Awkward situations are the mainstay of many sitcoms and about half of my teenage experiences. It’s not possible to avoid them completely, so it’s helpful to have strategies to help us cope with things as gracefully as possible.
In general, we feel awkward or embarrassed when we see a gap between how we would like other people to see us and how we think they see us. For example, most of us would like others to see us as socially skilled, so we feel awkward when we’re not sure how we should behave.
Here are my top tips for overcoming awkwardness.
Realizing that you’ve done something wrong is often embarrassing and awkward. The most important step to resolving the situation is to apologize and make amends if you can. This can be a real struggle when you’re feeling so uncomfortable, but it can make it a lot easier to put the incident behind you.
The trick is to keep it simple. Over-apologising can make things even more awkward. A good apology should acknowledge that you did something wrong, recognize the other person’s feelings and actually express remorse. For example:
“I’m really sorry that I laughed when you failed that exam. It was unkind and hurtful when you were already feeling bad. I won’t do something like that again.”
One of the most powerful tools I’ve found for overcoming embarrassment and awkwardness is to see the funny side when things go wrong. Finding the humor in the situation lets me feel better and helps the people around me feel more comfortable. Sometimes they even like me a little bit more as a result.
I’ll give you an example:
I was on a first date with a really lovely guy. We were walking through a park talking when I suddenly tripped for no reason and found myself sprawled on the ground in front of him. I’ll admit, I cringed a little bit (OK, a lot), but I also genuinely found it funny, especially as I was a professional dancer at the time. By laughing and saying something along the lines of “Well, that was graceful!” I showed him that I wasn’t taking myself too seriously and gave him permission to laugh as well.
Seeing the funny side of your own awkwardness is useful in many situations, but be careful about how you use it. Laughing, even at yourself, when someone’s been hurt or upset can come across as mean.
I have one memory from when I was about 13 which still makes me cringe. I was at Tivoli Gardens in Denmark with my family, and I misunderstood the rules on a fairground ride. Nothing went wrong, and my family doesn’t even remember it, but I spent years feeling awkward and embarrassed about it.
Intrusive memories can make it really difficult to put embarrassing situations behind you. Here are the steps I took to stop obsessing over a past mistake.
- Understand the situation. This memory kept coming back because I wasn’t dealing with it properly. I would remember it, feel bad and then try to suppress both the memory and the feeling. This meant that they both just bounced back stronger. I was only able to move on from the event once I’d sat down and really thought about what went wrong and why.
- Learn from what happened. Once I understood what had gone wrong, I was able to learn from it. I realized that it was better to face the small awkwardness (saying I didn’t understand) than to encounter the bigger one (making a mistake).
- Create a new ending. When you know what you can learn from the situation, imagine how you would deal with the situation now. Tell this new version as a story. This lets me feel like I’ve “finished” the situation and makes it easier to let go.
- Be kind to your past self. Remind yourself that you didn’t have the skills to deal with it better then. This is especially useful for mistakes you made as a child or teenager. If your inner voice is still really critical, try imagining being that critical of someone else. That can help you to see when your inner critic is being too harsh.
Doing or saying something awkward or embarrassing can make us feel like the entire world has noticed. This is caused by a phenomenon called the Spotlight Effect, where we think people notice and remember more about our appearance and behavior than they do.
Reminding yourself that “No-one will remember this tomorrow” can help you keep an awkward moment in proportion.
Learning something new almost always comes with the risk of getting it wrong. This means that if you want to improve your social skills, you will probably have to deal with some awkwardness.
Rather than trying to avoid all awkward situations, try to see them as part of how you learn. This is part of becoming socially skilled. In fact, being awkward can make you more likable.
Before social events, think about how you set your expectations. Rather than telling yourself that everything’s going to go smoothly, try saying to yourself:
“I’ll probably make a mistake or two, but I know I can get past them. Awkward moments will pass, and I’m learning that I don’t need to be scared of them.”
Social situations are almost always a shared responsibility. They’re something that you create with other people. That’s what makes them social. If you’re feeling awkward or uncomfortable, it’s easy to take all of the responsibility for that on yourself.
Reminding yourself that you can’t control everything in a social situation can make it easier for you to forgive yourself for awkward situations.
If you’re already feeling worried or anxious about your social skills, it’s easy to see a slight social error as a huge mistake that’s deeply embarrassing.
Ask yourself how a really confident person would feel about making that same mistake. It can be hard to imagine this in the abstract, so try thinking about people you know (maybe from work, school or college) or even film characters. Try to imagine how they would feel inside as well as what they might say or do to resolve the situation.
If you realize that a socially skilled person wouldn’t feel bad about something, that tells you that the mistake itself isn’t actually that bad or embarrassing. Remind yourself that your insecurities are what’s making you feel bad.
Most of us find conflict awkward, whether that’s someone else disagreeing with us or two of our friends disagreeing and us being in the middle.
One of the easiest ways to learn to be better with conflict is to put yourself in situations where conflict is a normal part of the situation. Acting classes can help you to experience conflict between characters without feeling personally attacked. Improv classes can offer some of the same skills. Even online games or tabletop roleplay gaming can give you an experience of times when you have disagreed with people and everything was fine.
Building up your core confidence can also help you to feel comfortable with conflict. Knowing that you’re doing the right thing can make it easier to face awkward moments, and you will probably feel much better afterward.
Things will often feel weird or awkward when there’s something that you or the people around you aren’t willing to talk about.
Often, once you notice that things are a little awkward, you go into panic mode and try to move on to any subject other than the awkwardness. This is a little bit like trying not to think of pink elephants. The more you try not to think about the awkwardness, the more it’s the only thing you can think about. You then feel even more awkward. What often makes it worse is that everyone else is doing the same thing.
Try to break this cycle by acknowledging that this is a difficult situation. You could say, “OK, so I’m feeling a little awkward here, and I suspect I’m not the only one,” and see what other people say. I usually find that this breaks the ice. Everyone laughs a little with relief, and the conversation moves on.
If you have the confidence, you may be able to brazen out embarrassing situations. I once told my boss, “I want world peace … and a pony” when he said he wanted some work done quickly.
I didn’t mean to say it, but there really wasn’t any way I could take it back. Also, his request had been unreasonable. Inside, I wanted the earth to swallow me up, but I just looked at him and waited to see what he said.
In that case, it worked (phew!), but there are some rules as to when to brazen it out. I had been slightly rude but not truly offensive. No-one had been hurt by what I said. I was also making a valid point about his unreasonable request. Finally, I had the confidence not to blush or stutter. Brazening it out isn’t for everyone, but it can be really useful when you really mean what you said and just wish you’d said it in a different way.
Vicarious embarrassment is when we become embarrassed watching someone else do or say something cringy. This can make a whole range of situations feel awkward even though we haven’t actually done anything embarrassing.
Vicarious embarrassment is often a sign that you have high empathy. You’re able to imagine how the other person feels so clearly that you start to feel it too. That’s actually a great social skill, so try to be proud of it.
Silence during a conversation can feel incredibly awkward, especially if you’re not used to it. We have tips to avoid awkward silences, but it can also be worth becoming more comfortable with silence.
Try letting silences go on just a little longer than you usually would. If you’re anything like me, you’ll realize that rushing in with a panicked comment is usually more awkward than sitting in silence.
I learned this lesson as a professional dancer. It’s very easy to feel awkward or embarrassed when something didn’t go the way you intended it to, but more often than not, the other person has no idea what you were hoping to happen.
I was once onstage with a 14-foot python waiting for the curtains to open. As the curtains opened, the snake chose that exact moment to wrap his tail around my ankles, effectively tying my feet together. Stopping and saying, “Wait, wait. I just need to fix this,” would have been deeply awkward and unprofessional. Instead, I slowly unwound him in time to the music, making sure it looked deliberate.
If you realize that things aren’t going the way you planned, remind yourself that people aren’t mind-readers. Try to look relaxed, and they probably won’t even notice.
We all have to have awkward conversations from time to time. I regularly have to ask my neighbor to turn his music down, and I dread doing it every time. I feel like I’m being unreasonable and rude, and I worry about him getting angry or offended. I know intellectually that I’m not the unreasonable one, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling bad.
It can be helpful to remind yourself that you’re not causing the situation. You’re opening up an honest conversation about what is bothering you. If you aren’t sure whether you are overreacting to something someone else has done, ask a trusted friend for their opinion.
If you know that you have an awkward conversation coming, or if there’s something that regularly makes you feel awkward, try preparing a script to help you deal with it.
For example, a friend of the family keeps asking this question:
“So, when is that young man of yours going to put a ring on your finger so we can hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet?”
That might not make other people feel awkward, but I don’t like it, and I’ve regularly tried to move this person on to other topics. So in this case, my script might be:
“Actually, marriage and kids aren’t something either of us is looking for. We’re perfectly happy as we are.”
It can be difficult to tell the difference between an uncomfortable situation and an unsafe one, but it’s an important distinction. Learning to stay in uncomfortable situations can be a great way to get better at dealing with awkwardness, but not if you’re unsafe.
It can be helpful to get a second opinion, but be aware that gender can play a significant part in how threatening a situation can be. Try asking a trusted friend of the same gender for their opinion. If you realize that you are in an unsafe situation, the other person may try to keep you there by making it awkward to leave. Remind yourself that they’re trying to manipulate you and try to accept the awkwardness.
Try preparing excuses to leave a potentially uncomfortable situation in advance. Knowing that you have a strategy to escape can make it easier for you to stay in a situation for longer if you want to.
It can be helpful to offer the explanation before you want to leave. Saying “I can’t stay long because I have to go pick a friend up from the doctor” prepares people for you leaving. It also makes it less obvious that you’re making an excuse.
This might sound like the last thing you want to do, but the more you share your awkward or embarrassing stories with others, the less ashamed you will probably feel. Feeling awkward or embarrassed can make us feel cut off from others and isolated.
Once you start to share those feelings with other people, especially if we can make it into a funny story, the weaker those feelings become. This can also make you feel less scared about the risk of making a social mistake.
My close friends know pretty much all of my embarrassing stories; how I set fire to my hair bending over a candle, how I dyed my backside blue by wearing new motorbike leathers in the rain, and how I had incredibly loud flatulence immediately after yelling at a class I was teaching to be quiet and listen to me.
Almost every time I’ve told one of those stories, the people around me have pitched in with similar embarrassing stories. Now, when something embarrassing happens, I can tell myself how much my friends will enjoy hearing about it, and I feel better.
You might worry that people will think badly of you if you tell them about the embarrassing things you’ve done. Think back to how you felt reading this article. I’ve mentioned several embarrassing things I’ve said or done, and I bet that each time you’ve smiled. It probably made me feel more approachable and “real.”
The next time you worry about what someone will think of you, remember that it will probably make them like you more.You don’t need to dive in with the stories you feel really bad about. Try to think of times when you’ve felt awkward, but you can still see the funny side.