Once years ago while attending a conference in Las Vegas put on by a startup I was working with at the time, I ran into one of the speakers for the day, long-time Vegas resident and Zappos founder Tony Hsieh. Having greeted out of towners all day, without thinking I brightly called out, "Welcome to Vegas!" My colleague next to me cracked up, asking, "You know he lives here, right?" Hsieh looked at me like I had two heads.
We have a word for moments like these and that word is awkward.
We've all been there, paralyzed by anxiety and unable to say something intelligent (or even just polite) to the CEO in the elevator with us, or instantly regretting that joke no one laughed at in a meeting. And most of us would like to never be in such situations again.
But Melissa Dahl, a self-confessed lifelong champion of awkward moments and author of a new book on the topic titled Cringeworthy, would like you to suggest you reconsider your quest to eliminate awkwardness from your life.
Awkwardness has its uses.
First, because -- sorry! -- eliminating awkwardness entirely is pretty much impossible, but secondly, because awkwardness actually has its uses. The stomach-churning, cheek-burning feeling we get when we say something profoundly uncomfortable, Dahl insists, is sometimes simply less bad than not having an awkward conversation and living with whatever unpleasant reality created the need for the chat in the first place (like, say, your direct report's substandard work or your underwhelming compensation package).
Awkwardness can also act as a mirror. "These moments show you the way you think you're presenting yourself to the world is not necessarily the way the world is seeing you," Dahl explained in an interview with Inc.com. Sure, spotting that gap can feel terrible initially, but it is also a learning opportunity, a chance to better understand those around you and grow yourself.
Lastly, and perhaps most profoundly, Dahl also discovered in writing her book that accepting your own awkwardness can help you be more attuned to and accepting of other people's foibles and anxieties. Awkwardness, in other words, is a great empathy booster.
"Initially when I started to write this book it was going to be about how to avoid awkwardness, but the book became about something totally different. I came to assign some unexpected but genuine joy in [awkwardness]," she told me, pointing as an example to that moment we've all experienced when someone approaches and you move over to let them pass only to have them move over too, creating a totally awkward little dance. "Those used to make me panic. Now it just cracks me up, like, 'awww, there's another idiot trying to make their way in the world,'" Dahl explains with a laugh.
Awkwardness reduction tips
All this being said, there is still obviously such a thing as too much awkwardness, and most of us will continue, despite Dahl's pep talks for the self-conscious, to strive to behave stupidly in public as little as possible She very much understands that impulse and offers many tips she dug up speaking to researchers for the book, including:
Acknowledge the weird. If you know a conversation is going to be weird, consider simply acknowledging that up front. A simple phrase like, "this is kind of an awkward question" or "this is a bit uncomfortable to say" can sometimes help put both parties a bit more at ease and help you really listen to one another, suggests Dahl.
Pre-defend your decision. If you're waffling on having a necessary-but-awkward conversation, imagine how you would defend your decision to open the discussion before approaching the person for that uncomfortable chat. This can help you work up the courage to say what needs saying in a calm manner, research has found.
Shift your attention. Self consciousness can cause us to do dumb things, making us more self conscious, and kicking off a death spiral of awkwardness. Break out of this cycle by focusing as much as possible on the needs and perspective of the other party in an exchange rather than yourself. Similarly, science shows athletes are more likely to choke if they're focused on the minutiae of their performance. The same is true for you. Instead of thinking about every nuance of your self-presentation, think about the overall impression you're trying to leave or response you're trying to elicit.
Remember no one cares as much as you. You're naturally obsessed with you, but everyone else really isn't. If you do something awkward some people may notice, but probably fewer than you imagine and they'll care less than you fear. "Give yourself a break. Nobody is paying as much attention as you think," insists Dahl.
Relabel your anxiety. "In your body, nervousness feels the same, physiologically speaking, as excitement," Dahl learned speaking to scientists for her book. Just telling yourself, 'I'm excited, not nervous. My body is trying to help me' can help you reduce anxiety and perform better when faced with a challenge.
Interested in more tips? Check out Dahl's book.