Viewing awkwardness as a temporary discomfort triggered by a particular social situation — but not every social situation — makes it easier to cope.
Big social events are an introvert’s worst nightmare. I’m no different. Last summer, I went to a panel discussion hosted at a chic coworking space I was thinking about joining.
But before the panel, it was “mix and mingle” time! I thought I should make some new connections with other entrepreneurs since I was new to my city. I figured making friends with a local who could show me the town couldn’t hurt either.
Nearby, I spotted two women who were mid-conversation. Their conversation didn’t look intense, so I thought, “Hey, what the hell, I’m going to join them.”
I approached the women, smiling and hoping to catch the eye of one of them. They glanced at me, one after the other, with a small, polite smile, acknowledging my presence. Yet the person speaking didn’t miss a beat of her sentence. The other lady replied without pausing to include me.
And … cue the all-too-familiar sensation of sweat pooling in my palms and armpits.
I held my ground, refusing to admit defeat by walking away. I kept nodding occasionally, raising my eyebrows as though interested.
After what seemed like decades but was probably 15-20 seconds, their conversation came to a natural end. They introduced themselves and the three of us began chatting.
I’d love to tell you that we three forged a deep friendship lasting until this day, but alas, after a few more minutes of small talk — which introverts tend to hate — we parted, never to speak again. So much for a new friend to show me around town!
The encounter was mortifying, but not a total loss. It reinforced three important points:
- Awkward moments are temporary.
- I’m capable of tolerating an awkward moment.
- I missed some cues indicating I should have picked a different group (or, better yet, one person) to approach.
Plus, I realized there are major advantages to becoming tolerant of these sweaty-palm moments.
3 Major Virtues of Awkwardness
1. Awkwardness is authentic.
When it comes to social relationships, introverts value quality over quantity. We crave deep conversations over superficial chit-chat and want to connect with others meaningfully.
Putting forward the real you with all your awkwardness, clumsiness, and anxiety attracts the right kind of people. When you aren’t afraid to be the real you, even though it makes you vulnerable, people see it as courageous.
I do awkward things all the time and people tell me how they couldn’t tell I was nervous or how they found it charming. And I muse, How wonderful for you, I almost peed my pants.
As introverts get more comfortable with someone new, our perception of awkwardness decreases. This happens faster because it’s easier to trust someone who has seen the real you.
2. Feeling awkward means you’re out of your comfort zone.
Because we introverts need alone time to replenish our spent energy, this is often where we are most comfortable.
But no one has created a revolution — personally or professionally — by being comfortable. It requires risk, and that means stepping out of your comfort zone.
Sure, we can write that groundbreaking article or novel alone. But if I’m expending precious introvert energy socializing and risking being awkward, I want it to mean something. I want to leverage that awkwardness into the kind of personal growth I can only get from a mind-blowing conversation with someone new.
3. Awkwardness builds resilience.
Smiling and nodding in front of those two women felt pretty terrible — as most introverts generally don’t like networking — but I survived. After it was over, I composed myself by sitting alone for a few minutes. Although the encounter had been uncomfortable, I knew I could do it again and get a better result next time.
This survival-rebuilding-learning pattern of resilience transfers to other scenarios.
During awkward silences in job interviews, I no longer worry if I’m being weird. When the interviewer asks me a question, I now intentionally create an awkward silence because it shows that I’m crafting an answer. If my answer is a great one, the silence I created is a low-key power move.
Who knew there could be such power in awkwardness?
A Caveat: Feeling Awkward Versus Being Awkward
Some of us introverts describe our awkwardness as if it’s a personality trait, such as cheerfulness or industriousness.
But, unless you have a clinical diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia), I challenge you to consider that awkwardness could be a temporary condition you experience when triggered, even if it’s more often than you’d like, versus a fixed feature of who you are. It does not have to be the “bad” thing you may think it is.
When do you feel the most “you”? For me, it’s getting lost in a good novel or discussing the meaning of life at 2 a.m. with a close friend. For most of us, it’s when we are around those special people with whom we deeply resonate. You probably aren’t anxious in these social situations.
So, by viewing your awkwardness as a temporary discomfort triggered by a particular social situation — but not every social situation — it might make it easier to cope.
And perhaps this moment of acceptance ushers in a moment of courage. You even address the moment with a, “Hey, this is awkward, right?” You share a chuckle (humor dissipates awkwardness), then find a common interest that can lead to deep conversation.
On the other hand, if you frequently feel awkward even around people you know very well, then you might have social anxiety. A visit to a psychologist may be in order if this stops you from leading the life you’d like to live.
Yet, it’s all the more reason to accept that this is a part of you that you’re working through. As you journey to release its hold on you, consider that such “quirks” attract the people who are curious to get to know the real you.
With time and persistent practice, you can find yourself surrounded by people who love you, awkwardness and all.
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4 Ways to Tolerate Awkwardness
Through all the awkward social events and interviews, I’ve learned to expect and embrace awkwardness instead of dread it. Here’s how:
- During an awkward silence, remember that everyone has a story to tell. Get curious about what that person’s story is. You can get more comfortable with discomfort, but there is no magic pill or technique to make it disappear forever. Instead, focusing on the other person will make your brain focus less on how your palms are sweating or how much your introverted self would rather be home. Alone.
- Take a slow, deep breath. Yes, there’s research showing this actually calms the mind. I’ve found that taking a one-second breath in an awkward moment slightly decreases my tension while not increasing the awkwardness; it’s like breathing into the physical pain or tension during difficult stretching exercises. The deep breath gives me a second to recall that — while I want the ground to open up and swallow me into my introvert tunnel — I can, and will, actually survive this moment.
- Remind yourself that tolerating awkwardness is a habit. It might take an initial moment of courage to start what could be an awkward conversation, but it requires practice to get good at it. I became a solo expat nomad a couple years ago, putting myself in scenarios where I had to meet new people regularly. It was awkward at first — we introverts tend to have weird thoughts after socializing — but as I practiced it more (out of necessity), it got much easier. The rituals of chatting with a stranger didn’t change (small talk > common interest > pivot to deep talk), but my perception of the awkwardness decreased.
- It’s OK if the other person knows you’re awkward. One of the biggest problems we introverts have with being awkward is being found out. When you know the other person sees how nervous you are, it can reinforce the anxiety. Again, using humor to state the obvious can break the spell, but what if the other person insists on staying in awkward small talk? Or worse yet, they retreat in disgust or make fun of you? These worst-case scenarios rarely happen. But if any of them do, consider your awkwardness a superb tool for weeding out people you’d rather not spend time with anyway. The person who remains is showing they aren’t thrown off by your anxiety. That’s friendship gold.
Hopefully, your incentive to improve your relationship with awkwardness is clear:
- You’ll feel like more yourself more of the time.
- You’ll be less afraid and avoidant of awkward situations, which will make you more resilient.
- You’ll get out of your comfort zone more, allowing you to evolve.
- And maybe you’ll build a deep, rewarding friendship.
The only way to improve your relationship with awkwardness is to go through it, a lot, but armed with the right tools. If creating awkward situations is easy for you, you’re ahead of the game. Practice makes perfect.
If you’d like to discover more about how your convo tendencies shape how you connect, try my What’s Your Introvert Conversation Style Quiz. You’ll learn tips to level up your deep conversations.