It’s happened to everyone at some point or another: You’ve forgotten to zip up a piece of clothing. There’s food between your teeth. Your body has let out an unfortunate noise. Or you’ve spilled something on yourself and everyone around you. There’s nothing you can do to undo the situation, even though you might wish you could turn back the embarrassing hands of time.
Whether you’re a repeat offender or only occasionally have these “oops” moments, it would be helpful to know to extricate yourself from embarrassment. Fortunately, a study by John Jay College professor Joshua Clegg (2012) provides some guidance. Defining socially awkward situations as “problematic instances of social affiliation,” Clegg bases his work on the theory that most people have a need to belong. This desire for affiliation leads us to engage in self-regulation, in which we are constantly on the lookout to see what other people think about us. When we think that people are evaluating us negatively, our sense of self takes a huge hit.
To gain insight into the experience of feeling socially awkward, Clegg undertook what’s called a “narrative” study, in which he and his research team asked participants to report in depth about a particular instance. The researchers used a semi-structured interview that allowed participants the freedom to describe their experiences but also provided some guidance so that the responses would be interpretable across participants.
Clegg and his team discussed each of the responses, searching for common themes. The participants included undergraduates as well as people from a range of ages and walks of life, including a man in his 90s. The goal was to go in-depth into the respondents' narratives, rather than to count proportions, as is done in other surveys. Thus, the findings are particularly helpful in gaining an inside look into the experience of social awkwardness.
Tense or uncertain social situations were the first type of awkwardness that Clegg and his team identified. These could be sudden (as when you drop or spill something) but often are ones that you expect ahead of time to be awkward. For example, Clegg described the experience of “meeting the parents” of one’s significant other. In general, the less you know what to expect about a situation, the more you anticipate it to be awkward. If you’re lucky, though, the situation doesn’t turn out as badly as you expected, so the awkwardness is never realized.
Awkwardness may also take the form of a perceived transgression. For example, you say or do something that goes over the boundaries of taste or propriety. You might, for instance, make a joke about someone you don’t know very well but only realize after you’ve blurted out the comment that it went too far. It’s awkward not only to commit a social transgression like this, but to be part of a group in which it’s done by someone else.
During an awkward moment, you’re likely to feel intense focusing of social attention. Time may seem to slow or stop, as in your mind (and possibly in reality), you’ve become the target of everyone’s gaze. You feel anxious and embarrassed, and perhaps even experience sweaty palms and heart palpitations. Although some individuals enjoy being the center of attention, particularly those high in narcissism, after committing a social transgression, the feeling that others are staring is typically uncomfortable during or following an awkward moment.
Once you start to feel awkward, the chances are that you’ll behave in ways that become even more awkward. Your anxiety may lead you to laugh anxiously, speak in a wavering tone of voice, look uncomfortable, and blush or stammer. At the same time, other people in the room may themselves feel an empathic kind of awkwardness. They think about what it might be like if the awkward thing happened to them, but also might feel that your behavior makes them look bad. What if you bring a friend to a party and the friend spills soda all over herself? You might be glad that at least none of it got on you, but you might also feel that everyone else will judge you as clumsy, too, because it was your friend.
Now that we’ve looked at the anatomy of an awkward situation, let’s move on to see how the participants in the Clegg study resolved their feelings of anxiety and discomfort. First, Clegg and his team noted that the participants were anxious to make it all go away as fast as possible. As one participant stated, “I felt like the longer I let it sit, the more it would fester and just be uncomfortable and leave a bad taste in everybody’s mouth” (p. 270).
When you’ve committed an awkward act, there are two broad alternatives: Pretend it didn’t happen (avoidance) or confront it directly. Comedian Chevy Chase, in his early days, was the master of launching a grand pratfall from which he jumped up and moved on as if nothing had occurred. It may be funny for a comedian to commit such a faux pas, but when it happens to you, there’s nothing humorous about it. In an avoidant response, you try to distance yourself from the situation by averting your gaze, or you might just get out and leave during the first opportunity.
Unfortunately, by pretending something bad didn’t happen, you don’t make it go away. You might decide that since there’s nothing you can do, it is best to forget it and move on, but at least in some people’s minds, it’s not been resolved. One example Clegg provides is of a young woman in a pool whose swimsuit had come off. Obviously, she was embarrassed, but rather than own up to her feelings, she just swam away as quickly as possible, hoping that no one noticed (though of course, they did).
A much better strategy for resolving awkwardness is confronting it directly. In most cases that Clegg investigated, the situation was resolved best through humor. This has to apply to you when you’re the one who’s committed the awkward act. You won’t gain friends if you use humor to make fun of their awkwardness. However, your friends will feel a lot better about the situation and probably admire you for your courage when you own up to a social transgression. You don’t have to be a professional comedian to know how to use humor in an awkward situation. Even saying “awkward!” can do the trick.
Because everyone has moments of awkwardness, there’s no point in imagining that you can be immune from them. Instead, by showing that you’re able to handle the discomfort and move on, you will minimize their effects on the way others view you—and how you view yourself.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2014
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Clegg, J. W. (2012). The importance of feeling awkward: A dialogical narrative phenomenology of socially awkward situations. Qualitative Research In Psychology, 9(3), 262-278.