10 Awkward Moments, and 6 Ways to Escape Them

New research shows when things get most awkward, and the best paths to relief.

Posted Mar 25, 2015

Lighthunter/Shutterstock
Source: Lighthunter/Shutterstock

We've all had the awful experience of feeling awkward in social situations. Most of us have had such experiences over and over again. What's that about? Do you know what happens in social interactions that can make you feel awkward and uncomfortable? Think about that, and then read on to see what research psychologist Joshua Clegg discovered in his research. Happily, he also uncovered a few things people can do to escape the awkwardness—without actually walking away.

Social awkwardness seems especially likely to occur among strangers, so in Clegg's research, most participants did not know each other. (Also, most were college students.) When they showed up for the study, they were led into a room where some of the other participants may have already arrived, and instructed to take one of the seats around the table. On the table were cups, a pitcher of water, and a plate of cookies. After the last participant arrived, the door was closed and the participants were not given any other instructions. After a few minutes, the researcher entered and told them that later in the study, each of them would be asked to introduce one of the others to everyone else, so they needed to get to know each other. The researcher left for a while, then came back later and said, "So who wants to start?" Ten different groups went through the same process.

Here's how Clegg knew exactly when the participants were feeling most awkward: He recorded the entire study on video, then showed the recording to each of the participants individually, and had them indicate, on a moment-to-moment basis, how awkward they felt. Afterward, participants also described the moments that were most and least awkward.

Descent into Awkwardness

Here are some key situations that tend to make feelings of awkwardness spike:

  1. Walking into a room where you don't know any of the other people.
     
  2. Being in a situation in which you don't know what you are supposed to do—there are no obvious norms. For example, when the last of the participants had been led into the room, they were all just left there, with no further instructions. As one later said, "No one was talking; we didn't know what to do…"
     
  3. You are all talking amongst yourself and someone new—and unknown to anyone—approaches the group.
     
  4. When a conversation does not go smoothly. For example:
  • Several people start talking at the same time.
  • Someone interrupts you.
  • You stumble all over your own words and sound totally incoherent.
  • You experience those awkward silences, when for too long, no one says anything.

5. Discomfort around food. For example:

  • Uncertainty about the proper norms. In the study, there was particular awkwardness over whether anyone was going to take the first cookie, or the last one.
  • Embarrassing yourself with the way you eat. For example, one of the participants got crumbs all over the table, another had some cookie shoot out of her mouth as she spoke, another was asked a question just as she had taken a bite, another got melted chocolate on her fingers and was trying to get it off, and still another got caught trying to get some food out of her teeth.

6. Invading someone else's personal space—or having your own space invaded. For example, one person thought two of the others were standing too close to her while they were waiting to get some water. And another person reached in front of another participant to grab the water pitcher.

7. When someone says, or implies, something unkind. For example, when one of the participants suggested that they all share fun facts about themselves, another person made a face and stuck out her tongue.

8. Forgetting someone's name. This is awkward all around—for the person who can't remember the name, for the person who feels slighted because someone else didn't remember their name, (and probably for the people observing the interaction, too).

9. Not remembering another person at all. For example, two of the participants had gone to the same high school, but one just didn't recognize or remember the other.

10. Feeling like you have been put in the spotlight. For example, when you are introducing someone, or you are the one getting introduced, you can feel like everyone is looking at you and that can make you uncomfortable. Also, when other people start talking about you and you are right there in the same room—awkward!

Escape from Awkwardness

Here are some of the key things you can do to feel much less awkward and far more comfortable. (These approaches worked for the participants in the research.)

  1. Find common interests. In the research, participants who discovered that they lived near each other or had friends in common suddenly felt far less awkward.
  2. Discuss what interests you. As one research participant noted, "It was comfortable to talk about something I already knew." Another one, who talked about familiar things, said, "I told stories to relieve my social awkwardness."
  3. Encourage others to talk about what interests them. People who are invited to talk about what they care about become more comfortable, and the people around them feel less awkward, too.
  4. Help someone out. It doesn't have to be anything big. In the study, when someone was left out of the conversation and another person brought that individual back in, feelings of awkwardness plummeted. In another group, one person poured water for everyone else, and in another, one person passed the cookies around.
  5. Say something nice about another person or something associated with another person. This might seem obvious, but the key is to do it in a way that does not seem phony. In the research, when one participant said she was from New York, another effused about how much she loved her first visit there.
  6. Acknowledge the awkwardness. This is especially effective if you can do it in a humorous way. In one group, participants bonded over the fact that they found a hair in the pitcher of water, and laughed as they decided they would drink the water anyway.

Reference

Clegg, J. W. (2012). Stranger situations: Examining a self-regulatory model of socially awkward encounters. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15, 693-712.

[Note: This post is obviously off-topic from my usual "Living Single" theme. Awkwardness knows no marital status boundaries! I wanted to write about it because it is so close in theme to an off-topic post I wrote a while back, "The 9 ways boring people can bore you," which, in no time at all, more people read than any other post I had ever written. Up until then, "ASEXUALS: Who are they and why are they important?" was the most popular. "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?" almost caught up recently when it was called the #1 bit of common knowledge science has disproved. For lots more myth-busing about marriage and single life, click here.]