We all have them. We trip up the stairs at work. We talk about crazy Aunt Harriet right as she walks up behind us. We can’t find anything intelligent to say to that hot guy at Starbucks when he leans in to tell you a joke. The professor calls on you in class and you have no idea what the question is.
What do you do when you suddenly have these awkward moments?
No one really knows, and it never seems to end well. At least for most people. There are a few who manage to always come out smelling like a rose, and it’s disgusting.
How do they manage to have such awfully embarrassing moments and have it not phase them? Do they know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?
Were they blessed by some kind of shaman or powerful priest when they were born?
It’s impossibly unfair, isn’t it?
At least, that’s what we think until we understand the truth about awkwardness.
What It Is
We can’t find the truth about awkwardness without first knowing what it is. What makes it so awkward? Why is it so embarrassing?
Simply put, it’s because we don’t know what to do.
It’s a completely new experience and we are at a loss for the right words, the right actions or even the right frame of mind.
We grow up learning unspoken rules about how to act in the social arena. Rules you probably don’t even think about.
How long is ok to stare at a person before it gets weird/creepy.
How long to hug a person before letting go.
When to hug a person at all.
When to smile, when to frown.
You don’t smile and say congratulations when someone experiences the death of a close friend.
That may sound silly and extreme, but that is because even though it is unspoken, we all know the rule.
The problem is, we don’t always know what to do instead. Do you cry with them, put your arm around them and comfort them? Back away slowly into a corner to let them grieve?
Or maybe we can go a little more extreme and say you are sitting in a large conference full of people and someone suddenly screams. How do we respond?
Or say you are at a social gathering and a woman walks up to you and your friends swearing she knows you. You both suddenly realize she is the ex-wife of a friend that you didn’t realize was even divorced. What do you say? What do your friends say?
The less people know what to do, the more awkward it becomes. The bigger the crowd, the more awful it is.
We simply stand there, wishing we could crawl into a hole and cover it up with a mountain and not come out for at least another 50 years.
It makes us consider things we would never normally do, even if we never actually act on them:
“That’s it, I’ve got to quit my job.”
“I’m moving to Antartica.”
“I’m never leaving my home again.”
But rather than hiding until the end of time, what if we could figure out how to respond to these types of situations? What if we could become the person who always knows what to do and how to handle new situations?
What if we could always have the right response to something we’ve never done or experienced before?
Can you just imagine what kind of changes would come into your life?
Have you ever heard the adage, “It’s not what you say it’s how you say it?” There have been studies and articles about the importance of this idea.
We may be told not to judge a book by its cover, but we do it all day, every day. We see an attractive person and get nervous wanting to talk to them. We clam up when our boss walks by, especially with a visiting executive or administrator.
Fun fact, these people we don’t see often are also in the same boat you are. They are also in a new situation. They might even be feeling the same nervousness and anxiety.
Everyone knows this is an awkward moment. No one knows what is going to happen and there aren’t any rules about what to say when you run into the ex-wife of a friend.
Since no one really knows what to do, this gives you a golden opportunity.
You get to set the tone of what happens next. Everyone is standing around trying to think of the rules and what is acceptable.
But there is NO RULE.
YOU are the one who gets to MAKE the rule.
I have Tourette Syndrome, so I know a little about awkward situations. There have been many instances where I am in a large gathering of people and scream for no good reason. Let me break down what happens.
Heads instantly turn. All eyes are on me.
People are hearing a tragic scream as if something is wrong and they are trying to figure out what to do. They don’t know if there is danger and if they should panic or try to help out.
When they see my face and a lack of danger, they try to figure out why I would do such a thing. They don’t know how to respond without knowing the reason for the scream.
The most liberating moment of my life was when I realized others simply didn’t know what was going on. Which is understandable, since I didn’t know for several years myself.
The simple act of speaking up completely changes the dynamic of the situation.
The awkwardness of others not knowing how to respond is alleviated when context is given. Sometimes they even ask how they should respond when I tic.
There are certainly those who assume that I’m just being rude or inconsiderate. But even situations where I am being told I am a jerk can change. I know I’m not a jerk and that I can’t control it.
But they don’t know that!
They only know that I made a noise. And often their understanding can be justified. So instead of internalizing their words and rather than letting the situation escalate, I let them in on my “little secret.”
It’s amazing how quickly the tide can turn. There have been many instances where people suddenly apologize and a conversation starts. Often a new friend is made.
When it doesn’t and they still think I am a jerk, I understand that is more a reflection of them and not a mess I want to get involved in.
Those aren’t awkward situations. Those are toxic and not something to stick around for more. Don’t try to fix it.
Just remember, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
The only action I can take in those moments is to walk away. And that’s ok. Not every situation is going to turn out exactly the way you want it to. Not everyone is going to like you.
But you can eliminate awkward to determine what type of situation you are really facing.
Awkward situations are actually incredibly important. We tend to avoid them and awkward has this negative connotation to it. Yet these experiences are first and foremost an opportunity to test the waters and learn how to respond to unexpected events.
Because let’s face it, life is full of those, whether we want them or not. It’s best to start small and work up the confidence and ability to handle the larger things that life throws our way.
These awkward moments are the defining moments of our lives. They are what allow us to take control and write our own story.
The more we experience and do, the less awkward life can feel. The awkward situation is still there, but you know how to handle them without feeling nervous, embarrassed or anxious.
The truth is: we don’t have to avoid situations to eliminate those feelings from our lives. We should actually be doing more new things and putting ourselves in more awkward positions if we want to avoid the awkward feeling.
Then we can learn to utilize those situations to our advantage using our own strengths.
Not sure about the strengths you have to utilize in awkward situations? I’ve created a guide to help you find and utilize those strengths- completely free.