Calling your primary school teacher "mum." Farting in a yoga class. Liking an ex's Instagram from 53 weeks ago. Waving at a person who definitely wasn't looking at you. Pretty much all of us have experienced some degree of awkwardness in our lifetimes, or had faux pas so cringe-worthy you've wanted to crawl out of your skin. Some people have a lot more of these moments, while others just feel like they have more.
"Awkward" is a subjective term, but generally speaking, awkward moments are just "deviations from small social expectations," explains Ty Tashiro, PhD, a psychologist and the author of AWKWARD: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. Although there's usually no malice or intent behind an awkward moment, we tend to have a strong psychological reaction to this sort of deviation, he says.
Being socially awkward is slightly different than having social anxiety, although they are similar phenomenons. A core symptom of social anxiety is fear of judgment, explains Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical director of Light on Anxiety, a cognitive behavioural therapy treatment centre in Chicago. Someone might avoid social situations to prevent judgment, or have a real phobia of awkwardness, she says. On the other hand, a person who's socially awkward might miss the social expectations and social information that everybody else is seeing, Dr. Tashiro says.
As humans, we all have a desire to be understood and feel like we belong, so being cognisant of awkwardness can be a good thing. "Our brains are supposed to be sensitive to that awkwardness, because it helps us not engage in behaviours that might not work out well," Dr. Kissen says. "But some people have exquisite sensitivity to it." Dr. Kissen's advice for people who constantly feel like they're on the brim of doing something awkward is to just try to relax. "They'd probably have more fun, and maybe once every million times they'd say a bad joke," she says. "But who cares?" This is great advice for anyone who feels shook in nerve-wracking social situations.
If letting go isn't doable for you, or you're not really sure what's considered "awkward," then here are some broad signs to keep in mind:
You have a hard time interpreting social situations
Awkward people may have some social skill deficits that make it challenging to read a room, or figure out what a social situation demands, Dr. Tashiro says. "They also have difficulty executing on what the proper social skill is even when they know what that should be." For example, if you're at a coffee shop, you might zoom right to the counter to order, without the self-awareness to acknowledge that there's a line of people waiting. Or, you might forget to introduce yourself to the host of a party when you walk in the door. "Some things can be misinterpreted as being rude, malicious, or aloof, when in fact, it sometimes its not any of those things," he says. "It's just that they didn’t do things as smoothly as one would’ve hoped."
You struggle to communicate with people
"For awkward people, engaging in social interactions feels like talking in a second language," Dr. Tashiro says. They have a hard time getting the underlying meaning from what people are trying to tell them, or even reading cues from people's vocal inflections and intonations. "So, you could easily see how awkward people could misinterpret certain kinds of communication," he adds. Communication cues that might be intuitive for socially comfortable people (like wrapping up a story when people lose interest) might take some practice for a person who's socially awkward. Dr. Kissen says she sometimes will practice long pauses with clients, to train them to get used to the awkwardness.
You tend to latch onto subjects and obsess over them
Awkward people love what they love, and sometimes so much that it's to their detriment, Dr. Tashiro says. While having passions and interests is a good thing, it can make social situations even more difficult. For example, you might ramble on about a subject after everyone else has moved on, or find it tough to connect with people who don't match your level of enthusiasm.
Ultimately, awkwardness is not a curse, and in some cases it can be a really positive trait. If you find that these moments of embarrassment are interfering with your daily life, and you're determined to feel better in social situations, it's worth it to practise building your skills. Dr. Tashiro says he was an "extraordinarily awkward kid," but through deliberate practice, these scenarios became more tolerable. Finding a role model who you respect and would want to emulate in social situations is another good idea, he says. "It may feel a little bit contrived at first, but like of like a language, you'll become more comfortable with it and embrace it."