First, Molly bumped into her ex-boyfriend at a party. Then, his friends started joking loudly about her. Cue the cringe.
When Arnold attended a debate, a participant lost control of her bodily functions on stage. Time stood still.
After Manuel got an unintended eyeful of his friend's nether regions, he alerted her that her swimsuit had come off. She swam away extremely fast to the other side of the pool.
There's a word for these moments we all know and hate: awkward. But common as they are, they have little in common, says Joshua W. Clegg, an associate professor of psychology in the John Jay College, City University of New York whose research team interviewed Molly, Arnold, Manuel and other victims of awkward situations for a 2012 article in the journal Qualitative Research in Psychology. "There are very few characteristics that apply to every awkward situation, other than the fact that someone feels awkward," he says.
Still, in his research, Clegg has noticed a few themes among all things awkward. There are the situations that violate social norms (say, interrupting someone when he or she is speaking), those that involve negative judgments of others (for example, making fun of lawyers when the jokester doesn't realize a lawyer is in the room) and those that make you see yourself "as a social being" (such as most icebreaker games or when you look in a mirror and feel self-conscious about what other people see), Clegg says.
As Bethany Teachman, a professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Psychology, puts it, awkward situations can be boiled down to "an incongruence" between what's happening and what you think should happen, or between what two people think should happen. "The awkwardness is likely fueled in part by your perception of how it's supposed to go and what's actually happening, rather than [an actual] problem," she says.
When Awkwardness Helps and Hurts Us
As uncomfortable as they are, awkward situations seem to have a purpose: to alert us of social expectations and boundaries – and motivate us to avoid making the same mistake twice. "You can imagine how horribly social interactions would go if people had none of those cues to pick up on," says Teachman, who studies anxiety disorders. People might continue calling a new partner an ex's name or gush to prospective employers about their dreams of working for a competitor.
Clegg theorizes that social awkwardness works as a "social early warning system." His research has shown that people tend to pay extra attention to the social atmosphere during an awkward moment by, for example, being unable to take their eyes off the person who told the off-color joke. At the same time, they're acutely aware of their own physical discomfort, be it in the form of a blushing face, a pit in the stomach or a racing heart. "[That] motivates us to act on that information and bring our social environment back into equilibrium," Clegg speculates.
But the advantages of awkwardness have their limit. Consider the people who seem to find nearly every situation awkward or who find such moments so cringe-worthy that they avoid experiences with a high potential for awkwardness, such as first dates or networking events. "If socially awkward experiences lead one to panic and avoidance, then these experiences can become central to a self-perpetuating pattern of social fear and avoidance," Clegg says.
That's why it's important to manage awkward situations – without beating yourself up. Here's how:
1. Know they're normal.
Whether you burst into the wrong meeting, say goodbye to someone before continuing on the same path or get trapped in a conversation that's more silence than dialogue, awkward situations are a part of life.
"We all have these [experiences]. The trick is deciding how meaningful they are and how much they're getting in the way for you," Teachman says. "Typically, it's not the awkward moments that are the problem, it's how you interpret them or make sense of them."
2. Get a reality check.
One way not to interpret them? As the end of the world, says Joy McClure, assistant professor at Adelphi University's Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies.
"If you have a belief that having an awkward conversation is a really terrible thing … that's really problematic because what it means is that you play over and over when small social mistakes or awkward moments occur," she says. In turn, you'll be kissing your social life goodbye.
Instead, give yourself a reality check. "The next time you have the thought, 'Oh my gosh, she thinks I'm a total idiot,' ask yourself, 'Is there really evidence to support that thought?'" Teachman advises. "And, if there really is some kind of negative judgment, is it really the end of the world?" The more you encounter – and recover from – such situations, the easier they'll be.
3. Call it out.
Clegg's research suggests that the best strategy for recovering from awkward situations is to acknowledge the awkwardness head-on. Even better if you can do it with humor. "Be honest and upfront about the awkwardness when it occurs – preferably with a good joke," Clegg says.
That strategy saved Penelope, a woman described in Clegg's study who asked a friend how his brother was doing. Little did she know, the brother had recently passed away. "There you go, Penelope," her husband said, coming to the rescue. "You just ruined the evening for everyone." The crowd laughed, the tension lifted – and the crisis was averted.
"It takes two to tango, and if you're in a socially awkward situation, you're not the only person there," says McClure, who studies social relationships. "Try to appreciate the awkwardness for what it is, and try to work with the other person to get past it."
4. Don't run away.
On the flip side, trying to run away from the situation will only backfire, Clegg's research suggests. Molly learned that lesson when she spent the rest of the party avoiding her ex-boyfriend's friends who had teased her. When she ran into one of those friends much later, he still brought the joke up. The experience "never" stopped being awkward, she told researchers.
Not only will the awkwardness persist if it's not resolved right away, but so too will your own discomfort. Withdrawing from a situation "can actually make that anxiety and that sense of awkwardness worse because you're not getting to find out that you can recover," Teachman says.
5. Be kind.
Here's a basic principle of psychology: We like people who like us back. But by retreating from a situation, you could send the unintended message that you're not fond of the other person involved. While people who are shy or socially anxious might disengage in this way to protect themselves, they're really shooting themselves in the foot," McClure says. "It's an ironic self-fulfilling prophecy."
Instead, Clegg suggests demonstrating other science-backed ways of building relationships, such as bringing up a topic of mutual interest, helping the person (say, by offering to get her a drink at a party) or dishing a compliment. "Nothing we didn't learn from our mothers," he says.
6. Get out of your head.
Midway through a group conversation, a new colleague points out the spinach in your teeth. Awkward. But while mishaps like that can draw unwanted attention to yourself, they're likely less offensive and less noticeable to others than they are to you. "Most of us are in our own heads and aren't paying all that much attention, and it's not a big deal," Teachman says. She suggests practicing mindfulness techniques – paying close attention to how other people sound, what the room looks and smells like, for example – in order to stop ruminating.
A bonus of that technique? You'll be a better conversationalist, McClure points out.
7. Get help.
If you're so fearful of awkward situations that you're avoiding everyday experiences, a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy can help, Teachman says.
He or she will help you recognize and challenge your negative thought patterns and will encourage you to face the situations you fear. Eventually, you'll learn that awkward moments and the discomfort they cause aren't going to kill you.
"If you're at the point where managing those awkward feelings is actually causing impairment for you because it's getting in the way of having a social life or fulfilling the social roles you want or need to fulfill," she says, "then there's lots of help available."
The Science of Awkwardness was originally published on U.S. News & World Report.
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