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Feeling Awkward? 12 Reassuring Lessons From Science

In 'Cringeworthy,' Melissa Dahl explains the surprising science of awkwardness.

Source: nito/Shutterstock

It can happen anytime: You’re in the middle of a conversation, and you say exactly the wrong thing. Or something awkward happens, and you don’t know what to say. Or you are by yourself, just going about your day, and out of the blue, one of your most cringeworthy memories pops into your mind.

What’s up with those experiences? That’s what Melissa Dahl explores in her new book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. It's based on scientific research, and it is surprisingly reassuring. Cringeworthy is full of great tips and insights. Here are 12:

1. Have you just embarrassed yourself?

What would you say to your closest friends if the same experience happened to them? That’s what you should say to yourself.

2. Are you feeling especially self-conscious because you are having a bad hair day, or you stumbled in your presentation at work, or you are out to dinner by yourself?

Don’t worry. Your sense of who is noticing you is greatly inflated. Sure, some people do notice, but on average, only about half as many as you think.

3. Even among those people who do notice you, their judgment is probably not what you fear.

More often than we realize, other people are understanding. After all, they’ve all had bad hair days and screw-ups in their presentations, too. And instead of thinking you are loser for dining alone, they may be impressed.

4. Are you in one of those situations that makes you worry about saying the wrong thing?

For example, are you talking to another person who is different from you in a way that feels fraught, such as their race or ability or status? Instead of obsessing about exactly what you are saying or how you are saying it, focus on a goal, such as learning something interesting about the person. That’s probably something you know how to do.

5. Do you have some embarrassing memories that seem to pop into your mind from out of the blue?

You can blunt the emotional impact of those memories. Focus on details of the memory that are neutral — what someone else was wearing, perhaps, or what the weather was like. If you do this, your mind is likely to wander onto some other topic.

6. That nervousness you feel during those cringeworthy experiences ... ?

You can work with it. Try to think of it as excitement. Research shows that if you do that, you will probably have a better experience than if you just tell yourself to calm down.

7. Do you sometimes hold back from doing something you’d really like to do, because you are worried about coming across as awkward?

Do it anyway. People are more likely to regret what they did not do than what they did.

8. Want to reduce your chances of feeling awkward in the first place?

Get out of your own head, and pay attention to other people. Ask them questions. Listen to their answers. Then ask follow-up questions. They will like you more than if you only talked about yourself.

9. Still worried about feeling awkward?

Lean into it. Think about the experiences that are most likely to make you cringe, and go ahead and put yourself in those situations. It’s like exposure therapy, and it can work.

10. Awkward situations can be painful.

But stepping back a bit, they can also be kind of funny. Look for the humor in them. Then tell amusing stories of your cringeworthy experiences. Your listeners may just love you for that. They have had their own cringeworthy experiences, and now they feel less badly about them because of you.

11. Know that you are never going to be perfect.

Embarrassment will be part of your life. Accept that. Be curious about what it means and what you can do differently next time. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

12. Finally ...

Consider what Melissa Dahl learned about herself from the years she spent researching and writing Cringeworthy: “I’m not that weird, and anyway, being weird is not that bad.”

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