When you're headed into a new situation--a sit-down with a new boss, meeting your date's parents for the first time, or even a job interview--do you worry that you might come across as socially awkward?
It's a common concern, and a reasonable one. Most people can come across as socially awkward some of the time. Even people who are flush with social graces in their usual circumstances--when acting as hosts and hostesses in their own homes, for example, can become socially awkward when faced with much more unfamiliar circumstances. And certain situations are inherently awkward. Social awkwardness happens to everyone at some time or other.
But if you're feeling socially awkward, or you're concerned that you're about to be in a socially awkward situation, there's a great solution, shared by Ty Tashiro, a psychologist and author of Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward and Why That's Awesome. Tashiro himself says he was socially awkward growing up but he discovered a simple and powerful solution: Focus on good manners.
I realize that may sound like a very trivial solution to a really serious problem. Saying "bless you" when someone sneezes, or calling somebody "sir" or "ma'am" might not seem like it would do much to counteract social awkwardness. But, as Tashiro explains, it's a powerful tool because manners are much more important than they may seem.
Humans have a long history of paying close attention to good and bad manners and manners exist in nearly every culture. That's because of our background as early humans living in small hunter-gatherer groups. Most manners in some way show respect for a group's leaders or elders, or caring for its most vulnerable members, or concern for the welfare of a group's other members or the group as a whole.
In those times, Tashiro writes, "Manners served as a kind of early-warning system--a way to identify people whose actions might go against the broader good." Back then, someone who took food without waiting his or her turn could be identified as potential threat. That thinking is still embedded deep in our brains, as I know from personal experience and you probably do too. Earlier today, for example, I stopped politely at a stop sign. Then a man in a pickup truck arrived at another stop sign at the same intersection, but instead of stopping and letting me take my turn to go first he merely slowed down and took a right turn without ever stopping. The fact that, six hours later I'm still steamed about it tells you a lot about the importance of manners.
Nobody likes a rude robot.
If bad manners produce a powerful emotional reaction, good manners do as well, research shows. According to Tashiro, people are more likely to trust and work with robots that follow social conventions such as listening when others speak, even though we all know that robots don't really listen in the way another human would.. The social cues around manners are so powerfully ingrained for most of us that we allow them to influence our judgment even when interacting with machines. The fact that we know the robot isn't really being polite--it's just doing whatever it was programmed to do--doesn't change a thing.
If you're concerned about social awkwardness, this data about the importance of manners is really, really good news, because no matter who you are, manners are one of the easiest things to get right. You can't know if a job interviewer will like your answers to his or her questions, but you do know you'll make a better impression if you wait for an invitation to sit before sitting down, if you silence your mobile phone before the interview, and if you listen attentively to whatever the interviewer says.
The same goes for other potentially awkward situations. Bringing flowers or candy if you're invited to someone's home for dinner, making sure to say "please" and "thank you," not eating until everyone is served--all these are subtle signals that will have a real effect on the people around you. And whatever social situation you're about to be in, whether at home or abroad, it's easy to do a little research ahead of time and find out what the right etiquette is for the situation.
Maybe the best thing about this approach is this: It forces you to stop focusing on yourself and start focusing on the people you're interacting with. And the more you pay attention to others rather than yourself, the less socially awkward you'll be.