That was awkward — the phrase is frequently heard in conversation and often punctuates the pause after an eyebrow-raising social interaction.
But what does a socially awkward moment really mean when it comes to human relationships and expectations? What comes first: our personal hang-ups, or the social triggers that cause us to retreat into self-consciousness or awkwardness?
Psychology researcher Joshua Clegg of CUNY in upstate New York, asked 30 male college students to take part in an experiment that tested when and why moments of social awkwardness take place. For the study, Clegg broke them into groups of three. He placed the trio in a room and asked them to do a series of things, from introducing themselves to one another to having a simple discussion.
The encounters were filmed and later watched by both the participants and the researchers. While the men watched themselves on screen, they were asked to rate how socially awkward they felt at certain moments during their exchanges with one another.
After examining the information, Clegg and his fellow researchers were able to glean a few insights into the origins of social awkwardness.
Most significantly, the researchers discovered that such feelings of discomfort result most often from unfamiliarity — being in a room with strangers and having no idea what to do, say, or how to behave.
Equally, awkwardness resulted from times when another person broke some unspoken rule of social etiquette, looked foolish, or if someone was negative or critical towards another person.
As the BPS article makes clear, these insights mark a change from previous interpretations of social awkwardness, which focus on individual’s self-perception. By contrast, Clegg focuses on the social situations that may trigger this feeling.
But the study didn’t just focus on the situations that make people feel silly in the presence of others. It also discovered moments in which such feelings dissipated into genuine feelings of connection. Moments in which insecurities faded into the background include those times when people shared common interests, were polite and engaged with one another, and most importantly, when someone used humour to break the ice.
So, when in doubt of what to say, do or how to behave, make a joke. Just make sure it doesn’t make you look foolish, negative or critical because that would be just awkward.
What do you do to break the ice?