If you resonate with the latter, consider this a mini-guide on how to not be socially awkward.
These highlights are inspired by Vanessa Van Edwards, a self-proclaimed ‘recovering awkward person’ and charisma expert, in a conversation with Jason Marc Campbell on the Selling With Love podcast.
What Is Social Awkwardness?
Awkwardness is the quality of being awkward — feeling uneasiness, embarrassment, or inconvenience. And so, social awkwardness means exactly that, but in a social setting.
For a number of people, it’s difficult to receive and/or express social cues. For example, they may not pick up on certain signals or express them. Or they misunderstand or do not notice another person’s body language. Or they may struggle with all of it.
There’s a word for it — it’s called dyssemia. It comes from the Greek words dys (difficulty) and semia (signal). Simply put, dyssemic people have trouble ‘reading the room.’
There are tons of examples in pop culture. Think Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory. Or Michael Scott from The Office. Or even Walter Mitty living out his secret life.
Vanessa herself struggles with this. “I’m not a natural people person,” she says. “I get social anxiety, I get nerves, I get stage fright.”
This characteristic is more of a feeling, according to Joshua Clegg, assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.
In a study on situations that trigger social awkwardness in people, he posits that it arises when a person feels “the situation threatens [their] goal of being accepted by others.” In turn, they direct their attention inwards, monitor their behavior, and attempt to behave in a way that will improve their chances of achieving acceptance.
Awkward moments and socially awkward — are they the same?
Let’s look at it this way: we all face painfully embarrassing moments every now and again. But there are differences between having awkward moments and being socially awkward.
- Awkward moments are situations that are embarrassing to deal with. For example, saying “Hi!” back to someone, only to realize they were talking to the person behind you… Awkward.
But as embarrassing as they are, awkward moments serve as a useful function to keep us in line with societal norms. (No one wants to walk around with their zipper down, right?)
Cheeks feeling flushed, heart racing, or cottonmouth — these are all signals from your mind alarming you that you stepped outside of the social bounds. It’s time to correct yourself.
- Socially awkward people often feel out of sync with those around them. Routine social situations, like ordering at a restaurant or wondering where to stand in a crowded elevator, can be uncomfortable for them.
Vanessa beautifully illustrates her own experience growing up with social awkwardness. She says, “It felt like I would walk into rooms and everyone else knew something I didn’t. Somehow, they were magically able to talk to people. They were able to be cool. They were able to have casual conversations. And I wondered, ‘Was everyone getting a book that I didn’t have?’”
And for those who consider themselves socially awkward, being in social situations can also lead to social anxiety.
Does social awkwardness have anything to do with social anxiety?
While social awkwardness is a character trait, social anxiety is a medical condition. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, social anxiety affects approximately 15 million Americans. It’s also the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder.
The association defines it as “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” People with this disorder worry about appearing visibly anxious or viewed as stupid, awkward, or boring.
Because of this, they often avoid going to social events. And when they have to, they may experience strong physical symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, nausea, sweating, and even full-blown attacks. Those that suffer from it often require treatment.
Although one is not the other, social awkwardness can sometimes lead to social anxiety, especially when the lack of interpersonal skills causes a problem for the person.
Is being socially awkward good or bad?
Social awkwardness doesn’t define somebody’s lack of confidence, introversion, or shyness. It just means they may have difficulties with the social skills many of us take for granted.
While that in itself isn’t an issue, it can become a problem for someone if or when it leads to distress. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as:
- Seeking friendship, but struggling to develop an authentic connection.
- Finding social situations difficult to manage.
- Not as intuitively graceful as their counterparts.
- Receiving unkind remarks from other people.
- Obsessing whether they’ve done something wrong.
But it’s not all bad. Actually, there are advantages to being awkward. These great traits include having…
- Different perspectives on life, which some people may find refreshing.
- Passion and extraordinary intense focus, especially when it comes to topics governed by rules, such as math or science.
- The curiosity to understand how things work, enabling many ground-breaking innovations.
“The same traits that make people socially awkward are the same psychological characteristics that can power them towards extraordinary achievements,” says Dr. Ty Tashiro, psychologist and author of Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome.
So whether social awkwardness is good or bad is really a matter of perspective.
Why Do People Become Socially Awkward?
We have this fundamental need as human beings to belong. But is there a reason why people become socially awkward? Here are a few points that may answer the burning question.
- Adversity in their youth. Past research suggests “children who experience adversity during their formative years tend to have more trouble adapting to adult life than those brought up in a more secure environment.”
So a small team of researchers from New York University, the University of California, and Arizona State University looked deeper into what causes social awkwardness. Their results suggest that those who face adversity at a young age “may miss out on lessons that other youngsters get, such as how to approach and behave with others.”
- Technology. And in this age of lockdowns and physical distancing, social expectations are far different from that of our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors.
It’s now all about the latest phone or the newest TikTok trend. And there’s nothing wrong with that — technological advances and creativity are welcome with open arms.
The problem, however, is when we make these things our priorities. “When we make temporary social expectations and goods the kind of currency that we trade in with one another, life can start to feel a little empathy and a little bit meaningless,” explains Dr. Tashiro.
One study examined the relationship between technological communication and social skills in college students. Its results found that those who used technology had poorer social skills and high social anxiety than those who didn’t.
So whether social awkwardness is due to adversity, misguided priorities, or some other reason, there are people who’ve grown through their awkwardness. People like Dr. Tashiro as well as Vanessa.
3 Tips On How Not to Be Socially Awkward
If you feel that some pro tips on how to be less socially awkward will help you with feeling worthy, then these incredible ones from Vanessa, whose TEDx Talk has amassed more than three million views, may just resonate with you.
1. Cultivate your self-awareness
The more you’re able to look within and acknowledge your thoughts and individuality, the more you understand your strengths and challenges. It’ll allow you to look at things from different perspectives, and free you from your own assumptions and biases.
Self-awareness helps with confidence, which then can allow you to communicate with clarity and intention. This includes setting healthy boundaries where necessary.
“Set up distance between the people who drain you,” Vanessa advises. “Text them less. Say no to them. Give them boundaries.”
Instead, optimize the amazing people in your life. Text them more, set updates with them, or whatever you feel will show them the love and admiration you have for them.
Look inward to understand what it takes for you to thrive and then, go do it.
Try this: Get to know your authentic self with self-awareness exercises, such as:
- Pay attention to something a few minutes at a time.
- Use your non-dominant hand to do your daily tasks.
- People watch with no judgment or critiques but with a completely open mind.
2. Shape your body language
Do you pay attention to how your body acts or reacts? The lift in the shoulders when you’re anxious. The scrunch of your nose when you don’t like something. Or throwing your hands in the air when you’re celebrating.
Your non-verbal communication, a.k.a. body language not only influences those around you, but it influences you, too — your thoughts, feelings, and physiology.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her team have been researching the effects of adopting ‘power poses’ on emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physiological outcomes. The results suggest that adopting an expansive posture can boost feelings of confidence and in turn, have an impact on the chances for success.
Vanessa adds, “The more space you take up, the more contagious you are.” Now, that doesn’t mean walking into a room like a giant monster with your hands up or doing the superwoman pose (which can seem a little aggressive in a social setting).
But be attune to your body so that when you do feel out of place, you can adjust your body language in a way that will give you the boost in confidence you need.
Try this: Vanessa suggests a natural, yet effective way to shape your body language:
- Lower your shoulders down and back.
- Then, make sure your head and ears are up and away.
3. Embrace your charisma
Embracing your charisma sounds like one of those ‘easier said than done’ advice, doesn’t it? Well, it may just be easier than you think.
“We are not born with an immovable personality,” explains Belynder Walia, psychotherapist, and neuroscientist. “Our individuality is something that develops over time, and therefore, we can quite easily cultivate charisma.”
There was a time when people believed that charisma equated to bubbly extroverts. But according to what Vanessa has found after years of research, there are many kinds of this personal quality. And each one of us has our own “natural flavor of charisma.”
So use your charm to attract and inspire those around you. The key to it, says Vanessa, is to leverage your natural strength — whether it’s the powerfully quiet introvert, the empathetic nurturer, or the booming personality.
Try this: Good news is that charisma can be learned. So hone in on these five traits that exceptionally charismatic people follow:
- Embrace your imperfections.
- Don’t be a conversational narcissist.
- Find genuine ways to gush about people, not gossip about them.
- Hands are trust indicators, so use your hands when you’re talking.
- Keep eye contact.
Unleash Your Charisma
The world is a colorful one. It’s filled with all kinds of vibrant personalities — from the gregarious to the reserved and everyone in between.
If you consider yourself a socially awkward person, please remember that you’re awesome. That’s regardless of if you love who and where you are right now or if you want to advance your social skills.
Now, if you’re the latter and wondering “How can I be comfortable in social settings?”, there are tangible skills that you can improve on to navigate you through those situations.
Mindvalley’s Quest, Magnetic Charisma (with Vanessa as the trainer) is one that can help give you a roadmap on the skills needed to improve your interpersonal communication and leadership.
As the saying goes, “Tiny tweaks can lead to big changes.” All it takes is the decision to start.