You can read more on challenging your negative thoughts here.

negative thoughts and letting them slide

5.3 Embrace discomfort, insecurity, and silence

Also, get comfortable in silences and vague situations.

In life, no matter how positive and chill you are, you will encounter uncomfortable situations.

Don't fight them. Embrace them.

Feel the discomfort, feel your unease and accept it. Live on this edge - and learn from it. Learn who you are, and be okay with that.

As you embrace ambiguous situations and silences - you’ll notice that they are actually not so bad. A shared silence can actually be very fulfilling.

Besides, a lot of vague situations are not that awkward after all - it is how you felt that made it awkward.

Actually, and you might only get this after some practice, but a situation is only awkward if you FEEL awkward. If you decide to be thwarted by a bit of insecurity.

So lean into discomfort and find that it is not so bad, only a fancy of your imagination.

5.4 Build confidence

Being confident helps.

So build up your confidence. By slowly growing more socially adept - but also by excelling in other skills in your life. Be it at work, or one of your hobbies.

Challenge yourself and overcome your (perceived) barriers. Do more small and big things that make you nervous or scared. Confidence in one area can overflow in your social life.

As you feel more confident in general - you are more stable, less anxious, and more at ease in weird situations. You can take the lead if things get awkward. You can handle unclear situations more easily.

If you know you are gonna have a challenging social event coming - boost your confidence a bit. For me working out helps. But maybe you like to meditate, take a long walk, or get a winning streak in your favorite video game.

Confidence gives clarity and stability.

5.5 Everything is practice and not the endgame

Awkwardness happens all the time. Even to the most charismatic people in the world.

But what do they do, they go with the flow and make the best out of it.

Every social encounter is a small practice for all the others yet to come. See every interaction as practice. As a small exercise to get better. It isn't a problem if you make a mistake. You are learning. You can try again better next time.

Take some pressure off, by not seeing everything as the endgame, but the process.


No more Mr. Awkward

So that is it.

Now you know why awkward situations arise, and how you can handle and prevent them.

If this helped, share it with a friend or online.

And tell me, what was a very awkward moment in your life? What did you learn from that?