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This guide is for you who feel awkward in new situations to the point where it makes it hard for you to connect with people.
The guide covers:
- Signs that you might be socially awkward
- How to not come off as socially awkward
- How to not FEEL socially awkward
Signs that you might be socially awkward
These are some common signs that you might be socially awkward.
- You feel uncertain of how to react in social settings(1)
- You don’t know what’s expected of you or how to act in social settings(1)
- People who you’ve met before don’t seem interested in talking with you again or seem to want to get away from the conversation (Not to be confused with if someone is truly busy)
- You always feel nervous around new people and this nervosity hinders you from relaxing
- Your conversations often hit a wall and then there’s an awkward silence
- It’s hard for you to make new friends
- When you enter a social setting, you worry a lot about others think of you
Chapter 1. How to not come off as socially awkward
This chapter is on how not to ACT in a socially awkward way. The next chapter is on how not to FEEL socially awkward.
1. Being better at picking up on social cues helps against social awkwardness
Social cues are all those subtle things people do to show what they think. It can be pointing their feet toward the door when they want to get going.
Or, it could be saying things that have an underlying meaning. (“This was really nice” can mean “I’d like to get going”)
If we don’t pick up on these cues, it can get awkward.
When we get nervous and focus on ourselves rather than on others, it’s even harder to notice what people are saying.
My first recommendation to be better at picking up cues is practicing focusing outward, which I talk about here.
My second recommendation is to read up on social cues. I’d recommend the book The Definitive Book on Body Language. (Not an affiliate link. I recommend the book because I think it’s good). Read my review of that book here.
My third recommendation is to study people when you’re not engaged with them. For example, by looking at people in a cafe or paying attention to subtleties in how people interact in movies.
Look for subtle changes in body language, facial expression, tone of voice, or things they say that have underlying meanings.
This will help you be better at reading cues so you can avoid social awkwardness.
2. If you tend to talk more when you’re nervous, remind yourself to ask more questions
When I was nervous, I focused more on me and completely forgot to show an interest in others and ask them questions.
Ask more questions. And more importantly, cultivate an interest in others.
Focus on others and ask them questions. If you don’t know the subject someone’s talking about, don’t pretend to know. Let them explain and be genuinely interested.
We can’t ONLY ask questions. If we do, we’ll come off as interrogators. Therefore, we also need to occasionally share about us:
3. If you have a hard time talking about yourself, practice sharing more
I had no problem listening to others, but if someone asked me about my opinion or what I’d been up to, I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid I’d bore people and generally didn’t like being in the spotlight.
But to connect with someone, we can’t ONLY ask about them. We also have to share about ourselves.
I didn’t understand this at first. But if we don’t share things about us, we come off as a stranger. It also tends to make people uncomfortable if they have to share more than you.
Share something small about you every once in a while (even if people don’t ask). It can be brief about small things. For example:
Someone: Last year I went to Paris and it was really nice.
Me: Nice, I was there a few years ago and I liked it a lot. What did you do there?
A thing this tiny can seem like it doesn’t matter, but it helps others paint a picture of who they are talking to. It also helps you figure out what you might have in common.
4. Have a few questions lined up so you don’t need to worry about the first minutes of conversation
I used to feel extra awkward the first few minutes of a conversation because I didn’t know what to say.
It helped me to relax a bit by learning a few universal questions that work in most situations.
My 4 universal questions:
Hi, Nice meeting you! I’m Viktor…
… How do you know people here?
… Where are you from?
… What brings you here/What made you choose to study this subject/working here?
… What do you like most about (what they do)?
Read more here on how to start a conversation.
5. Use a posture exercise. It will make you feel more confident and less awkward.
In my experience, your arms will also hang more naturally along your sides when your chest comes up, so you don’t have that awkward feeling of knowing what to do with your arms.
My problem was how to keep a permanently good posture. After a few hours, I forgot about it and was back to normal.
Also, if you have to think about your posture in social settings, that can make you more self-conscious.(6)
You want to have a permanently good posture so you don’t need to think about it all the time. I can recommend the method explained in this video. It helped me improve my posture permanently.
6. Don’t try to be liked. That puts pressure on you. Instead, try to make people feel comfortable being around you.
It’s often when we do things in order to be liked (pulling jokes, telling stories to be seen a certain way, trying to be someone we’re not) that we put MASSIVE pressure on ourselves. Ironically, these attempts often come off as needy and can make us less likable.
Instead, make sure others feel comfortable being around you.
If you succeed with that, people will like you.
Here are some examples:
Diagram from “Why we become more likable when we stop trying”.
If you feel the need to entertain, know that it’s OK to not be witty and pull jokes. It will take the pressure of you and, ironically, make you more likable and less socially awkward.
7. If you blush, shake, or sweat, the best strategy is to act as if nothing strange has happened. People won’t know that it’s because you’re nervous.
If you act normally and with confidence, people might still notice that you blush or shake or sweat, but they won’t connect that to nervousness.(7)
For example, I had a classmate who blushed very easily. Not because he was nervous, it was just the way he was.
Because he didn’t behave in a nervous way, no one assumed he blushed because of his nervousness.
A few days ago, I met someone whose hands were shaking. Because she didn’t look nervous, I didn’t know if it was just some “general shaking” and I wasn’t thinking “Oh, she must be nervous”. I simply didn’t think much about it.
The only time I assume that someone is nervous if they shake or blush or sweat is if they also suddenly change their behavior and become timid or start smiling nervously or look down at the ground, etc.
Remind yourself of this whenever you’re shaking, blushing, or sweating: People won’t assume you’re nervous unless you act nervously.
Here’s my guide on how to stop blushing.
8. Change the way you view small talk
I used to see small talk as something unnecessary that I just tried to avoid.
Later in life, as I studied to become a behavioral scientist, I learned that small talk has a purpose:
Small talk is the only way for two strangers to “warm up” to each other and figure out if they like each other.(8)
When I learned that small talk has a purpose, I liked it more.
Here’s my guide on how to start a conversation.
9. Don’t mention that you’re socially awkward
I often see the advice that you should disarm awkward moments by commenting on the fact that it’s awkward. But doing so won’t disarm the moment, only make it more awkward.
Here is some advice that does work to make socializing feel less awkward:
10. Sincere positivity makes things feel less awkward
In a study, strangers were put in a group and told to socialize. Afterward, they watched the interaction on video and marked when they felt more awkwardness and when they felt less.
It turned out that the entire group felt less awkward when someone showed positivity toward someone else.(1)
(“Nice weather today” in a stressed voice doesn’t work. You have to show that you mean it.)
If you with a relaxed voice say “I think it was clever what you said before about abstract art”, because you mean it, that will make the group feel less awkward.
Why? Probably because social awkwardness is a type of anxiety. When we show sincere positivity, things feel less threatening.
Don’t fake nice things to say. Rather, if you DO like something about someone, let them know about it.
Just take it easy with compliments about looks, as that can feel too intimate for some.
11. Finding mutual interests to talk about also makes it feel less awkward
In the experiment I talked about above, people also felt less awkward as soon as they found a mutual interest to talk about.
Why? When both talk about something they like, it’s easier to know what to say. Mutual interests help us connect with people.(9)
Because of this, I am on the lookout for mutual interests when I meet new people.
More about how to find mutual interests.
12. Learn strategies to handle awkward silence
Conversations normally get awkward after a while if we get stuck talking about facts and things that aren’t personal.
Instead, we can ask questions that help us get to know what people think and their feelings about things, their future, and their passions.
Those types of conversations tend to be more natural and lively.
For example, if you get stuck in a conversation about how the interest rates are low, that can soon get boring.
However, if you say “Speaking of money, what do you think you would do if you had a million dollars?”, the person suddenly gets more personal and interesting.
Read more on this in our guide on how to avoid awkward silence.
13. Avoid certain topics around new people
Here are some simple rules for what topics to avoid around new people.
I emphasize new people, because once you get to know someone, you can talk about controversial topics without it getting awkward.
Avoid R.A.P.E topics:
DO talk about F.O.R.D topics:
Chapter 2. How to stop feeling awkward
If you often feel socially awkward, there might be a deeper reason. It could be because of low self-esteem or social anxiety, for example.
Studies show that we feel awkward when we’re afraid that we might lose the approval of the group. Or, when we don’t know how to react in a social situation.(1)
Here’s how to overcome feelings of awkwardness.
14. If you feel nervous in social settings, it helps to focus more on your surroundings
When we worry about being socially awkward, we often turn “accidentally egoistic”: We are so worried about how we come across that we forget to pay attention to others.
Whenever I walked up to a group of people, I started worrying about what they would think of me.
“Will people think I’m weird?”
“Will they think I’m boring?”
“What if they don’t like me?”
“Where do I put my hands?”
If you can practice focusing on others, you can feel less self-conscious and it would be easier to come up with conversation topics.
Therapists help their clients “shift their attentional focus”.(10)
In essence, the clients are instructed to constantly focus on the conversation at hand (or, when they enter a room, focus on the people in it) rather than themselves.
“But if I’m not in my own head, I can’t come up with things to say!”
That’s what I thought, too. But here’s the thing:
When we focus fully on the conversation, questions pop up in our head, much like when we focus fully on a good movie:
“Why doesn’t he tell her how he feels?” “Who is the real murderer?”
Like that, we want to focus on the people in the room or the conversation we’re having.
“Oh, she went to Thailand! What was that like? How long was she there?”
“He looks like a university professor. I wonder if he is or what he does!”
This was a game-changer for me. Here’s why:
When I focused outward I became less self-conscious. It was easier for me to come up with things to say. My conversation flow improved. I became less socially awkward.
Whenever you interact with someone, practice focusing on them.
15. Accepting nervousness rather than fighting it usually makes us feel less awkward
At first, I tried to “push away” my nervosity. It only made it come back stronger. I later learned that the best way to deal with emotions is to accept them.
For example, when you feel nervous, accept that you feel nervous. After all, it’s human and something everyone feels at times.
This makes nervosity less charged. In fact, feeling nervous isn’t more dangerous than feeling tired or happy. They are all just emotions and we don’t have to let them affect us.
Accept that you are nervous, and act anyway. It’ll make you worry less and feel less awkward.
16. Rather than avoiding social interaction, make sure to get more of it. That’s the only way to practice and over time overcoming being socially awkward.
When I felt bad socially, I tried to avoid socializing. In reality, we want to do the opposite: Get MORE training to practice what we’re not good at.
If you play a video game or play in a team sport and there’s this one thing you fail at again and again, you know what to do:
After a while, you’ll become better at it.(11)
You want to see socializing the same way. Instead of avoiding it, spend more time socializing. Over time, it will feel less awkward.
If you compare yourself with someone who’s less socially awkward, odds are that that person has had more training than you’ve had.
17. Practice being curious about others and make it your mission to get to know a thing or two about them. Having a mission can make things feel less awkward.
I usually make it my “mission” to get to know a thing or two about a few people, to see if we might have something in common.
When I live-coach people, I ask them, “what’s your ‘mission’ for this interaction?”. They usually don’t know. We then came up with a mission together:
“When I talk to these people tomorrow, I’m going to invite them to an event, get to know what they work with, get to know what their interests are, etc”.
When they get this coaching, they know what their mission is, and they feel less awkward.
18. Ask yourself what a confident person would do
People with social anxiety often think they are more awkward than they really are.(13) We can make a reality check: If a confident person would do the awkward thing you did, how would they react?
Often, we find that a confident person probably wouldn’t care much. If a confident person doesn’t care, why should you?
This is called “turning the tables”. Whenever you do something you beat yourself up for, remind yourself to make a reality check: How would a confident person have reacted?(12)
19. We assume that people know how we feel when they don’t
We tend to think that others can “see” our feelings. This is called the Illusion of transparency.(14)
For example, we often believe that people can see how nervous we are, when in reality, others often assume we’re less nervous than we really are.(15)
Simply knowing that people often don’t know how you feel can be comforting. Even if you feel super awkward, that doesn’t necessarily mean that others will see that.
Remind yourself that just because you feel nervous or awkward, doesn’t mean that others will feel that way about you.
20. If you often feel judged around new people, it could be that you’re the one who’s judging yourself.
I could feel judged as soon as I walked into a room. I assumed that people would judge me for literally everything: My looks, that maybe I was walking weirdly, or that they just wouldn’t like me.
As it turned out, I was the one who judged myself. Because I looked down on myself, I assumed that everyone else would, too. As I improved my self-esteem, I stopped worrying about what others would think.
If you feel that people will judge you as soon as they see you, that’s a sign that you might be the one who’s judging yourself. You can overcome that by changing the way you talk to yourself.
Let’s talk about how to challenge your own negative voice:
21. Changing the way you talk to yourself can make you less sensitive about social awkwardness
In the previous step, I said that if you feel judged by others, it can be a sign of low self-esteem.
So how do you improve your self-esteem? Research shows that affirmation (Like, notes on the bathroom mirror) doesn’t work and can even backfire and make us feel worse about ourselves.(16)
What DOES work is to change the way we think about ourselves.(17)
1. Speak to yourself like you would speak to a true friend
You probably wouldn’t call your friend “worthless, stupid”, etc, and you wouldn’t let a friend call you that. So why would you call yourself that?
Pay attention to when you talk to yourself in a disrespectful way. Instead of saying “I’m so stupid”, say “I made a mistake. I might be able to do it better next time”.
2. Don’t take for granted whatever your inner voice tells you
Sometimes our critical voice makes claims like “I suck at socializing”, “I always mess up”, “People think I’m weird”.
Don’t take these statements for granted. Double-check if it’s actually true. Perhaps you can remember some social situation where you did do good. Or, a situation where you didn’t mess up or where people didn’t think you were weird at all and even seemed to like you.
If so, remind yourself of those moments. That way, you get a more realistic view of yourself.
This makes your critical voice less powerful, and you’ll judge yourself less.(18)
22. If socializing gives you performance anxiety, take the pressure off by seeing it as another practice round where the outcome doesn’t matter.
I used to think that for a social event to be successful, I had to make a new friend.
That put a lot of pressure on me, and every time I didn’t make a friend (almost every time) I felt like I had failed.
Instead, I started seeing social events as practice rounds.
If people didn’t like me or if they didn’t respond in a good way to a joke, it was fine, because it was only practice.
Socially anxious people are overly concerned with making sure that everyone likes them.(19) For those of us who have social anxiety, it’s extra important to realize that it’s OK if not everyone does.
Taking this pressure off myself made me more relaxed, less needy, and, ironically, more likable.
See social interaction as practicing. It makes you realize that the outcome isn’t that important.
23. Simply knowing that everyone wants to be liked and that most people feel insecure can make you feel more confident
All humans want to be liked and accepted.(20)
We can remind ourselves of that fact whenever we’re about to enter a social setting. It takes people of the imaginary pedestal we put them on.
As a result, we feel more alike with others and that makes us more relaxed.(21)
24. Always feeling socially awkward can be a symptom of social anxiety.
Social anxiety makes us hypersensitive to making mistakes that others can see. As a result, we think we’re awkward when we really aren’t
Read more about social anxiety.
25. If you’ve always felt that it’s hard to know what’s expected from you in social situations, you might have some level of Aspergers
Here are some common traits for Aspergers (Nowadays, it’s called autism-spectrum syndrome(22))
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Avoiding eye contact, especially when young
- Repetitive behaviors
- Avoiding or resisting physical contact
- Communication difficulties
- Being upset by minor changes
- Showing intense sensitivity to stimuli
2. Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of ones own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211-222. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
3. Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2001). The spotlight effect revisited: Overestimating the manifest variability of our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (38), 93–99.
6. Mellings, T. M., & Alden, L. E. (2000). Cognitive processes in social anxiety: The effects of self-focus, rumination and anticipatory processing. Behaviour Research and Therapy,38(3), 243-257. doi:10.1016/s0005-7967(99)00040-6
8. Laver, J. (1975), “Communicative Functions of Phatic Communion”, in: Kendon, A. / Harris, R. / Key, M. (eds.), The Organisation of Behaviour in Face-to-Face Interaction, pp.215–238, The Hague: Mouton.
10. Zou, J. B., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2007, October). The effect of attentional focus on social anxiety. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17521604
11. Nelis, D., Kotsou, I., Quoidbach, J., Hansenne, M., Weytens, F., Dupuis, P., & Mikolajczak, M. (2011). Increasing emotional competence improves psychological and physical well-being, social relationships, and employability. Emotion, 11(2), 354-366. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021554
13. Moscovitch, D. A., Rodebaugh, T. L., & Hesch, B. D. (2012, February). How awkward! Social anxiety and the perceived consequences of social blunders. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260374/
14. Gilovich, T., Savitsky, K., & Medvec, V. H. (1998). The illusion of transparency: Biased assessments of others’ ability to read one’s emotional states. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(2), 332-346. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522
16. Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. Q., & Lee, J. W. (2009, July). Positive self-statements: Power for some, peril for others. Retrieved July 23, 2019, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19493324
20. Baumeister, Roy & Leary, Mark. (1995). The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation. Psychological bulletin. 117. 497-529. 10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497.
21. de Jong, Peter J. (2002, March 29). Implicit self-esteem and social anxiety: Differential self-favouring effects in high and low anxious individuals. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796701000225