Science Reveals Why Awkward Moments Feel So… Awkward

by JR Thorpe
BDG Media, Inc.

Awkward moments are plentiful in everyday life: saying 'you too' to the waiter who's just told you to enjoy your meal, sitting in strained silence with a new acquaintance, the echoing abyss that opens after somebody (you) tells a weird joke. Awkwardness isn't the same as embarrassment, guilt, or other negative social emotions, but it's a very common experience, and it happens to virtually all of us. So what makes an awkward moment truly, excruciatingly awkward, and why does it feel so horrible to go through it — especially when you look back on it hours or even years later?

The word "awkward" itself has a strange history; it originally meant "back-handed" or "back-to-front" in Old Norse, but has been used for people who were physically clumsy in English since the 1500s. The feeling itself is likely extremely ancient. While awkwardness can produce a lot of humor — an entire genre of films and TV shows plays on our empathy and pain when seeing awkward moments onscreen — it's also a complex social emotion with a lot going on under the surface. If you experience awkward moments a lot, or just want insight into why you hate stretched-out silences so much, read on; it's not just you.

Awkwardness Has To Do With Our Desire To Be Accepted

An awkward moment, according to psychologists, is one in which we feel palpably that others may judge us negatively or exclude us. In 2012, the British Psychological Society explained that social awkwardness is "what we feel when the situation threatens our goal of being accepted by others. The feeling prompts us to direct our attention inwards, to monitor our behaviour [sic] and attempt to behave in a way that will improve our chances of achieving acceptance."

Expectations play a big part in this. Awkward situations, psychologist Bethany Teachman explained in 2015, involve an "incongruence" between "your perception of how it's supposed to go and what's actually happening." Add in the perceptions of the other participants in the situation — or their blithe lack of awareness that anything's wrong — and you have an awkward moment.

Social awkwardness, it seems, peaks in situations where social rules are unclear, somebody breaks a social norm, or, interestingly, when somebody "makes things awkward" by being explicit about social norms (saying something like "you shouldn't do that"). In that way, social awkwardness is a bit like embarrassment or shame — but differs radically from both of those feelings. Humans want desperately to fit in with those around them, and awkwardness exists in situations where acceptance seems to be in the balance or somebody else is being rejected.

Awkward Silences Are A Particular Kind Of Awkward

A 2011 study found four seconds is all it takes for a silence to become awkward. That's not that long, but for people who are in the conversation, it can feel like an eternity. The study itself, though, went beyond the time limit of awkwardness: it also looked at what silences actually did. Silences were interpreted as 'awkward' if they 'interrupted the conversational flow', and those silences left participants feeling higher levels of social rejection, anxiety and lower self-assurance.

Awkwardness can really do a number on you when it's silent — though Inc. reported that some people, particularly in the business world, have learned to harness awkward silences to push through negotiations by making participants uncomfortable. We really, really hate feeling awkward — so we'll escape that feeling as quickly as we can.

Being Habitually Awkward Is A Matter Of Perception

Researcher Ty Tashiro, author of Awkward: The Science Of Why We're Socially Awkward And Why That's Awesome,has several theories about the psychology of awkward people. One is that people who are habitually awkward are in fact reading the room incorrectly: when they encounter a social situation, they 'see' things in a different way than others do. "Being awkward can feel like being a traveler in a foreign country when you are not quite proficient in the local language: Routine situations like ordering a cup of coffee or taking the bus can be stressful and slight pronunciation or grammatical deviations can produce blush-worthy moments," he wrote for TIME in 2017.

People who are habitually awkward in social situations tend not to observe social cues that indicate they're doing something potentially awkward, according to Tashiro. While they might perceive a lot of details in their external world, the social signs that they're causing issues aren't as obvious to them — so they create awkwardness for others as well as for themselves. And if they do create those situations, they're not sure how to resolve them.

Awkwardness Has An Evolutionary Function

Awkwardness isn't just there to make you feel bad; it may also serve an evolutionary purpose. "On some subconscious level, we know that too many violations of small social rules can lead to social exile," Tashiro wrote in Awkward. "Our minds have an overly sensitive emotional trigger when it comes to alerting us to unmet social expectations because our need to belong is so essential to our well-being."

Humans have evolved to be reliant on our social networks for support, good relationships and healthy lives in general; isolated and lonely people risk real health problems as a result. Awkwardness acts as a social signal that something is going awry and prompts the people feeling it to fix the situation and mend their social ties.

Humans Can Be Extremely Fine-Tuned To Awkward Moments

In Cringeworthy: A Theory Of Awkwardness, science writer Melissa Dahl argues that too much 'self-focus' — monitoring your own actions, expressions and words to make sure you're doing the right thing — can create the very awkwardness you're trying to avoid.

If you're habitually awkward, though, you may not have enough self-focus. One of the common varieties of socially awkward people, Tashiro told Psychology Today, is people who over-talk in awkward situations and try to get too close to those around them, because they don't 'see' how their own actions are affecting others. The right amount of self-awareness to avoid awkwardness is, it seems, a delicate balance between too much and too little. It's a Goldilocks problem.

It sounds weird, but maybe we should learn to embrace the awkward: it's a sign that your social cue perceptions are likely functioning and your body is sending signals that something is socially awry. Awkward moments won't kill you, even if in the moment you might wish the ground could swallow you up.