Some awkward moments in conversations are innocuous while others are cringey.
I am the master of getting into awkward conversations, many of them self-inflicted. As a lifelong introvert, I spent a lot of my childhood doing things on my own. While this was great for my imagination, it didn’t help my social skills.
So, as an adult, I found myself not only nervous and unsure of what to say, but occasionally blurting out long diatribes about nerdy topics — everything from Dungeons & Dragons to obscure science facts I’d read about. The reactions were, at best, polite… but disinterested. More often, they were awkward.
I’m guessing a lot of introverts experience this, and that we probably end up in more awkward situations per capita than extroverts do. That’s because we may not know what to say or do when someone makes a conversation awkward, and we may be prone to doing it ourselves by accident.
Fortunately, it’s something we can change. As introverts, we have the ability to improve our social skills, handle the awkwardness of others, and even salvage conversations and make them fun again. Doing so starts with understanding what makes conversations awkward in the first place.
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3 Kinds of Awkward Moments in Conversations
I see awkwardness as coming in three basic flavors: low-key awkwardness, mortified awkwardness, and bad-behavior awkwardness. Each of these has its own unique causes, and each one needs to be dealt with in a different way.
1. Low-Key Awkwardness
Conversation becomes low-key awkward when there’s a lull or nothing to talk about, or the two people just aren’t connecting. If you picture two strangers chatting while they wait in line at the store, and then running out of topics before they’re even halfway to the register, that’s low-key awkwardness. Or if a friend of yours has ever introduced you to a friend of theirs for the first time, and then abandoned you to chat with each other, that’s low-key awkwardness, too. (Most small talk is low-key awkward.)
Low-key awkwardness is usually caused by a lack of shared interests or not knowing someone well, and in this sense, it’s not a bad thing — it might be an indicator that a person isn’t really your cup of tea, and that’s good information to have. However, it can also be caused by social anxiety or simply not knowing what to talk about. In that sense, if you find yourself experiencing low-key awkwardness a lot, it may be worth it to develop your own conversational tricks and skills.
The good news is, low-key awkwardness cuts both ways — both people probably feel simultaneously awkward. That means that simply making a joke about how awkward the situation is will often lighten the mood.
2. Mortified Awkwardness
Mortified awkwardness happens when you do something that ends up being embarrassing, humiliating, or unintentionally cringey. For example, if you mention something outrageous you heard about your company’s incoming CEO, only to realize that one of the people in the room is the new CEO, you’re going to feel absolutely mortified — and it’s going to be awkward as heck.
Unlike low-key awkwardness, mortified awkwardness is caused by your own actions. However, I have good news for you: A lot of things that mortify you — like spilling the chips and dip at a party, or having a spot on your tie in a meeting — might actually not be a big deal to others at all. If you feel mortified during a conversation, a good trick is to ask yourself how you’d react if someone else did the same thing. If the answer is that you wouldn’t be upset with them, it’s probably safe to let yourself off the hook, too.
If something is serious, however (like the CEO comment), a good bet is to apologize once, proactively and sincerely, and then stop drawing attention to it. People will often be gracious and, even more often, they’ll move on quickly if you don’t make it into a big thing. The one thing not to do is to keep apologizing over and over, or make jokes about it all night — that will make it an even more awkward, bigger deal in everyone’s mind.
3. Bad-Behavior Awkwardness
The final kind of awkward is bad behavior — someone being a big ol’ jerk. Nothing is more awkward than that guy at a party who keeps putting someone down, that online date who gets rude with the restaurant server, or that friend who gives backhanded “compliments.” Unlike mortified awkwardness, bad-behavior awkwardness is caused by the person being a jerk.
The secret to dealing with bad-behavior awkwardness is to “return the awkward to sender,” a phrase coined by Captain Awkward. In other words, if someone is being a jerk, they are creating the awkwardness, and they are the ones who should feel awkward and uncomfortable, not you.
So be far more direct than you normally would be, and call them out. With the guy at the party, that might mean saying something like, “Hey, you’re really wrecking the mood here. Either leave them alone or go home.” Or, with the online date, you could say, “I don’t date people who are rude to servers. I’m going to head out.”
Now let’s get into a few simple strategies you can use to prevent, or recover from, common sources of awkwardness.
Do you ever struggle to know what to say?
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4 Ways to Deal With Awkward Conversations as an Introvert
1. Arrive prepared with an interesting topic you can bring up, whether it’s a news or personal story.
Before you go to a social event, think of at least three fun or interesting topics you could bring up in conversation. That might mean a news story, something fascinating you learned on a podcast, a brain teaser, or an open-ended question (bonus points if it’s funny).
2. Save yourself for the “second location.”
Comedian Matt Buechele recently TikToked his advice for plans with friends: Always make it to the second location. In other words, if the plan starts at one party and then moves to another, go to the second party. If it starts at a bar and then moves to someone’s home, go to the home.
As Buechele says, at the first location, you’ll mostly get small talk about work, but by the second location, people will have warmed up. As he says, “Then the conversation starts to get a little deeper. You’re having chats that kind of begin like, ‘Did I tell you about the new antidepressant I’m on?’ It’s like, buckle up, that’s gonna be a good chat.”
For introverts, I would tweak Buechele’s advice: Don’t even go to the first location. Just save yourself for the second location instead. That way, you show up with a full introvert battery just as the conversation is starting to get good.
But if you are at the first location and the conversation is awkward, take heart — the good stuff is yet to come. Do your best to tune out the awkwardness and just listen until the group is ready to move to the good part.
3. Be (humorously) self-deprecating.
Did you make something awkward? Just say so. “Uh-oh, now I made it awkward!” is a line that can turn almost any conversation around… as long as you deliver it with a smile.
The same goes for if you jumble your words up, put your foot in your mouth, or misunderstand what someone said. A little self-deprecation shows modesty and good humor, and it drains awkwardness out of a situation. (It also serves as a cue to others that it’s safe for them to take their own armor off and be vulnerable with you — which is basically a golden ticket to deeper, more interesting and meaningful conversations.)
4. If you don’t know anyone, say so.
Introverts, tell me if this sounds familiar: Your extroverted friend brought you to a party, immediately disappeared, and left you surrounded by absolutely no one you know.
It’s crazy-making, right?
The reason it’s crazy-making is that there’s no way you can suddenly fit in with 40 people who have no idea who you are. But you know what you can do? You can fit in with one person who doesn’t know who you are. It starts by choosing someone and telling them you don’t know anyone there.
There’s an art to this, and most of it is in choosing the right person. You want to scan the room and spot someone who’s having a good time and is making other people smile or laugh. Then walk up to them, and when there’s a break in conversation, just say out loud: “I don’t know anyone here, and you look fun. Can you adopt me?”
(Okay, you don’t have to use the adoption line. I like that one because it makes people laugh. A less cheesy alternative would be: “I don’t know anyone here, and you look fun. Can I join you?”)
It’s weird how just mentioning the universally awkward experience of not knowing anyone can immediately change you from “outsider” to “new friend” status. You’ll see.
You might like:
- 4 Hacks for Introverts to Transform Small Talk Into Meaningful Conversation
- Why Socially Awkward Introverts Make the Best Friends
- 6 ‘Weird’ Things Introverts Do That Are Actually Completely Normal
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