Everyone is going to have awkward moments. It’s a universal truth: no matter how cool or accomplished you are, you will do things that will make you cringe so hard your skin will crawl off you. Even people you suspect have everything together can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Chris Evans may be the living incarnation of Captain America, but he’s also an awkward mess at times. If Steve Rogers gets terrified at dealing with social issues, who else might?
Of course, for many of us, those awkward moments can linger with us. Sometimes the awkwardness will haunt us for literally all of our lives, inspiring endless sleepless dark nights of the soul-cringe with the memory of events from decades ago.
Awkward moments may be a universal affliction, but it’s how you deal with it that matters. Here’s how you learn to handle those uncomfortable situations with grace and skill.
Understand What Awkward Is
One of the first steps to learning how to handle and defuse awkward moments is to understand and appreciate what awkwardness truly is. Awkwardness is not the same thing as creepiness. The difference between awkward and creepy is simple. Awkward is social discomfort, that feeling of “oh, I fucked up.” Creepiness is the discomfort of fear – the feeling of “he’s going to fuck me up”. Asking someone out, for example, can be awkward. However, asking for a date isn’t inherently creepy.
Awkward is “I asked her out and she turned me down. Now it’s a little uncomfortable to see her and be reminded that I was rejected.” Creepy is “I asked her out and she turned me down. Now I’m going to ask her out again. And again. Then send flowers to her house. And show up at work. And warn off the guys who are flirting with her because she is mine, dammit.”
Awkward is about that momentary discomfort that arises from situations where things have gone in an undesirable way. Notice how I specifically said “momentary”. Most awkward situations are fleeting; it happens, it’s over and soon forgotten. It only seems to last forever to us because time is subjective when we’re focusing on it and our inherent negativity bias makes those moments feel so much more than they are. The more embarrassed we feel in the moment, the more we dwell on it. The more we dwell, the more it engraves itself on our brains.
Of course, that same bias is what convinces us that the awkwardness we feel is universally felt or observed. In fact, most people never notice or care about our awkward. More often than not, we are projecting the perception of our awkwardness to others, inflicting psychic wounds that nobody else even noticed.
So how do we go about keeping the awkward from having such terrible power over us?
Avoid The Awkward In The First Place
The first and best way to avoid the discomfort of awkwardness is simple: stop the awkward from even occurring.
Of course, this doesn’t mean going through life as cool as James Bond and smooth as Bruce Lee. Nor does it mean avoiding people entirely.
What it does mean is simply learning how to avoid the behaviors and actions that can lead to awkward moments. The easiest way is often, paradoxically, the hardest to accomplish at first: you want to slow down. Many awkward moments arise because, frankly, we leap without looking. We get overstimulated, caught up in the moment, or simply so overcome with nerves that our brains get stuck several steps behind the rest of us. Our mouths run faster than our brains can keep up and so we end up saying something that makes us want to dig a hole and pull it in after us.
That’s why one of the best ways to avoid the awkwardness is to just slow your roll. One of the reasons why we trip over our tongues and say something cringe-inducing is because we are so afraid of silence that we throw up verbal flack. We try to fill all the ambient space with words and end up saying things we didn’t mean to or don’t stop to realize the implications of what we just said. Other times we are so overloaded that we simply can’t absorb everything. Why did you forget that person’s name? Because you had four other things running in your brain at the same time and you ran out of mental bandwidth. Slowing down, being more mindful and letting the silence just be makes it that much easier to stay aware.
Plus: pausing before you respond to someone makes you look much more considerate and intelligent. People will think you’re taking a moment to fully consider their words. They don’t have to know you’re stalling for time.
While you’re at it: take the pressure off by taking the spotlight off you. Focusing on other people – taking an interest in them and asking questions – helps you feel less like you’re expected to perform. Without being the focus of attention, you’re better able to relax and feel more confident. Plus: asking questions is a great way to get people to like you.
Just as importantly however is to not make assumptions. Many times, the things that make us feel awkward are entirely in our heads. You are not a mind-reader. You don’t know what people are thinking – not about you, not about what you said. Hell, they may not even have noticed that unbelievably awkward thing. Most people are caught up in their own shit and have neither the time nor the bandwidth to pay attention to your minutia. If you’re awkward in front of people and nobody noticed it… it never really happened.
And that leads us to the next trick…
Power On Through
Part of what makes the awkward so painful is the way it just lingers like a bad smell. What makes it worse isn’t even the actual awkwardness, it’s the potential awkwardness. The fear of the awkward takes up valuable space in our heads and leaves us in a constant state of tension. Now we can’t relax because we have to be on our guard, waiting for the moment that the awkward-bomb goes off.
Of course, the longer you wait, the worse it gets because now your brain has time to engage the nerd’s worst super-power: Worst Case Scenario vision. Now momentary discomfort becomes an event that leads to your social exile, shunned by all right-thinking people. In reality, it’ll never happen. Your worst-case scenario is a fantasy, not reality… but it feels real.
Which is why you don’t want to give the potential awkward the chance to set up shop. Let’s take, for example, one of the classic moments of impending awkwardness. Your buddy has taken you to a party his friend is throwing. Problem is: you don’t know anyone there. And your buddy has just disappeared on you.
Now you’re stuck in the corner, feeling like a tool and pretending to text on your phone instead of interacting with people. The longer you hover in the corner, the worse you feel. You become convinced that everyone is noticing the wallflower and who even let you in the door.
So instead of letting the awkward kick in, you need to push through and start a conversation – just one – with someone, anyone. The three second rule is perfect in this scenario: as soon as you see someone to talk to, you have three seconds to prepare and go introduce yourself. Any longer and you’ll psych yourself out. Taking too long to go over bleeds off the emotional momentum and leaves you stuck in an even more awkward position. So you need to use that first push – hard as it may be – to propel you into a conversation. Party conversations are among the easiest conversations to join; the social contract means that everyone expects to meet strangers.
Need to have an awkward conversation? You say “OK, this is going to be a bit awkward but here goes…” and dive right in. Not giving yourself time to pause or worry keeps you from tripping over your own brain.
But what if it isn’t a case of potential awkwardness; what if you’re absolutely convinced that awkwardness will ensue? What if you ask someone out and they turn you down?
Same story: you push on through. Pretending awkwardness doesn’t exist is a power-move. You asked someone out and they turned you down. How do you get through that awkwardness? By pushing through like it didn’t exist. “You know, I’d love to take you to dinner. No? OK, cool. So like I was saying the other day…” People look to others for clues on how to respond emotionally; if you act like something is perfectly normal and not at all strange, they’ll behave the same way. Don’t start none, won’t be none and all that.
Not sure how to force your way through that awkwardness? Assume the best – you’ll be fine and everyone will be totally cool about it. Expecting people to like you or react well to you is the Jedi mind trick; by behaving as though they already are cool with you, you convince them to be cool with you. Your expectations and attitude change your body language, leading you to behave in a more relaxed and confident manner. That inspires them to be more relaxed and confident as well – and that relaxation defuses the potential awkward.
But what if…
It’s Awkward. Now What?
Well, you went and done it. You did something and things are unquestionably awkward. Now you have to get through the awkwardness as best you can… preferably in a way that doesn’t leave you staring at the ceiling at 3 in the morning years from now.
When you’re feeling like ten pounds of embarrassment in a five pound sack, how do you defuse the situation and get back to not wanting to die of shame?
Simple: you own it.
Nothing kills the awkward faster or more effectively than calling it out. Awkwardness thrives in silence and shame. It is the elephant in the room; everyone is trying to pretend it’s not there while the room fills with elephant shit. Being willing to be the person to acknowledge the fact that the awkwardness exists deflates the tension because OH THANK GOD SOMEBODY SAID SOMETHING. That sense of relief is so palpable that it can overwhelm the awkwardness. Now it’s something you can laugh at instead of sitting there, gritting your teeth and feeling awful. You aren’t the guy who made things awkward, you’re the one who made things less awkward by pointing it out.
So remember this phrase: “So that got awkward, huh?” You’re going to acknowledge the awkward and break the tension. But that’s not the only thing you’re going to do. Now that you’ve acknowledged the awkwardness, it’s time to rectify things.
Did you fuck up? Then you apologize. A sincere apology is your power move when it comes to handling awkward situations. Are you minutes, hours or worse, days into a conversation with someone only to realize that you don’t remember their name? “Hey, this is awkward and I’m sorry, but I’m awful with names….” Did you have a little too much to drink and said something stupid? “Wow, I made things a bit awkward last night, didn’t I? I’m sorry about that…” Did you shove your foot in your mouth so far you’ve become a human klein bottle? “Wow, I didn’t realize, I’m so sorry…”
People don’t remember what you did half as much as how you make them feel. Apologizing and owning the awkward helps make things better. It shows that you’re considerate and positive person – an impression that will last far longer than the emotional memory of that awkwardness.
Besides: by owning the awkwardness, you may well find out that it’s not as big of a deal as you had thought.
But there’s one more important point to consider when it comes to dealing with awkward moments…
Get Comfortable With Discomfort
Awkward is often uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar. We don’t feel the same discomfort with things that we know well, even when we mess up because we still have that emotional roadmap. It may not be pleasant, but at least we know the rules and what to expect. The unfamiliar, however, is terra incognita; it offers new ways to mess up and consequences we can only imagine… and frequently do. And so, our fear of doing or being awkward takes us to a place of avoidance; we’re afraid of being afraid and so we avoid the things that trigger that discomfort. In practice, that means we stay far too firmly in our comfort zones. And while staying there is soothing… staying there too long becomes stifling and paralyzing. The longer we go without pushing ourselves, the less we’re able to do… and the discomfort of awkwardness becomes paralysis instead.
But confidence is born out of confronting potential awkwardness. Confidence = discomfort + survival.
Getting used to discomfort – feeling it without letting it overwhelm you, makes you stronger. It helps build your willpower and gives you the fortitude to take on things that would intimidate you otherwise. Getting used to facing discomfort gets you used to pushing your limits and challenging yourself. You learn to expand your horizons and be able to adapt to new and unfamiliar situations.
That, in turn, brings greater self-assurance. With greater faith in your own capabilities comes greater social fluency.
Face down your awkward… and you’ll learn to face any situation with confidence.