Mind & Body

how to combat social awkwardness

Psychologist and CEO of Relationships Australia shares six tips for dealing with social awkwardness – for all you mumblers, inappropriate jokers and TMI-ers, out there!

When I was a kid, I was a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and I tuned into watch the show every week. While of course my inner feminist wanted to see Buffy kick vampire arse, I also admired that cool, confidence of Buffy’s nemesis, Cordelia, especially when she delivered her epic one liners, like:

“You know, we’ve never been that close, which is nice because I don’t really like you that much.” There was something about her ‘I don’t care’ charisma that I wish I had (without the b*tchiness of course).

Instead, I was more like Buffy’s socially awkward BFF, Willow, uttering lines like:

“Well…when I’m with a boy I like, it’s hard for me to say anything cool, or, or witty. Or at all. I-I can usually make a few vowel sounds, and then I have to go away.” Except this was me, in 99 per cent of social situations, not just when I was around a boy I liked.

“Social awkwardness is a term used to describe people who act uncomfortable around others, being unable to maintain eye contact or engage in easy conversation, can seem to say or do things that don’t entirely fit into the setting, such as talk about things that out of step with the conversation of the moment, laugh in the wrong places, get tongue tied,” says Elisabeth Shaw, psychologist, and CEO of Relationships Australia.

It can often happen to those “who are very shy, people who are introverted, those who simply enjoy smaller crowds as their comfort zone, and those who are unfamiliar territory and not know the social norms. For example, someone who lives in a remote community could come to a large city gathering and just not easily fit in,” she says.

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Six tips for combatting social awkwardness

Social awkwardness can be caused by a range of factors from: certain life events, relocating house or school, or workplace.

“Some mental health conditions can also lead to people having certain traits or hesitancies that make easy group participation more difficult,” says Shaw.

While for some people (like Willow and I) it involves some embarrassing verbal blunders, for others it can be quite severe. “Some people can be so preoccupied by their difficulties that they become very socially isolated, even housebound, feel depressed and hopeless about change.”

The good news is there are lots of things that can be done to work through social awkwardness.

Shaw says that “social success is all about learning behaviours and developing both confidence and resilience. While some people, such as extroverts, have a head start, it is important to know that practice and continuing to push against your comfort zone can lead to greater success in overcoming it.”

Shaw shares six simple tips for helping you navigate social awkwardness…

1. Nail the problem

Do an inventory of where you feel ok and where you get stuck. Work with your strengths and then add on bit by bit. Don’t try everything at once.

2. Start small

It may be better to get used to being one on one or two and build skills with smaller numbers. It may be that you come to realise it is more about big groups than social inadequacy all the time.

3. It’s about them, not you

Everyone loves a good listener. While you might be worried about carrying a conversation, asking just a few questions and then following the others lead, gives you room to breathe and makes you good company.

4. Take it easy

Engineer social occasions that are doable for you. Suggest a movie over a dinner party for example, so you are out and yet not compelled to be the life of the party. You also have ready conversation afterwards.

5. One skill at a time

In a social situation, just decide to try one new thing. It might be the maintain eye contact, or stay 10 minutes more than usual, or be brave enough to suggest coffee with one new person.

6. Listen to feedback

Commonly others around you do not see you as awkward as you feel on the inside. If others reassure you, take that in, don’t dismiss it. Feeling self-conscious can be very captivating but is not always the truth about how you come across. Rarely is everyone comfortable and socially successful all the time.

It is very common

Social awkwardness, although…awkward, is relatively common Shaw says, so you needn’t suffer alone.

“This is a very normal experience, and you can even grow out of it as your life progresses and circumstances just provide more opportunities for confidence and success. However, help can be needed to give you a boost and a support team. If you need a bit more help though, seeking professional support might be the answer.

“Services like Relationships Australia NSW or Headspace can be useful, as can getting a referral from your GP to see a psychologist.”

In an emergency please call 000.

If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the 24- hour Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.