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The Awkward Part About Awkward Situations: You

The shared sensation of anxiety during an uncomfortable moment…it’s all in your head.

 

The term “awkward” has been overused. It’s bruised, battered, and distorted to become an adjective for any situation that isn’t ideal.

No, standing in line to prepay for gas isn’t awkward, so don’t buy into that Facebook status or tweet about it. If the man in front of you in line was wearing leopard-print yoga pants with a fishnet tank top and started talking at you about his love life, however, that would be awkward.

Or perhaps more realistically, someone in line says hello to you and you can’t remember their name to introduce them to your girlfriend.

Social interactions are rife with so-called awkward situations. The problem is that there is no sweeping landslide of an opinion to designate awkwardness. The entire restaurant isn’t going to collectively gasp if your date is quiet for 20 seconds.

What this means is what’s awkward to you may not be awkward to the person with whom you’re interacting. Or anyone in the room. Or anyone who hears about the story — or even brings up the situation hypothetically.

It might take a moment to fully digest this, but, for the sake of science, let’s step back and observe our own mannerisms.

Pay attention to yourself the next time you’re in a situation that could take a turn for the awkward. Not so much that you’re not focused on the topic of conversation or events unfolding around you, but enough to silently — and inconspicuously — imagine how the other person sees you.

If the conversation dies quickly with the last thing you say, you’re most likely making the situation awkward by closing the other person to any response. If you stare at the person you’re speaking with wide-eyed, unblinking, and breathing heavily, you’re probably making it awkward. The latter example is mostly a how-to in terms of removing all comfort from a conversation, but the lesson is there: Think about what you’re doing. If all your interactions are legitimately awkward to you, it probably isn’t the rest of the world that has the problem here.

Normalcy, Or Something Like That

What’s normal in an interaction? Or a situation, for that matter? The truth is, there’s nothing stopping that leopard-print yoga-pants-wearing, fishnet-tank-top sporting guy from getting ahead of you in line or in the same elevator. Think about that.

To this guy, who is most likely still wearing his sunglasses, this is normal. Talking about his love life to a complete stranger is normal — maybe he just wants to befriend you.

“Awkward,” for him, is light-years ahead of any experience most of us have ever had. It’s both somewhat egocentric and plain presumptuous to assume everyone shares the same threshold of comfort (and therefore awkwardness) we do.

The next time something seems awkward, observe what’s happening. If you’re shifting in your seat, rubbing your sweaty palms on your knees, and avoiding eye contact while the other person is sitting and seems content, he or she probably is.

If you’re beyond revising your definition of what an awkward situation is, try your best to at least understand where other people are coming from. Awkwardness isn’t tied to eternity. The elevator ride doesn’t last forever. You’ll get to the front of the line eventually. The dinner finishes at one point.

It’s (About) Getting Better All the Time

Like any skill, we can gradually become nearly peerless when it comes to avoiding the awkward situation.

It comes down to experience. There is no silver bullet to slay awkwardness and exorcise discomfort.

Practice. Learn how to handle any situation by, well, finding yourself in those situations and understanding ways to get out of it. Considering most awkward situations distill into uncomfortable silence, if you’ve been through it once, you’ve been through them all.

Ever notice how suave characters never find themselves at a loss for words? It’s a catch-all technique that’s almost bulletproof.

Think of an interaction as a tree. It’s abstract, yes, but imagine a greeting or the start of a conversation as the roots. There are, inherently, many different ways an interaction can start, just as there are numerous roots that build up to and nourish the tree. Once the root of the conversation-tree is established, the main topic is established: the trunk. From that trunk, there are countless branches, twigs off those branches, small leaves and fruit. Depending on your objective, you may find yourself desperate to reach the end of the lowest branch (flashback to leopard-print yoga pants guy) or you may be carefully climbing stories-high, reaching for every possible branch until you’re at the top of this sequoia of an interaction, soaking with the moisture from the fogs of heaven. That would probably be love.

But how you get up there is to prevent the awkward situation from happening in the first place. You do that by climbing methodically and systematically. Attempting to jump from one topic to another creates a disconnect — and the dreaded silence. Being able to quickly reassert a topic into a dying conversation shows a few things: You were paying enough attention to the person to be able to bring up a point of interest to you — and him or her, obviously — and allows you to continue the ascent of the tree, if you like, until you reach the canopy and, when your head comes up from under the leaves, can see for miles.

Learn how to climb the branches. Yearn and strive for the fruit that hangs at the top.

Don’t be the axe that fells the tree.

About

Gin Ando is a news junkie and coffee addict. He currently works in advertising and cannot stop writing. As a post-college twentysomething, he too is navigating the adult world. And he needs friends. Follow him on Twitter @GinAAndo.

 
  • http://selfstairway.com/ Vincent Nguyen

    The funny thing is, I never feel awkward and yet I create a lot of awkward situations, although sometimes intentionally. Sometimes my friends will say I’m making it awkward when I’m simply being genuine and feeling just fine. 

    However, I do know a lot of people who are just overall very awkward people. You can tell by the way they walk and talk that they can’t help it. It’s just a general atmosphere of overwhelming awkwardness and I sympathize. 

  • Moscanoche

    The key is confidence…not to be confused with arrogance or being cocky.

    Some people are too intent on making an impression and they end up making a bad impression. They talk too much or come up with outrageous stories that have people rolling their eyes behind their backs. Be confident in yourself so you can stand in a room full of people by yourself and observe what is going on and not feel uncomfortable.

    Read up and learn about a lot of different topics. Know a little about everything. Don’t just be a one hit wonder where the only thing you know is every statistic of your favorite sports team. It is okay if that is really what you like, but don’t just stop there. Look at the latest headlines, check out world events, look at how the stock market is doing, what sport teams are leading their divisions (even if you don’t follow that sport), Read up on other countries. Then when you meet someone who is interested in one of those topics, you can intelligently converse.

    Listen and pick up on what the other person is saying.
    Do more listening and less talking is always a good formula. There is a reason we have one mouth and two ears. Listen for something the person is saying that makes the person interesting to you and move the conversation in that direction. At that point you both have something in common. If you have followed my advice to read up and know a little about anything, the conversation can become interactive.

    Avoid hot topics that are polarizing. That is a sure set up for an awkward moment. Don’t be that opinionated person who blurts out comments without any regard to the other persons feelings. That is a sure way to make a group stop and stare and not in a good way. It is also a career killer.

    Look on the light side and keep a conversation fun and interesting. People like to be around positive people. Have you ever seen how negative people hang out with each other? Don’t be one of those persons.

    Last, find something you are good at and you are passionate about. It will show and the positive feedback you receive will boost your confidence.

    • http://www.primermagazine.com/ Andrew

      Great points!

    • awesomeduh

      How do negative people hang out with each other?

  • brockmcgoff

    Gin – your articles are always a breath of fresh air! Great topic. It’s so true that people are just waiting for someone to diffuse the tension. Elevators are a PERFECT situation to practice your jokes/small talk or whatever other tactics you might use. Talk to everyone, everywhere you go!

    Also, these sorts of soft skills will absolutely transfer to your “game” with the ladies.

    -B

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