6 Mar 2023

How to be less awkward

While we all aspire to socialise with ease and panache, the reality is that most of us have experienced moments of crass social ineptitude, awkward pauses, jokes that fall flat or mis-timed interjections.

This can lead to feelings of social awkwardness – shyness and nerves, an inability to pick up on social cues, a tendency to overthink or regret things you have said, and a feeling that people don’t really enjoy talking to you and do their best to avoid you.

Most people experience moments of self-doubt about socialising, but if you feel self-consciousness is blighting your encounters and impeding your ability to function socially, try the following:

Practise your social skills on everyday encounters

Every day you will meet people who offer you a service (in shops, cafés, on public transport, delivering goods to your home etc). It is part of their job to be approachable and affable and they will therefore be receptive to your overtures and appreciative of your friendliness. Even if all you do is exchange a few pleasantries (observations about the weather – that great British standby – are an excellent default), you will gradually feel more at ease about chatting to strangers and less convinced that your attempts at small talk are going to end in disaster.

Show yourself to be an attentive listener

Concentrate on listening carefully when other people are talking. Focus on what they are saying and don’t spend all your time feeling distracted because you are trying to think of a witty or fascinating response.

Practise being an audible listener ­– that means making an occasional short and encouraging interjection like ‘really?’ or ‘how terrible!’ or ‘I can’t believe he said that!’, but don’t overdo it. If the person you are talking to seems to be running out of steam, re-start the conversation by asking a relevant and penetrating question.

All these techniques will ensure that people you converse with will feel truly heard and understood and will enjoy your engagement. All too often, people can leave a social encounter feeling that nobody has really attended to what they’ve been saying, so your obvious signs of interest will make you both memorable and appreciated.

Demonstrate that you’re empathetic

Everyone responds positively to empathy, which is the cornerstone of satisfying human relationships. One simple way of coming across as empathetic is to monitor and mirror other people’s emotions – it will make them feel both closely observed and understood, but it will also ensure that you won’t make elementary social blunders such as laughing at an inappropriate time, or interjecting lugubriously when someone is trying to be light and amusing. Taking your lead from other people will compensate for any deficiencies in your social antennae.

Reinforce feelings of empathy by seeking similarities and pointing them out (‘That’s just how I felt when gave my first presentation!’ or ‘I’m just like you, I can’t stand shellfish!’). This technique may seem crude and obvious, but everyone is seeking ways of bonding socially and will welcome helpful pointers.

Give compliments and receive them graciously

Everyone loves to be complimented and if you can manage to do so without sounding clunky or artificial it will certainly oil the wheels of social intercourse. Try and avoid bland generalities (“You look well!”) and concentrate on specifics (“I love the colour of your dress, it really suits you”). Try and be spontaneous and genuine when you offer compliments. Be careful about getting too personal when it comes to appearance and don’t stray into danger areas – “have you lost weight?” can be a counterproductive compliment as it tends to imply that the person needed to do so.

Compliments, while much appreciated, can sometimes lead to an awkward hiatus in the conversation, so it can be helpful if you move swiftly on, rather than waiting for the complimented person to react.

That said, if you receive a compliment, simply smile and say thank you. Don’t simper and don’t denigrate yourself. Never retaliate with a knee-jerk compliment back, which will sound false and self-serving.

Don’t be frightened of awkward silences

Firstly, remind yourself that there will always be natural lulls in conversation, so don’t go immediately into panic mode. Resist the temptation to fire off a barrage of random questions in a hysterical attempt to re-boot the exchange. A more congenial way of dealing with conversational hiatuses is to acknowledge that they have happened. If, for example, someone has told a funny anecdote and a lull occurs after the laughter has died down, it might be helpful to acknowledge it by saying “well, there’s not much anyone can say after that!”. If you feel a particular subject is exhausted, recognise it by saying “There’s really not much more we can say about that is there?” or “I’m sorry, I’ve clearly been rendered speechless!” Commenting on the lacunae in your own conversation can create feelings of affinity and connection.

Deploy your filter

Self-control and thinking carefully before you speak will prevent you blurting out something inappropriate or out of context (eg mentioning a stomach upset in polite society, referring to a salacious bit of scandal in front of a person who is related to the perpetrator, or airing robust political views when you are with people who emphatically do not share them). You might be someone who has no boundaries and has a tendency to talk openly and revealingly to new acquaintances, who are disconcerted by your revelations.

Remember past gaffes and indiscretions, take a deep breath and wait a couple of seconds before you speak – that should give you enough time to filter out inappropriate remarks.

While conflict, provocation and indiscretion can all contribute to memorable conversations, as a rule it is best to play safe when you first meet people and test out their tolerances and sensitivities by avoiding these topics:

• Private matters like relationships, personal finance, mental health, or family issues

• Taboo and controversial issues like religion, politics, gossip, body parts, or sex

• Strong or overbearing opinions

• Negative comments about other people

• Excessively deep emotional sharing (especially in the early stages of a friendship or relationship)

If your filter isn’t functioning properly and you get into deep water, pull yourself up short and laugh at yourself (“sorry, I don’t know where I was going with that!”, “oh dear, please ignore me, I’m rambling!”).

Socialising is a delicate dance: when you first meet people you may find the conversation tends towards the bland and innocuous, but this is a safe and gentle way of establishing contact and getting to know them. If you make a connection, you can take it further and push the boundaries. If you don’t connect, you can simply move on.


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