A person you went to secondary school with has just got on the train. What do you do? A) Pretend not to see them and bury your head in your phone? B) Attempt small talk and pray it only lasts for five minutes max. C) Welcome a chat about handsome Mr Brock and the good all times as you ride home.
We've all experienced those clumsy and often painful social situations in life. At a recent team lunch, we all confessed to having some form of social awkwardness, from not being able to be ourselves in large groups to being afraid of small talk.
It turns out the unspoken phenomenon is widely common. There's even a series of penguin memes on the internet that capture those uncomfortable conversational moments.
With research from psychologists and tips from communication experts, we explore why social awkwardness is so common, what it says about us and how can we overcome it.
You drown in large groups
A large group of colleagues are drinking, laughing and having a good time. You smile along, but deep down you're a big mess and feel a sense of inadequacy. You contemplate whether to contribute to the conversation or go home and read a good book like you really want to.
What that says about you: You are likely to be an introvert. Often confused with shyness, psychologist Laurie Helgoe says introversion does not mean an aversion to social engagement, but rather that you become overwhelmed by too much of it. While extroverts gain steam as the night goes on, introverts are ready to leave a party after an hour.
How to overcome it: When at a large party or gathering, move to a quiet corner for more intimate conversation with one or two people. Sophia Dembling who writes blog The Introvert's Corner recommends taking toilet breaks for a moment of quiet solitude. Also give yourself time ahead of an event to read a book, watch YouTube videos, go for a walk or anything else that relaxes you. This will help keep your energy levels up throughout the occasion.
Our article '10 proven ways to nail public speaking' might also help you be more vocal in group settings.
You fear small talk
You dread sitting in the hairdressers chair because of the painfully-mundane, incessant chit chatter it requires. The same applies to getting into a taxi or buying a coffee at your local cafe. All you want to do is sit quietly and let your mind wander.
What it says about you: You prefer weighty conversations from ideas to philosophy, rather than small talk, which can intimidate, bore or exhaust you. In these situations you're more likely to fall into the role of an observer and listener.
How to overcome it: As much as you might dislike small talk, it's actually the easiest way to get to know someone, create a positive impression of yourself and gain self-confidence. "Small talk is really, really important. It helps us connect with people...We're creatures of habit, we see the same people all the time, so that compliment turns into a smile, a more extensive greeting, which can turn into a conversation," says psychology professor and shyness expert Bernardo J. Carducci. "That's how you build social networks."
Carducci offers a few essential tips to successful small talk:
- Aim for nice, not brilliant. "People think you need to be really funny, witty; you just have to be nice. It sounds trite. You have to be willing to talk to others."
- Bad conversationalists typically insist they have nothing to say. Carducci recommends making a conscious effort to learn about current events, the local area and local issues in order to have topics to discuss.
- Don't be late to an event because you'll miss the buzz when everyone make their first interactions
- Rehearse your introduction. "When people meet you for the first time, they'll want to know two pieces of information: your name and something about you," Carducci says. "Be prepared to offer information that will help move the conversation along"
- Avoid dominating the conversation and stop periodically to give others a chance to change the topic. "Poor conversationalists might feel like they're on a roll and get excited, and not realize they're dominating. If people are interested, they'll ask questions when you stop."
You freeze during awkward silences
Person: “Hi, how was your weekend?”
You: “Oh it was great, how was yours?”
Person: “It was good.”
You: “Oh good…”
And then, SILENCE. You quickly search for something to fill the sudden lack of sound but all you can manage is a polite nod.
What that says about you: During moments of awkward silence we "over-analyse and look for the perfect thing to say, for the proper line to continue with," says communication coach and blogger at People's Skills Decoded Eduard Ezeanu. "When we can’t come up with one, we shut up and just sit there. That’s what creates most awkward silences."
If you panic during awkward silences it could elicit deep-seated, primal fears of social acceptance and belonging says Namkje Koudenburg, psychology researcher at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.
"In our research we found that this conversational flow is very pleasant; it informs us that things are all right: We belong to the group and agree with one another,” she continues. “As such, conversational flow serves social needs. That is, the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for social validation."
How to overcome it: In the book What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss’s Boss by Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker says when small talk stalls out, it’s often due to a phenomenon they call “mirroring”.
"In our attempts to be polite, we often answer people’s questions directly, repeat their observations, or just blandly agree with whatever they say," they suggest. For example: A: How was your flight? B: My flight was good. Or, A: It’s hot today. B: Yeah, it sure is hot.
Colin and Baedeker recommend bigger and bolder responses. A: How was your flight? B: I’d be more intrigued by an airline where your ticket price was based on your body weight and IQ. Or, A: It’s hot today. B: In this dimension, yes.
You can never remember a person's name
It's the end of a networking event and you're trying to grab the attention of a person you spent an hour talking to. The problem is you can't remember their name. You hover around hoping they'll look at you so that you can sweep in and wish them goodbye, but of course, they don't.
What that says about you: You're probably so consumed by thinking about what you're going to say next and if you're making a good impression, that you devote no brain power to remembering someone's name. According to a study by University of Sussex, the brain fails to secure memories if it's already overloaded with information.
"The brain has a restricted capacity to learn things...The brain would need to decide if it was worth expending energy for the consolidation of that particular memory...preventing some memory formation would be a way to avoid overload," says Dr Ildiko Kemenes.
Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University adds "Information like a name needs to be transferred to a different brain system that creates long-term memories that persist over time."
How to overcome it: Don Gaber, author of How To Start A Conversation And Make Friends, has a fool-proof guide to making a person's name stick:
- At the moment of introduction, I immediately repeat the person's name to make sure that I got it right.
- If I missed the name, I ask the person to repeat it.
- I quickly think of someone I know with the same name.
- I say the name periodically in the conversation.
- I always use the person's name when I close the conversation.
You over analyse
It may look like you're swimming through a conversation, but there's a whole other dialogue playing in your head... “Oh no, are they bored? Do they find me annoying? Was that a genuine laugh or one of those fake chuckles? Ahhh, should I have said I don't like chocolate? Should I just stop talking?”
What that says about you: Studies have found that when we're far more aware of ourselves and the impression we're making, we overestimate the amount of attention that other people are paying to us. Experts call this “anchoring and adjustment”. We are anchored by our own experiences and we have trouble adjusting far enough away from them to accurately estimate how much attention other people are paying us.
In situations that were actually designed to be attention-getting, people only noticed around 25% of the time at best, says Amie M. Gordon, Social-Personality Psychology professor at the University of California."I know this rings true for my own experiences —the day after an embarrassing haircut I am sure the whole world is pointing and laughing, but four days in when I’ve gotten used to the face in the mirror, I think everyone else has too, even if they are seeing if for the first time."
Justin Weeks, director of the Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety at Ohio University suggests that some people perceive negative consequences from a social situation whether they do poorly or well.
How to overcome it: Try not to read into someone's choice of words and facial expressions. While it might be consuming your thoughts, chances are, that other person hasn't batted an eyelid. Let go, and live in the moment. Julian Treasure, an author and speaker on conscious listening suggests using the acronym, RASA: receive, by paying attention to the person; appreciate, by making little noises such as "hmmm" or "oh"; summarising what the other person said and ask questions afterward. That will stop unnecessary worries from creeping into your mind.
You can't hide your feelings
You're at a wonderful brunch with friends. It's the perfect Sunday morning until the one person who you absolutely cannot stand walks in and joins the group. Every inch of your body tenses up, your mood shifts and you can't hide your discomfort. It comes out glaringly on your face and the whole table can see it.
What that says about you: You value your leisure time and are protective of your close circle of friends, which means you dislike it when someone invades that space.
How to overcome it: Try not to let the person you dislike consume your attention. Instead, focus on what your closest friends and try to replicate their behaviour. Are they relaxed? What are they talking about? Have they been laughing? This will help you reduce any awkward reactions you might normally have.
You struggle ending a conversation neatly
You're stuck, no TRAPPED, in a never-ending spiral of conversation and you want to break free. Your opponent might be offended if you suddenly cut them off, so you continue to entertain them. You pray for your phone to ring or for someone to come and save you but neither happens. Instead the chat dwindles resulting in a very awkward goodbye.
What it says about you: You're the opposite of a rambler.You're an excellent listener, which is why you always find yourself stuck in conversations you have to weasel your way out of.
How to overcome it: Communication expert Lillian D. Bjorseth says it's polite to end a conversation after 10 minutes, when the other person's eyes noticeably begin wandering around the room, when the conversation lags or when the other person repeatedly answers in a monotone with nothing words like "interesting," "hmmm," "really".
Here are her tips of how to do it.
- Ask for the other person's card if you do not yet have it.
- Set up a time to call or meet with the other person.
- Excuse yourself shortly after another person has joined the conversation.
- Be up front. Be cordial and begin your remarks with "It has been nice talking with you and ...
- I will keep your card on file for when I need ..."
- It's my first time here, and I would like to meet some of the other members, too."
- I haven't been here for six months, and I want to rekindle some acquaintances."
- I can only stay for an hour, and I want to say "hi" to several other people."~
- I'd like to continue this conversation. May I call you next week?"
- I'll e-mail you that referral tomorrow."
- Would you like to have lunch sometime?"
- And when all else fails: "I want to get something else to eat (or drink)."