Let's be real: It can seem like a real nightmare when you feel awkward. The reality is, however, there are times being awkward actually helps you. I know, I know — it seems like an impossibility, but I promise you, there are situations where behaving awkwardly can actually alleviate stress and embarrassment and help you get a better read on your surroundings. How does this possibly happen? The key is in using that awkward experience as a learning experience for how to behave in future situations, whether it's with your boss, a friend, or your partner.
As Bethany Teachman, a professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Psychology explained to U.S. News in 2015, "The awkwardness is likely fueled in part by your perception of how it's supposed to go and what's actually happening, rather than [an actual] problem." This means that, more often than not, you're feeling awkward because you had certain expectations — for example, that your joke would be a hit or that people would catch your pop-culture reference — and when it goes awry, you feel a disconnect from your expectations and reality. Unless things go really wrong, though, this awkwardness is likely magnified for you, and only a mild discomfort or pause for those around you.
So, we've established that feeling awkward may not be all that bad, but is it really a good thing? Can feeling awkward help us? Turns out the science is in, and it's a big yes. Check out the list below for scenarios where science shows that awkwardness can actually help you:
When You Make An Awkward Joke At Work
Remember that time you made an awkward joke at work and literally nobody laughed? It's happened to the best of us. While this can feel absolutely mortifying in the moment, feeling awkward here can actually help you. How so? Basically, when you experience awkwardness in this situation, it's because you're responding to signals about social boundaries. If other people laughed, it may signal to you that your joke was appropriate or understood, encouraging you to make it again. If people lull into an uncomfortable silence, that's a social cue that (for any number of reasons) your joke missed the mark. Hypothetically, this discourages you from repeating the same error. In this case, awkwardness can help you in the long-term.
When You Flirt With A Crush
No matter how suave you are, pretty much everyone is awkward when they're flirting with a crush. While we all want to appear cool, calm, and collected, psychologists agree that when someone is awkward, it can be read as endearing and humanizing by those around you. As Jen Kim explained at Psychology Today, "When we see someone else behaving in a way that we sometimes do ourselves, we feel connected, safe, and a little relieved, because it turns out we're not the only freaks in town." This makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of dating; while we all want to put our best foot forward, we also eventually want to let down those barriers and know we'll be safe and accepted by the other person no matter what. Awkwardness may help bridge that gap even sooner.
When You Experience Failure
No one wants to acknowledge this one, but it's totally true: We all experience failure. When we realize we've failed, or someone points out a mistake or error we've made, it can absolutely feel awkward. Feeling awkward in these situations is important, though, because it teaches us how to recover from messing up. While it can be tempting to run away and never face that person again, as adults, we generally don't have that option, especially when it comes to the professional world. Experiencing awkwardness when we fail gives us the opportunity to learn how to overcome those feelings and face the coming day.
When You're In A Tense Social Situation
You know those moments when you feel yourself turning bright red, your heart starts to race, and you're absolutely frozen? That moment of awkwardness is causing a literal physical response in your body. This change in your body signals to you that this moment is causing you an unpleasant physical reaction and not one that you want to experience again. This can also happen if someone else is making you feel awkward by a comment they make, their physical proximity to you, or if you're just experiencing an overall tense situation (meeting the parents, anyone?).