Remember 7th grade, where you were never quite sure how to behave in social situations and every interaction seemed fraught with potential embarrassment?
Remember the time you still felt that way last week?
Out there among Earth's seven billion or so inhabitants there must be a few perpetually cool operators who always have the right joke or gesture for every occasion. But most of us are still occasionally haunted by epically awkward silences, misjudged hugs, or those punch lines where no one laughs.
How can you minimize these cringe-worthy moments of social awkwardness? If the internet has one thing in abundance, it's nerds with experience in the area. Thankfully lots of them are willing to share the secrets of how they got better at meeting people without embarrassment. Here are a few of the best ideas from around the web.
Social skills are like any other skill -- you get better with practice. That's why it's key to force yourself to get out of the house and talk to people, especially if you're more on the awkward end of the scale. "The only way to get used to social environments is repetition. The more you talk to people face-to-face, the easier it'll get," self-confessed "lanky, gangly human being" Christopher Hudspeth writes reassuringly on Thought Catalogue.
If you're exceptionally nervous, consider finding safe spaces in which to work on your social skills. "Wouldn't it be great... if you were virtually guaranteed that someone would talk back to you after you made conversation with them?" asks entrepreneur Kevin Kleitches on HuffPo. "Good news. There is! So where do you go to find these people? Any place where you're the customer. That's right, make small talk with your food server. Or coffee barista. Or bartender."
Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz found an interesting variation on this theme in a Quora thread full of advice on being less awkward -- how about signing up for an improv class? "Most social awkwardness is the result of overthinking. This overthinking is the result of fear. Improv forces you to be in the moment," explains Hari Alipuria on the Q&A site.
2. Go for the handshake.
Even those whose social skills are polished to a steely gleam struggle with the dreaded 'handshake or hug' conundrum. (Avoiding it is one of the best things about living in a cheek-kissing country where the protocol is always the same.) Indecision is guaranteed to be humiliating, so just be decisive, advises Bustle's Gabrielle Moss.
"Just move for a handshake. If someone is really invested in hugging you, they will; and if someone doesn't want to shake your ha`nd, they're a dick. A handshake is like a basic black dress: it goes with everything, and makes it look like you're together and know the mature, proper way of doing things," she writes.
3. Embrace the awkwardness.
Sometimes it's not you -- the situation is just awkward. For everyone. So why not go ahead and embrace it? "Those weird awkward elevator rides with co-workers who you barely know? No one knows how to handle them, and everyone feels weird about them. So, in a moment when there seems to be no right social move, sometimes the best call is to embrace the fact that the moment is going to be socially awkward, no matter what you do," writes Moss.
Accepting the awkwardness -- even owning it out loud -- can even work when it comes to inherently awkward professional conversations too, according to my Inc.com colleague Amy Morin.
4. Be early.
Yes, it's quite possible to take this one too far -- there are few things in this world more awkward than ringing the bell only to find your host alone, or worse yet still setting up -- but in general, if you tend towards awkwardness, avoid getting to events when they're already in full swing and everyone has settled into a social circle. "If you've ever shown up to an event late, you're aware of how difficult it can be to ingratiate yourself into the festivities," cautions Hudspeth.
5. Take the awkwardness out of compliments.
Everyone loves compliments, but even though they're pleasant, they can also be a little awkward both for the receiver (how do you respond?) and the giver (was that creepy?). Kleitches offers a clever trick to avoid these issues. He calls it C&T for compliment and transition.
"After you compliment someone, immediately follow up with a question or statement that takes the focus away from your praise. It could be something like, 'I love your outfit, you're dressed so nicely today' followed by, 'How's your day going?'" he instructs. "By asking 'How's your day going?' you're neutralizing potential awkwardness. Think about it. Imagine complimenting someone and then smiling at them while you both just stare at each other. *shudders*" Yeah, we've all been there.
6. Choose your battles.
Some conversations will simply never not be awkward. Here's the solution -- if possible, don't have them.
"See your mom's best friend's daughter's girlfriend at yoga? Notice that your accountant's administrative assistant is in line at the coffee shop with you? The common thread among these people: All of them are as uninterested in talking to you as you are in talking to them. You don't need to obsess over whether you should go over and chat with them or not--a smile or a wave is sufficient," Moss assures the anxious.
7. Find a wingman (or woman)
There's a reason this is a classic technique -- it works. "I have found that a good way to increase my social exposure is to make a few, close friendships with people who are inherently much more gregarious than I am," writes Ankit Sethi on Quora. "I accompany them to social events, they help to introduce me to new people and thereby give me a social 'starting line of credit' with these folks, because by virtue of association with the gregarious friend I don't have to start from scratch with them--I already have an implicit endorsement, of sorts."
Of course, this advice is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pro tips on polishing up your social skills. If you really want to enter every party or networking event without fear, it's probably also worth leveling up your small talk, learning all you can about the secrets of charisma, and making sure you actually have plenty of interesting stuff to say.