How To Stop Making People Uncomfortable

“I worry I make people uncomfortable. I try to make eye contact, smile, and act friendly, but I feel like I make everyone feel awkward. No one seems to enjoy talking to me, and people say no when I ask them to hang out. What am I doing wrong?”

If you suspect that the people you meet are wary of you, or if you’ve been told that you make others uncomfortable, this guide is for you. You’ll learn how to spot the signs that you’re making people feel nervous or awkward and what to do about it.

How do you know if you make someone uncomfortable?

Someone who feels uneasy around you will typically distance themselves psychologically, physically, or both. For example, they might shut down the conversation or start leaning away from you. They may also show physiological signs, such as nervous laughter or blushing.

Watch out for the following signals that suggest someone is uncomfortable:

  • Touching or rubbing their face and hands[1]
  • Shutting down the conversation by giving brief, minimal responses
  • Changes to their facial expression. If they frown, furrow their eyebrows, or purse their lips, they may feel uneasy[1]
  • Closed body language, such as folding their arms
  • Turning away from you
  • Looking away
  • Speaking in a high or squeaky voice
  • Putting a physical barrier between you. For example, they may hold a bag or purse in front of their body
  • Nervous laughter
  • Foot-tapping and leg-shaking; this is a sign of excessive nervous energy[1]
  • Pointing their feet away from you. This suggests they would rather be elsewhere

However, it’s important to remember that these signs don’t always mean that you are making someone uncomfortable. For example, they might have difficulty making eye contact because they have social anxiety,[2] because they are shy, or because they have an autism spectrum disorder such as Aspergers.[3]

When you’re watching someone’s body language, look at the bigger picture. Don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions. If someone appears to be enjoying themselves—for example, they are smiling and contributing a lot to the conversation—it probably doesn’t mean much if they occasionally scratch their nose.

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Why do I make people uncomfortable?

Every culture has a set of social rules, also called “social norms.” If you break these rules and behave in ways people don’t expect, you might make them uncomfortable. It could also be that your own awkwardness is making others uneasy because they are picking up on your own discomfort.

How to not make people uncomfortable

“I make people uncomfortable, so I isolate myself. But I’ve started feeling really lonely. I’m quiet, nerdy, and not very socially skilled. How can I connect with people without looking desperate or coming across as weird?”

There can be many different reasons for making someone uncomfortable. Going through this list and trying to memorize it would make anyone feel overwhelmed.

You only need to focus on what feels relevant to you.

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1. Respect other peoples’ personal space

Research shows that people prefer to stay around 90 cm apart when talking to strangers,[4] so keep a clear distance when you don’t know someone very well. If you become good friends later on and start feeling comfortable around each other, it’s natural to sit or stand closer. Take your cue from the other person. If they move away from you, back away slightly to give them space.

2. Dare to be warm to people from the start

If you hold back in social situations and wait for other people to make the first move, you risk coming off as aloof or cold. This can create an uncomfortable atmosphere. When you meet someone for the first time, dare to assume that they will like you. Smile and greet them warmly.

See this guide on how to be more friendly for more advice on how to come across as welcoming and confident.

3. Use social touch with care

In general, it’s OK to touch someone’s arm between the elbow and shoulder to emphasize a point, but avoid touching other parts of their body.[1] If you want to hug someone, ask first.

4. Talk at a suitable volume

Do not shout or mumble. Speaking very loudly can intimidate some people, and mumbling can make a conversation awkward because the other person might have to guess at what you are saying or ask you repeatedly to speak up. If you tend to speak too quietly, check out our guide on how to stop mumbling.

5. Avoid oversharing

When you overshare, you put the other person in an awkward position. They might think, “What am I supposed to say to that?” or feel pressured to overshare in return. In most situations, it’s best to avoid going into detail about your intimate relationships, health, or other sensitive subjects. As you get to know someone better, you can gradually start to disclose more personal information.

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For more tips, read this article on how to stop oversharing. If you struggle to think of appropriate things to talk about, you might also find this guide to conversation starters and small talk topics helpful.

6. Give compliments carefully

Avoid giving very personal compliments because you might come off as creepy. Compliment someone on a skill or achievement rather than their appearance. For example, “I think your painting is awesome, you’ve got a great eye for color!” is better than “Your eyes are so pretty!”

7. Don’t bombard people with questions

Asking someone about themselves and sharing information about yourself in return is a great way to bond, but asking a string of questions can make them feel like they are being interrogated. Aim for a balanced back-and-forth conversation. It may help to read our guide on how to have a conversation without asking too many questions.

8. Use appropriate language

Swearing or vulgar language makes some people uncomfortable. Avoid profanities or crude terms unless you are around people you know are OK with that kind of language.

9. Use appropriate humor

Bleak, sarcastic, mean-spirited, or crude humor can make you come off as socially inept and offensive. Unless you know for sure that someone likes dark or controversial jokes, stick to uncontroversial and observational humor. Avoid canned jokes. They are rarely funny, and other people may feel obliged to laugh with you, which can make the conversation awkward.

10. Watch and respond to peoples’ body language

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If you can pick up on signs that someone else feels uneasy, you’ll be able to quickly adjust your conversation and body language to make the other person feel more comfortable. Refer to the list above for a basic overview of what to look for. If you need more help in this area, check out some books on body language.

11. Make the right amount of eye contact

If you don’t make eye contact, people may think you are untrustworthy or uninterested in them. On the other hand, staring into someone’s eyes may make them nervous. To help get the balance right, try to make as much eye contact with the other person as they do with you. See our article on how to make confident eye contact.

12. Don’t be clingy

Trying to force or rush a new friendship, for example, by asking someone to spend a lot of time with you or showering them with lots of compliments, will make you come across as needy or demanding. Read our guide on how to go from “hi” to hanging out for tips on how to grow new friendships.

As a general rule, mirror the amount of effort the other person is putting into the relationship. This will keep your interactions balanced. For example, if they send you brief text messages, it’s not appropriate to send them long messages in response.

13. Respect other people’s opinions

If you frequently dismiss other peoples’ opinions and criticize the things they like, you’ll make everyone around you feel uncomfortable. They may start to hold back in conversation because they’d rather be quiet than risk being judged or getting into an argument.

Instead of looking down on people because they don’t share your views, try to understand their perspective. Ask thoughtful questions and listen respectfully to their answers. You can agree to disagree without criticizing people who hold different opinions.

14. Do not give unsolicited advice

Giving advice to someone who hasn’t asked for it can make them feel defensive. If you have a tendency to tell people what they should do or what you would do in their position, it’s likely they will start to avoid you. Most people do not like to be told what to do. A better approach is to listen with kindness and empathy when someone tells you about their problems.

15. Build your confidence

Psychologists have found that we overestimate how much other people notice our emotions. This effect is called the illusion of transparency.[5] Even if you feel very nervous around other people, it’s unlikely that they will realize how anxious you are.

However, research also shows that emotions are contagious.[6] When you are feeling nervous, other people may pick up on it and begin to feel uncomfortable too. Improving your general confidence can help put you and others at ease.

Try to:

  • Focus on other people rather than yourself in social situations. This will help you feel less self-conscious.
  • Acknowledge and accept your flaws and insecurities, and remember that other people have insecurities as well.
  • Practice your social skills as often as possible. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll feel around others.
  • Challenge unhelpful self-talk and self-criticism. Speak to yourself as you would a friend.
  • Put mistakes into perspective by asking yourself, “Will this even matter in a week/a month/a year from now?” and “What would a confident person think about this?”

Read our in-depth guides on how to not get nervous talking to people and how to get core confidence for more advice.

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Viktor is a Counselor specialized in interpersonal communication and relationships. He manages Socialpro’s scientific review board. Follow on Twitter or read more.

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