It can be tough to predict which situations or topics of conversation might make someone else might feel weird, and it can be even more difficult to pick up on the subtle signs someone is uncomfortable around you. And yet, the more we can pay attention to their body language, the more seamless our social interactions can be.
The same goes for avoiding certain mistakes that can make others feel uncomfortable in the first place — since that's rarely anyone's intention. "Invading a individual's personal 'real estate' is a great way to make someone uncomfortable," body language expert Maryann Karinch, author of The Art Of Body Talk, tells Bustle."Depending on culture, personal preference, and other factors, each of us has established what is acceptable proximity." And if you accidentally overstep that, you can make someone feel uncomfortable.
Another common mistake is talking too loud — especially if you happen to be telling an embarrassing or personal story in a pubic space. If you catch yourself possibly making others uncomfortable, it's OK. We've all done it. And Karinch says all you have to do is apologize. It's all about being aware, and making little adjustments. But it's also important to note that someone's discomfort may not be your fault — some people may be uncomfortable in social situations to begin with, so it's important to take this into account when reading people's body language.
If you notice some of the signs below, experts say it may be time to back up a bit or give someone their space.
1. They're Flinching Or Wincing
Being stuck in an uncomfortable situation is never fun, and it can even cause people to literally wince. "When you make someone uncomfortable and they don’t want you to know, they will flinch or wince slightly," nonverbal communication expert Alison Henderson tells Bustle. "The flinch will be a quick contraction of the torso away from you. The wince will be a facial expression where they quickly squint the eyes," she says. "You may think they just stubbed their toe or gave themselves a paper cut because it is like they are verbally saying, 'ouch.'" If you pick up on this, take note of what may have caused this reaction. As Karinch mentioned, a quick apology will suffice to put the moment past you.
2. They Seem To Be Backing Away
When someone's uncomfortable, they may take a step back without even realizing it. "If they can’t move away, they will close off as much as they can by turning away, retreating in the torso, or crossing their arms and legs," says Henderson. This is some blocking body language, that we all do subconsciously to protect ourselves. But no need to worry — if you notice you accidentally stepped into someone's personal space, take a step back yourself and allow them the space they need to feel comfortable.
3. They're Blocking Themselves Or Crossing Their Arms
Another blocking technique? If someone is uncomfortable, they may literally block themselves with a bag, a book, or whatever else they happen to be holding. "[They] will place whatever they are holding ... in between you to create a barrier to the behavior they don’t like," Henderson says. But try not to take this too personally — just take note of their reaction, and see what adjustments you can make, if possible, to help them feel more comfortable while also keeping in mind their reaction may be out of your hands.
4. They've Started Gesturing And Talking Faster
When someone feels uncomfortable, and a sense of fight-or-flight kicks in, they may start gesturing wildly. And they might even start talking faster. "They will feel their heartbeat and breath quicken," Henderson says. "This will be followed by their gestures and speech accelerating in an attempt to end the conversation more quickly and leave the situation. It will feel like they suddenly become fast and abrupt." But this may not be your fault — the person may just feel uncomfortable in the situation in general.
5. They Seem To Be Laughing Nervously
Nervous laughter is another thing to watch out for, as it is different from real laughter and may be a sign someone is uncomfortable. "Nervous laughter [may] erupt," Henderson says. "As a way to release the uncomfortable tension they are feeling, [an uncomfortable person] may laugh or giggle at odd things."
6. Their Voice Is Going Up An Octave
Nervousness can come out in the form of a squeaky, loud voice, again due to increased stress. "The voice will rise in pitch and sound more shrill," Henderson says. "As the individual’s stress rises, tension also rises and this will constrain the vocal chords."
7. They Keep Looking Away
If someone keeps glancing over your shoulder, down the block, or at their watch, take note. "That may be an indicator that you are either dominating the conversation or that it is a conversation the other person is not interested in," life coach Dr. Ty Belknap tells Bustle. "Take a break from talking and ask the other person what they think or their views on the subject; then let them talk without interrupting. This will let you know whether it is a conversation they want to continue."
8. They're Giving One-Word Answers
If someone is only managing to give one-word answers, they may be distracted, or shy. But since it's also a thing people do when they're uncomfortable, it may be worth re-evaluating. "You may be talking with a person and skillfully asking them their opinion at times like a good conversationalist, but they answer with only one or two words," Belknap says. "It may seem like pulling teeth just to get them to say anything. There could be several things for this: You may have strayed onto a subject that is embarrassing to them or one that they know nothing about. Take a mental step back and evaluate the conversation. It might be a good time to say 'good talking to you,' and move on."
9. They're Trying To Soothe Themselves
A natural reaction to feeling uncomfortable is to self-sooth. "You notice the person has started using a self-soothing gesture we call an 'adaptor,'" says Karinch. "This might be playing with an earring, clicking a pen, rubbing fingers together, twirling hair, and the like." So if you see that, take note, and maybe make subtle readjustments if necessary.
10. Their Ears Are Getting Red
If you're someone who blushes when they're nervous or embarrassed, then you already know a beet red face can be a sign of discomfort. But some people blush in less obvious ways. "Watch for ears getting red," says Karinch. "Blood flows there before it gets to the face." So it may be an early indicator they're feeling out of place.
11. They Keep Scratching Their Nose
Believe it or not, increased blood flow to the face can cause someone's nose to be itchy. "The human nose has an enormous number of blood vessels. Under stress, blood flow increases, and as a lot of extra blood comes into the nose, it itches," Karinch says. Sure, they may just have an itch. But it could also be a sign they're feeling uncomfortable.
Body language can tell us so much when it comes to figuring out if someone is uncomfortable. If you find that you are the source, more often than not, a quick apology followed by giving someone space could be all it takes to make them relax. But if a person isn't comfortable, that doesn't mean you're the direct cause. People get uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons — their past, their beliefs, certain biases — and that can be beyond your control. It's also not your job to make everyone comfortable all the time, especially if that discomfort stems from your self-expression and authenticity. Instead, the best you can do is be conscious of others' around you, but not let it stop you from being who you are.