Have you always felt socially awkward? What does “socially awkward” even mean and what do we do about it? I share my tips here for how to be less socially awkward.
Signs of Social Awkwardness
I always felt completely awkward as a kid. Sure, there was the usual stuff: by age 12 a giant constellation of acne plagued my face and by age 14 I didn’t know what to make of the ways my body was changing. But I also mean awkward in a deeper way: I felt self-conscious about my role in my circle of friends, assumed nobody liked me, and I always seemed to embarrass myself whenever I opened my mouth.
Can anyone relate?
Of course, some amount of this is just a healthy part of human development, and those puberty years in particular seem to have a way of getting super awkward!
But what if you still feel awkward in social situations as an adult? Here are some signs of social awkwardness:
- Feeling uncomfortable in social situations
- People reacting to you differently than you expected (that was supposed to be a joke but no one laughed…)
- Not knowing social protocol (am I supposed to hug right now? shake hands? I don’t know!)
- Feeling like you don’t know how to connect with others
There are plenty more signs of social awkwardness, but I think these capture the idea. I love Albert Brennaman from the movie Hitch as a fictional depiction of social awkwardness:
What Causes Social Awkwardness?
So why do some people seem to be more socially awkward than others? A quick google search of “what causes social awkwardness” will give you an array of ideas. However, there are a couple of categories of “socially awkward” that I like to think of:
Cultural Differences. If you take a fish out of water, it gets real awkward-looking real quick. If any of us exit our “tribe” of people – people who look like us, think like us, have similar beliefs as us, dress like us, etc. – we’re just like a fish out of water too. You could go through the list above and very quickly find yourself checking all the boxes of social awkwardness once you’re out of your element.
Insecurity. When we don’t feel self-assured, we become more awkward. Insecurities aren’t innate though. We develop them over time, and so I see this item as an extension of a kind of cultural difference – of not being understood or embraced within your context, whether it be with your family, friends, workplace, or elsewhere. When we feel like we haven’t been accepted for who we are, we grow increasingly insecure and reinforce a socially awkward presentation.
When you take a fish out of water, it’s suddenly thrust into an entire world that it may not have realized even existed. I love this quote by David Foster Wallace:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’
My point in all of this is to say that social awkwardness is relative. Awkwardness is not a static trait about someone, it’s a reaction to a specific context. All people have places where they no longer feel socially awkward – it’s just that not everyone has located the rest of their tribe yet to feel that freedom.
How to be Less Socially Awkward
So how do we become less socially awkward? Here are a few tips to get you started:
- Identify that “awkward” is not static. You may just feel awkward in certain contexts.
- Consider who your “tribe” is. Are there any circles or individual people with whom you don’t feel awkward around? What is it about those spaces that seems to take away your awkwardness?
- When you’re a fish out of water, embrace your awkwardness. When you’re not with your home base people, it’s better to know that you are a fish out of water rather than believing that somehow you should magically know what to do in this situation. This helps deflate shame and creates space to ask for help.
- Find an ally. Do you have people in your life who can help you know the proper social protocol in various situations? Find one or two people you trust who can help reality-check if you’re being awkward and also help you to learn what is considered socially appropriate in certain circles.
- Don’t apologize for who you are. Even if after all the above the awkwardness still shines through, don’t apologize for who you are. It is sometimes appropriate to acknowledge that you are learning the social norms of a group, but it’s never appropriate to apologize for being who you are.
Awkward Moments with Dr. Marie
When I first got married, my husband and I travelled to mainland China to visit his extended family. Upon arrival, I very much felt like a fish out of water. In addition to being stared at in areas of China where white people are completely novel, I hadn’t yet learned any of the cultural norms and what was expected of me. Do I hug extended family? Shake their hand? Do I talk or stay silent?
No setting made my “fish out of water” state more apparent than during family meals. Inevitably, I would inadvertently offend others at the table by simply acting the way I normally would at home. For example, at first I didn’t realize that as the youngest at the table, I was expected to pour tea for everyone else. How awkward to have everyone stare at me as I poured myself some tea and placed the teapot back on the lazy susan – what a no-no! In the days we were there, my husband coached me so that by the end I figured out I needed to keep track of others’ teacups, place food on their plates for them, and eat whatever food was placed on my plate.
Making these changes wasn’t a way of denying who I am, but a gesture of accepting others for who they are and that yes, in these moments I am indeed a fish out of water. And that’s okay.
For further reading, you may enjoy this Time article: “Being Socially Awkward Is Actually Awesome, According to Science.”
Have fun being awkward!
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. She specializes in anxiety counseling, identity counseling, and faith counseling. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Counseling Services.