Embarrassment, Awkwardness, and How to Deal With It


Think Beyond the ‘Awkwardness’

In today’s collaborative environment, people feel obligated to socialize because it’s basic work etiquette. If you’re lucky, you might end up finding a work ‘bff’ you can get along with. However, small talk can only go so far before it gets awkward. Sometimes, people say things they don’t mean, while there are others who are innocent by nature and slow on picking up social cues.

Humans can be quick to jump into conclusions when certain behaviors strike them as odd. Though our first instinct may be to judge, this type of reaction will only inflict unnecessary tension within teams and cause damage in the long term. When interacting with your employees or coworkers, try your best to keep an open mind by doing the following:

  • Take into account that the person may have grown up with a different cultural background or upbringing.
  • Consider using more universally-understood humor when making a joke.
  • Get a better picture of your teammate’s personality and communication style using team-fit solutions.
  • Work is work, after all. Focus on getting the job done together instead.


People avoid awkwardness, it breeds vicarious embarrassment

People just don’t like awkwardness. Michael Stevens says this is called vicarious embarrassment or what I like to call second hand embarrassment. It’s that cringe-y feeling you get when you watch Michael Scott from the Office or Phil Miller on The Last Man on Earth.

Focusing on your own social blunders is easy to do and difficult to get off your mind once it has all gone down. Luckily, while we’re replaying social encounters in our head over and over again, the people who observed our weirdo behavior aren’t.

Those people you worry about judging you because you’re being awkward, are really only worried about themselves. What YOU think about THEM. What THEY think about THEMSELVES.

Power On Through

Part of what makes the awkward so painful is the way it just lingers like a bad smell. What makes it worse isn’t even the actual awkwardness, it’s the potential awkwardness. The fear of the awkward takes up valuable space in our heads and leaves us in a constant state of tension. Now we can’t relax because we have to be on our guard, waiting for the moment that the awkward-bomb goes off.

Of course, the longer you wait, the worse it gets because now your brain has time to engage the nerd’s worst super-power: Worst Case Scenario vision. Now momentary discomfort becomes an event that leads to your social exile, shunned by all right-thinking people. In reality, it’ll never happen. Your worst-case scenario is a fantasy, not reality… but it feels real.

Which is why you don’t want to give the potential awkward the chance to set up shop. Let’s take, for example, one of the classic moments of impending awkwardness. Your buddy has taken you to a party his friend is throwing. Problem is: you don’t know anyone there. And your buddy has just disappeared on you.


Now you’re stuck in the corner, feeling like a tool and pretending to text on your phone instead of interacting with people. The longer you hover in the corner, the worse you feel. You become convinced that everyone is noticing the wallflower and who even let you in the door.

So instead of letting the awkward kick in, you need to push through and start a conversation – just one – with someone, anyone. The three second rule is perfect in this scenario: as soon as you see someone to talk to, you have three seconds to prepare and go introduce yourself. Any longer and you’ll psych yourself out. Taking too long to go over bleeds off the emotional momentum and leaves you stuck in an even more awkward position. So you need to use that first push – hard as it may be – to propel you into a conversation. Party conversations are among the easiest conversations to join; the social contract means that everyone expects to meet strangers.

Need to have an awkward conversation? You say “OK, this is going to be a bit awkward but here goes…” and dive right in. Not giving yourself time to pause or worry keeps you from tripping over your own brain.

But what if it isn’t a case of potential awkwardness; what if you’re absolutely convinced that awkwardness will ensue? What if you ask someone out and they turn you down?

Same story: you push on through. Pretending awkwardness doesn’t exist is a power-move. You asked someone out and they turned you down. How do you get through that awkwardness? By pushing through like it didn’t exist. “You know, I’d love to take you to dinner. No? OK, cool. So like I was saying the other day…” People look to others for clues on how to respond emotionally; if you act like something is perfectly normal and not at all strange, they’ll behave the same way. Don’t start none, won’t be none and all that.

Not sure how to force your way through that awkwardness? Assume the best – you’ll be fine and everyone will be totally cool about it. Expecting people to like you or react well to you is the Jedi mind trick; by behaving as though they already are cool with you, you convince them to be cool with you. Your expectations and attitude change your body language, leading you to behave in a more relaxed and confident manner. That inspires them to be more relaxed and confident as well – and that relaxation defuses the potential awkward.

But what if…

How to know what to choose among various suggestions given for How To Deal With Awkwardness?

The system can give more than one answer for How To Deal With Awkwardness, we also can’t say which the best one is. The best choice depends on the usefulness of each solution to each person. Normally, the ones that satisfy the majority will be on the top.

4. Self-Talk

If humor doesn’t have you feeling better about the situation, remember that there’s no reason to feel anxious about it. Minimize your anxiety by using self-talk to guide you through. Awkward situations are only temporary, regardless of how painful they feel, and this one will pass too. Tell yourself that everyone experiences these things at one time or another, and you’ll soon be forgetting all about it.

What is Social Awkwardness?

Social Awkwardness, also known as Social anxiety disorder (social phobia), comes from a sense of not appearing normal under the gaze of others in the public. The social awkwardness is a sense that is generated by your own worries of what others think about your appearance. Social awkwardness situation can prevent you from fully interacting with others out of fear of being ridiculed.

When COVID Concerns Make Things Awkward

Beyond our social skills getting a little rusty, there is also the problem that safety concerns have also made social interactions more awkward than they used to be.

What do you do when a stranger goes in for a handshake and you are still not quite comfortable with physical contact yet? Or what about when you’re invited to a gathering and you don’t know who has been vaccinated or who hasn’t? Or what about navigating the political minefield of whether masks are still important or if events should be held at all? 

In general, there is an overarching question hanging in the air: How are we supposed to act now? If this is one of the reasons for your newfound social awkwardness, below are some tips to help you navigate the problems that can arise due to social distancing anxiety and concerns. 

  • Make a point of having conversations about social distancing even if they feel awkward. It’s better to understand what will go on at an event than to arrive and be surprised that other people are handling things differently than you.
  • Realize that because of the pandemic, some of your previous social routines may be permanently changed. Be sure to communicate this to other people so that they can understand. For example, if you prefer Zoom over in-person meetups because of logistical reasons, it’s fine to make this known. COVID has changed many of our social norms and there’s no reason to go back to the old way if the new way is actually working better.
  • Make suggestions or negotiate when you don’t feel comfortable. It’s been a tumultuous year and many people have ended up feeling divided based on their political opinions or beliefs about social distancing. If someone holds different views than you, offer to compromise instead of reacting in a negative way. Make suggestions that you feel comfortable with to see if you can reach an agreement. 

2. Practice Confidence

Learning to project confidence is an excellent way to deal with awkward situations. Since no two awkward situations are alike, knowing how to transition depending on your situation is key. Practice having more conversations with strangers, striking up a conversation yourself, or making new friends to help you get used to unexpected social situations. If you’re still feeling at the mercy of awkward situations, don’t underestimate the power of faking it till you make it.

Signs of Social Awkwardness

Are you unsure whether you have developed social awkwardness because it’s simply been so long since you have been around people? These potential signs of social awkwardness are particularly relevant after being isolated due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

  • Not being able to understand subtle aspects of social situations or how to behave
  • Feeling like you have become oversensitive or hypervigilant
  • Overreacting to things that do not seem to bother others
  • Doing things that seem inappropriate (e.g., oversharing during a conversation)
  • Wanting to be around other people but then finding it hard when you actually do spend time with them
  • Misinterpreting the intentions of others (e.g., thinking someone dislikes you or is angry at you because of the expression on their face)
  • Feeling more self-conscious than usual
  • Avoiding things that you used to enjoy such as phone calls or meeting up for activities
  • Making excuses for doing things such as saying that you are too tired
  • Choosing solitary activities over social activities (e.g., choosing to watch Netflix instead of answering a phone call from a friend) 

About Science of People

Our mission is to help you achieve your social and professional goals faster using science-backed, practical advice. Our team curates the best communication, relationship, and social skills research; turning into actionable and relatable life skills. Science of People was founded by Vanessa Van Edwards, bestselling author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma.

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