“Be yourself” and “Just relax” are useless advice for awkward people. Instead, here’s some clear, simple guidelines.
It’s tough going through life as an awkward person. Social skills seem to come easy to everyone else, but not for you. It can be hard knowing how to not put people off or not seem weird and unpleasant, especially if you don’t feel good at socializing or are non-neurotypical.
Too much of the advice for this situation is written by people who aren’t themselves awkward, and is based on their own experience. “Be yourself” is no help when the entire problem is that “yourself” tends to seem weird or obnoxious. A list of clear specific dos and don’ts would be a lot more helpful for people looking to get better at social situations. So I wrote one.
For the purpose of this guide, we’re gonna assume that you’re talking to strangers in a social setting. Conversational rules with close friends and partners can be very different from these.
First, here are some overall thoughts to have in mind.
- Think less about “how do I become less awkward” or “how can I avoid scaring people away?” Instead, flip it around. Think about, “How can I learn to be friendly and polite?” and “What is respectful behavior?”
- Confidence will help you, even if you’re faking it. If you can be confident, you’ll have a better “vibe,” and you’ll be more able to recover from faux pas. “Fake it ‘till you make it” is a real thing.
- Really listen to people you’re talking to. Don’t make the conversation about you. More on this later.
- If you know or see someone whose social graces seem impeccable to you, don’t be afraid to imitate them, or ask them about their techniques.
- Don’t be afraid to check in occasionally. “Do you want to talk about something else?” “Is this okay for you?” “Are you still interested?” “Am I rambling?” It’s okay to ask these questions!
- Don’t treat people like you have a relationship with them that you don’t. Just because you can touch your partner that way doesn’t mean you can touch someone you’ve just met in the same way. Just because you can tease your friend like that doesn’t mean you can tease a stranger.
- If someone says, “that made me uncomfortable,” do not get angry at them for telling you, or for being uncomfortable. This is true even if you made them uncomfortable because of your mental illness, disability, etc. Do apologize. Do explain the nature of your difficulty, if you wish. Do not be angry. Do not expect them to accommodate you.
- Your mannerisms aren’t everything. Your intentions are important. If you stutter, if you have trouble with eye contact, if you’re just awkward, but you’re genuinely interested in what the other person is talking about, chances are good that they’d rather be talking to you than to someone who has smooth and polished manners, but is only angling into their conversation partner’s pants.
Remember those things. Now, let’s get specific.
Body language can be tough to manage, but helps to ensure you get your intentions across. Reading it is also a valuable tool for assessing your conversational partner’s mood and feelings. This will be divided into two sections. First, things to and not to do with your body language, and second, some things that their body language might mean. Bear in mind, though, that if their leaning in means they’re interested, your doing the same can carry that same message!
Your Body Language:
- Don’t ever touch somebody without asking.
- That includes hugs. Ask someone before you hug them, and don’t ask them after you’ve opened your arms or leaned in. Say, “Do you mind a hug?” or just “Hug?” then open your arms if they say yes. Do not be offended if they say no.
- Don’t ever touch someone’s stuff without asking.
- Don’t use your body in ways that might make people feel trapped. Don’t corner them. Don’t use your arms or your body to fence them in.
- Stay out of people’s personal space, unless invited in. Don’t get within about a foot of them is a pretty safe rule of thumb for lots of people.
- Don’t stare!
- Do make eye contact. For casual conversations, once every couple of seconds should be pretty all right. Don’t forget to blink!
Their Body Language:
- Folded arms or arms wrapped around the body–they might be uncomfortable.
- Leaning towards you–they’re probably interested.
- Leaning away from you–they might be uninterested or uncomfortable.
- Looking around the room, checking their watch or phone–they might not be very interested in the conversation, or they could be nervous.
- Tension in the body: hunched shoulders, clenched fists, etc–well, they’re not comfortable. They may be nervous or ill-at-ease.
- If they touch you (or ask to touch you, which they should), they probably like you.
- Smiling and laughing–probably good signs! They are not uncomfortable. They like the cut of your jib. Smiling or laughing nervously mean the opposite, though.
- If they go to get a drink or to the restroom or anything like that, then return to you–they probably want to keep talking to you!
- If you’re talking to two friends and one of them wanders away, but the other one stays–they probably want to keep talking to you!
If their body language indicates discomfort: change the subject, ask them a question, check in on them, or let them out of the conversation. Don’t beat yourself up or hate yourself for it; everyone’s been there. You can let someone out of a conversation pretty gracefully by saying something like, “You don’t seem to be having fun, so I’ll let you go,” or by going to the restroom (etc) and not coming back.
Now that how folks look is covered, let’s talk about what they say. For a lot of people, reading these cues and producing cues in line with their intentions will be easier than it is with body language, but it can still be difficult, especially if you’re learning. Again, we’re gonna have two sections: your speech, and theirs.
- Almost nothing is creepier than not taking no for an answer. Take no for an answer. Do not argue or cajole. Do not make a show of disappointment. Do not ask a second time.
- If you stutter, or have trouble getting words out, take a deep breath and try again! People are often pretty understanding of these sorts of things, so don’t be afraid to explain, “I stutter when I’m nervous,” or “I have trouble talking to new people, sorry.”
- In general, it’s okay to explain that you’re feeling awkward. Lots of people have trouble when they first meet someone, so there’s a good chance they’re feeling awkward, too. You might even be able to laugh about it with them!
- Don’t approach someone with an agenda besides getting to know them. If an agenda (ask them out, invite them to something, etc.) develops, don’t push it.
- Don’t talk over people! If you do, say you’re sorry, stop talking, and let them finish.
- Don’t belabor apologies. Say you’re sorry. Be honest. And move on. Don’t make them uncomfortable by dwelling on something that sucked for them or by self-flagellating. Do forgive yourself for making mistakes. If they seem to be upset in a lingering way once you’ve apologized, you may ask them something like, “It seems like you’re still hurt. Is there something I can do?” Take no for an answer or do the thing they ask of you.
- Wait a second or two after someone is done speaking to respond, just to make sure they’re really finished.
- It’s great to connect what someone is saying with yourself and your experiences–but don’t connect it to a brag, or use that connection to make the conversation about yourself.
- If the conversation stalls, ask them a question!
Compliments are their own special thing and you’ve gotta be careful with them. It’s very easy to make someone feel very happy with a compliment, and it’s very easy to be skeevy, or downright offend someone with one, too.
- Avoid being too specific or too sexual. “Nice dress,” is better than “nice legs,” and “nice shirt,” is better than, “I really like the way that shirt makes your arms look.”
- “I like long hair,” or “I like people with long hair,” when you’re talking to someone with long hair isn’t so much a compliment as you telling that person, “you match my preferences,” which is a potentially disturbing thing to tell a stranger.
- Compliment the decisions that people have made! Their haircut, their tattoos, their clothes are easier to compliment well than their eyes, butt, or legs.
- Compliments are not a conversation starter unless you weave it in. “I love your tattoo,” doesn’t start a conversation. But, “I love your tattoo. Where did you get it done?” could start one.
- You might have better luck complimenting people in passing. “Oh, great bag, by the way,” as an interjection in a conversation, for example.
Cues From Their Speech:
- If their responses have just become “mmhmm,” or “hmm,” or bland “uh-huhs,” or if their smiles or laughs seem strained or polite, you might want to give them a little more space to talk, or let them out of the conversation. They may not be scintilated.
- Take hesitation as a polite no.
- Take “maybe later,” “not right now,” and excuses like “I have to wash my hair,” as polite nos. On the other hand, “Maybe later,” really can mean exactly that. If they say, “maybe once I’m done with this,” or otherwise name a specific time for “later,” they probably mean that and not “no.” If you really want to and someone provides an excuse like, “Oh, I don’t know how to play that game, so I won’t be able to join you,” you can say something like, “I’d be happy to teach you, but you really don’t have to play, if you’re not interested.” You can also respond to “maybe later,” with “let me know when you’re up for it.” Put the ball in their court. Odds are pretty okay that they’ll toss it back to you if and when they want to.
- If someone glosses over or ignores a comment you made, or if they give vague or very short answers to your questions, they are probably not interested in those things you said. If these sorts of responses are consistent, they are probably not interested in talking to you.
- Their asking you questions is a good sign.
- If they re-initiate conversation with you when conversation goes flat, or when they talk to someone else for a while, that’s also good.
- If they compliment you, it’s good.
- If they introduce you to people you don’t know, it’s good.
- If they offer to buy you food or drink, it’s good.
- Be respectful. Listen. Pay attention.
- Never touch anyone without their permission.
- Take “no” for an answer. This includes hesitation and deflections.
Interpersonal relations are complicated. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t be here. There are lots of other cues to learn, and lots of flowchart-like if-when situations. Some cues are very dependent on the individual. But, as you socialize more, your senses will become sharper and you’ll develop a better feel for people. You’ll learn the patterns. Even if you don’t, these are good thoughts to abide by.
Learn to be respectful, and it will matter less that you’re awkward. Really listen, and it will matter less that you’re awkward. Be sincere, and it will matter less that you’re awkward.
Photo—Greg Burkett /Flickr