Confession: I’m that person—the one who asks people to be their friend. Under normal circumstances, I suppose, friendships evolve through social interactions. But after moving halfway across the country in my early 30s, I needed friends to survive all the changes in my life—so I straight-up asked people I connected with if they wanted to be friends with me.
Here’s the funny part: it’s worked 100% of the time.
More than once, I’ve had others remind me that I awkwardly asked them to be friends. But that doesn’t bother me. In an age where a click of a button invites a stranger on the internet to be your new digital friend, I figured I might as well try it in real life, too.
It is awkward, though.
Or at least that’s how I feel.
I’m a grown-up. Adults usually aren’t that forward with one another. Being blunt, oversharing, or making a bad joke can all get you labeled as the “weird” friend (even if you’re the one doing the labeling).
But adulting is already hard enough. We pay bills, do laundry, and wash dishes; why do we have to add the need to expertly navigate social interactions to the mix?
Take it from a self-proclaimed awkward adult:
not all feelings of awkwardness are bad or even valid. Still, there are times when it’s best to avoid that uneasy feeling that comes with uncomfortable exchanges, especially if you’re in a leadership role.
Perhaps you’re here because you want to learn how to be less awkward, or at least feel less awkward. Before we get into the practical tips, however, let’s take a step back and understand this topic from a broader perspective.
Table of contents
What does it mean to be awkward?
Awkwardness is a tricky concept to pin down. It’s largely a feeling, rather than a fact, and it varies drastically from person to person and situation to situation.
There’s an important difference between being an awkward person and feeling like an awkward person.
You might feel awkward at a party where you don’t know many people, but that doesn’t mean others perceive you as awkward.
By contrast, someone else may say or do things that make you feel uncomfortable, but that person doesn’t necessarily perceive themselves as awkward.
That last part—“established social norms and standards”—brings us to a key point: awkwardness is usually defined in opposition to normalcy. And what’s “normal” is based on social context. That means
no one is awkward 100% of the time—their feelings of awkwardness, and others’ judgment of them as such, vary from situation to situation, environment to environment, culture to culture, and so forth.
Phew. Who knew this was such a deep topic? Well, here’s where things get even deeper…
When discussing this topic, it’s important to first acknowledge the importance of neurodivergent visibility. Neurodiversity is a newer field, and the idea that human brains develop diversely is a new science. Neurodivergence can look like autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but it can also apply to anyone whose brain works a bit differently. If you’re a neurodivergent person looking to feel more comfortable in their own skin, I have practical tips for that below; but I also want you to know that who you are is perfect, valid, and wonderful.
In any case, whoever you are, and however you characterize yourself, you’re probably here because you want to be less awkward—or at least feel less awkward. So, let’s begin there: with the feeling.
The pains of feeling awkward
Sometimes feeling awkward is more about a mindset than the things we do and say.
When a joke doesn’t hit the same way that it did in your head, or you fumble your words by mistake, you can suddenly become overwhelmed with anxiety. Those feelings can end up derailing entire conversations and can manifest in many different ways, including:
- Feeling unsure of how to act in social situations.
- Worried that people don’t seem interested in talking to you.
- Feeling nervous or unable to calm down in social situations.
- Difficulty making friends or developing relationships with peers.
- Difficulty accepting invitations to social events or regretting accepting those invitations.
- Reviewing past conversations for what you should have said. We all do that from time to time.
Feeling awkward can also prevent you from setting the boundaries that keep you safe and secure. You might feel uncomfortable sending back your meal at a restaurant, but the almonds in your salad will send you into anaphylactic shock. This (admittedly hypothetical) situation highlights just how far some of us will go to avoid any type of difficult exchange. But most of the time, those feelings are more of a reflection of our insecurities and anxieties than the reality of the situation.
Thankfully, there are ways to overcome these feelings in order to avoid potential social and professional consequences that come with avoiding social interactions.
What about awkward workplace conversations?
Feeling awkward in a business environment usually stems from different situations than those you encounter in everyday life. You may find yourself forced to navigate uncomfortable exchanges like:
- Coaching an underperforming team member
- Addressing safety issues in the office
- Communicating policy changes
- Letting someone go
- Conducting an interview
- Speaking with someone who’s having a difficult moment
If you struggle with social anxiety already, having these difficult conversations at work can feel excruciating. However, many of these interactions are part of the normal course of business—meaning they’re typically unavoidable. Here are a few ways you can prepare yourself for these awkward but necessary workplace conversations:
- Understand and be able to defend your decision.
- Acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation.
- Focus on the needs of the other person to direct your attention away from your own feelings.
- Realize that few people are going to see or feel your awkwardness.
Because we value your ability to make meaningful connections, we’re going to dive a bit deeper here and talk about your whole self. We feel socially awkward outside of work all the time, and there’s help for that too.
Awkwardness has its place in the world.
Believe it or not,
awkwardness is a necessary facet of our human emotions. In her book Cringeworthy, author Melissa Dahl points out that not only is eliminating awkwardness impossible, but those feelings can be a good thing.
Realizing that something you did or said made you feel awkward helps you to learn and grow. It only takes one instance of a joke landing wrong for you to know that it needs to be punched up. Or, you might decide it’s better to retire that specific gag and try something different next time. Either way, that initial awkward moment becomes a teachable moment that can help you better connect with others in the future.
How to be (or feel) less awkward: 6 tips
So far, we’ve explored the ins and outs of awkwardness—where it comes from, what it feels like, and how people perceive it. All of that is important context for understanding this topic, but I’m aware you’re probably here because you’re curious about learning how to be less awkward, so let’s get to it.
Here are six ways to overcome awkwardness, or at the very least, feelings of awkwardness.
1. Think of it as a bridge to empathy.
Acceptance of your awkwardness can turn what feels uncomfortable into a superpower. It builds empathy. Knowing firsthand how difficult awkward situations can be helps you better understand and empathize with others when they experience their own conversational blunder.
This is a win-win for those who experience social anxiety. Not only is empathy a key to success in your professional and personal life, but the ability to relate with others is also crucial to minimizing uncomfortable conversations with strangers and friends alike!
2. Fake it till you make it.
While you’re working on accepting your awkwardness and all the good it can do for you, you can cope with the pains of feeling awkward by acting as if they don’t exist.
Put those acting skills to work and act as if you’re a smooth person who never makes any social blunders. Eventually, you’ll become more and more like that person you’ve imagined because you’ve learned from all those awkward moments of the past.
3. Focus on them, not you.
A great way to divert your attention away from your awkwardness and, in turn, improve your social skills is to focus on the other person. When you hyper-focus on your own internal struggle, not only are you not paying enough attention to the other person, but you’re only going to increase your feelings of alienation.
Put the focus back on the other person by:
- Being an active listener
- Engaging in their interests
- Asking good questions
I want to add that smiling, body language, and making eye contact are other ways that can help the person you’re speaking with feel like they’re being listened to. But that’s not always easy for neurodivergent people. Don’t focus on the eye contact and body language aspects if that’s not easy for you. Focus on being an empathetic listener rather than your own behavior during a conversation.
4. Practice social interactions.
Social anxiety and feeling awkward during social events are especially troublesome in brand new situations. One way to alleviate those feelings is to practice everyday social interactions. If you have plans for a social event, it’s okay to come prepared with talking points for the unavoidable small talk that’s going to happen.
Be aware of who you are going to be around and steer clear of taboo topics. Safe topics might include jobs, hobbies, dreams and aspirations, and family. It’s okay to let people get to know you, but try not to get too personal, especially if this is your first time talking with someone.
5. Learn about social cues.
Social cues are messages that people send through non-verbal communication. They aren’t easy for everyone to pick up on, especially if you’re not neurotypical. Learning how to recognize common social cues is an excellent way to avoid social mistakes.
Here’s what to look out for:
- Facial expressions
- Body language
- Voice pitch and tone
- Physical boundaries or personal space
If someone steps in closer, has positive facial expressions and body language, that’s a pretty good indication that the conversation is going well. However, it’s important to remember that these are not steadfast rules in socializing with people. Don’t read too deeply into non-verbal cues but do pay attention to them. If someone turns their body away from you or steps backward, it might be time to end the conversation and talk to the next person.
6. Keep in mind small talk isn't as bad as it seems.
Many people hate small talk. The idea of chit-chat in general can be a source of awkward and anxious feelings. Not knowing what to say is stressful, and coming up with small talk can be excruciating when you first meet someone.
But small talk has a purpose. It’s the warm-up. Engaging in casual conversation allows you to gauge whether this person is a good fit for you. Can they be your new friend, peer, employee, or even romantic partner? Embracing small talk can help you feel less awkward about forging these new relationships.
Struggle with awkward customer or client conversations? There's help.
You’re not alone in feeling anxious whenever you pronounce someone’s name wrong or pull up the wrong file when talking to a client. One of the best ways to deal with awkward conversations is to own them and move past them.
However, if you genuinely can’t move past those social anxieties and feelings of awkwardness when talking to clients and customers, there’s a solution for that, and it’s Ruby.
Do your anxious brain and your business a favor and leave those all-too-important customer phone calls to the professionals at Ruby.
Ruby’s virtual receptionists allow you to get back to the business of running your business without worrying about tanking every phone call or upsetting a client.
Want to learn more about neurodiversity? We recommend starting here or here. And check back for more content about neurodiversity on the Ruby blog coming soon!
Abby Levandoski is a writer living in the Chicago area. To check out her work or hire her for a project, visit writingbyabby.com.