I attended a neighborhood barbecue this week as  I wanted to get to know some of the neighbors a little bit better. A circle of chairs was formed and I was sitting by a neighbor I knew only a little in passing. I had probably said hello to him a handful of times.  I knew he was a fellow introvert and I could also tell he wasn’t going to start a conversation. It could have been a very awkward evening, but I just started talking with him. As an opener, I resorted to the lowest form of small talk, the weather. We chatted about the weather for a bit, and this led to other conversation.  There were pauses here and there and again it could have been awkward, but I chose not to make them that way. I have learned that a little silence here and there is perfectly normal.  We talked about his love of classic cars, raising kids, and our jobs.  He turned out to be a very interesting person.  Next time I see him, I’ll probably get to know him even a little better.  It could have gone differently and we could have just sat there in awkward silence if I hadn’t taken that first step of opening up the conversation. Why do things need to be awkward between people?

Awkward situations and awkward people

A few months ago, I was listening to the radio and heard Dr. Ty Tashiro, discuss his book “Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome.” In his book, he discusses different ways that people might be awkward and at the same time, the great gifts the awkward may possess. One comment that Dr. Tashiro made that stood out to me was that there is a lot of pressure in the first 5 minutes when we meet people. We are all looking for belonging and connection, but it can be awkward.  This made me think about the enormous weight on we often put on first impressions. It also made me think that we should not put so much emphasis on the first impression, but give people more of a chance. As an introvert, I have definitely had my share of awkward moments, but in learning to understand my introversion I have developed some strategies to reduce awkwardness. And of course, we need to remember whether we are an introvert or extrovert we can all be awkward at times.

I could have sat in silence next to the man at the barbeque all evening, just because getting the conversation started was a bit awkward. Or maybe I could have thought he was awkward and not worth the time talking to. But instead, I found out a little about him and made a connection. All people are worthwhile and have something to offer. It’s a shame that many people do not share much of themselves because of the fear of being awkward. Others may not take the time to get to know the awkward person or get past the beginnings of an awkward situation, because of a poor first impression.

Being an introvert does not make you awkward, but a lack of understanding your introversion can make you feel awkward. I’ve spent my share of time feeling awkward over the years, but I have realized that by better knowing myself and gaining insight into my own needs and gifts, I can greatly alleviate awkward situations for myself and others.  Not all introverts are alike, but below are some commonalities and some strategies I’ve discovered for those that are feeling awkward. 

Introverts naturally spend more time in their inner world of ideas.

As an introvert, I naturally spend more time in my thoughts and not always in tune with my surroundings.  This can produce feelings of anxiety as you try to navigate new situations and places because you may need to spend more time processing externally than usual. This shift in processing may be uncomfortable if you spend most of the time “in” your head.  I manage this by trying to arrive early, slow down, and remember that most people don’t like unfamiliar situations. If someone does see me lost in thought, instead of feeling awkward, I acknowledge that I am lost in thought.

Introverts think and then speak.

I usually think before I speak.  When I didn’t understand this about myself, I could get run over by those that talk in order to think and felt awkward.  I felt less than adequate in these situations, and my self-confidence waned.  But by understanding how I operate I have come to accept this trait. Now I let people know when I am thinking so I can take the time I need.  I have also learned that I can prepare for certain conversations, meetings, and presentations ahead of time so I don’t always have to take as much time during the situation to think before speaking (as I’ve already thought about it). In conversations where I am the expert, I’ve already spent so much time thinking that my words come much more freely.  But when I am in situations where I have to pause and think, I have learned to relax and let my thoughts do their best work.

Because introverts think before they speak, often they prefer to communicate in writing rather than speaking.  Think about the next interaction? Would an in-person meeting, email, or phone call be most appropriate?  Maybe the email is the right thing and the in-person meeting would be more likely to feel awkward.  Every situation is different.

Introverts may be drained by social interaction, but energized by some time alone.

Sometimes social interaction can be draining for an introvert.  You need to get to know what is draining for you and how you best recharge.  When you know this, you can plan your day accordingly.  Introverts often function best with some time alone each day.  Understand this and don’t apologize or feel awkward about it.  Explain that it is how you work best.  When you are feeling drained at an event, a short walk outside may be the recharge you need. Or don’t put too much pressure on yourself to stay until the end. Recharge and time alone are normal and nothing to feel awkward about.

Introverts may prefer deep conversations over small talk.

I have never enjoyed talking about the price of gas or the weather and have often avoided small talk altogether.  In the past, if I did find myself in a small group or one-on-one with a person I didn’t know well, I found that because I wasn’t interested in the conversation, I really didn’t have anything to say and felt awkward. Others thought I was quiet, and I thought I was quiet.  I have learned that in building relationships, you have to start somewhere and small talk may be the necessary gateway to get to those deeper discussions.  I have gotten better at small talk, but I accept that I may never be a master at it.  I also have learned not to worry about awkward silences, because if it is silent then you are not the only one not talking. 

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Self-awareness will go along way in helping the awkward person be less awkward.  However, all of us are awkward from time to time.  As you have an awkward moment or encounter, it may help to acknowledge it or maybe laugh it off.

Helping others feel less awkward.

If you are with someone that you perceive to be awkward, give them a chance.  If they are being quiet, patiently engage them in conversation. Try to get to know them and don’t put so much pressure on first impressions.  What are their gifts?  Everybody has them. I know as introverts, a lot of us are still trying to understand and learn about our own introversion, but we also have a great power to turn around an awkward situation for someone else by being understanding and aware of their needs.   


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