Isn’t it horrible when you do something embarrassing and want to melt into the floor?
Or when you don’t know how to say the right thing? Or you accidentally blurt out the wrong thing?
For me the problem was deeper than that: I was socially awkward almost 24/7. The embarrassing things that I did sometimes make me blush even years later.
I think most people have a few moments of social awkwardness now and then. And that’s okay. But it becomes a problem when you’re continually socially awkward like I was and you’re prevented from making and keeping the relationships that you want.
Perhaps my worst form of social awkwardness came around girls. I was just unable to talk to them without getting a bright red face. So in order to avoid embarrassment I would do the logical thing and try to avoid talking to them entirely.
But that’s impossible in places like school or work and I would inevitably end up in a situation where I had to talk to a girl.
Because I was trying to prevent blushing my goal would be to keep the conversation short. So I would blurt out one-word responses, avoid eye contact, and run away as soon as I could.
I wasn’t the smoothest little ladies man.
Social Awkwardness can be a problem that is caused by different things for different people. However there are three causes that I believe explain up to 90% of social awkwardness problems out there.
Cause #1: You picked up socially awkward behaviour from the people around you
Social skills are something that are learned. They’re not just something that people are born knowing.
Just look at all the different cultures anthropologists have discovered. The social skills that are expected in 21st century america would get you into a lot of trouble if you were to practice them in some 8th century south american tribe.
Think back to how the people closest to you as a child acted. Were they socially awkward? Did they have problems making and keep friends?
The way that children learn as they grow is through carefully observing what those around them are doing. This process of observation is many times more powerful than a parent lecturing a child on the “proper way” of doing something.
If you think about this from the point of view of evolution it makes sense. The child who sees his parents avoid a certain type of plant and avoids it himself is safe even without knowing that the plant is poisonous. But the child who decides not to follow the example of his parents will soon become poisoned and die.
Life is so complex that it is impossible for our parents and our teachers to tell us everything we need to know to be successful in life. In fact they wouldn’t even be able to since most behaviour is unconscious!
So our ability to absorb lessons by observing the people around us is vitally important. Without it we would simply be unable to understand how to talk to and act around other people. We would be like robots that were missing their operating system.
But what happens if the people you are observing don’t act properly according to social norms?
The problem with our ability to learn through observation is that we lack the ability to filter the behaviours that will help us succeed from those that will harm us.
The only way we can learn that a certain behaviour is harmful is through some sort of punishment. We must either see a person experiencing negative consequences for behaving “wrongly”, or we must be experience those consequences ourselves.
Negative consequences could take the form of something like a slap on the hand for swearing. Or it could be something like being shunned by the people in our class when we cross a social boundary.
Or it could even be an unpleasant talk with our teacher who expresses her disappointment with our behaviour.
Usually this works to produce human beings that, on the most part, get along with each other. But what happens if you’re raised around people who act “improperly” and then you’re sent to interact with people who act “properly”?
Let me give you an example: I once had someone write to me on this very topic. I’ll give him the name Justin to protect his identity.
Justin told me that growing up he had been raised by extremely protective parents. Outside of school he didn’t interact with anyone but his parents and his older brother.
His older brother, it turned out, was mildly autistic. As a child Justin adored his brother and for years didn’t even know that his brother suffered from the disorder. And this by itself isn’t bad. But because Justin didn’t have any other influences but his brother and his distant parents he started to pickup his ideas of what behaviours were acceptable by observing his brother.
When he finally got to school and encountered children Justin didn’t know how to cope. These children were acting in ways that he found utterly strange.
Of course the children were acting “normally” and it was Justin who was the strange one because he was used to the way he interacted with his brother.
Justin responded to the situation by withdrawing socially. When he was forced to interact with the other kids they considered him a little odd and weren’t as friendly as they might otherwise have been.
Justin’s story illustrates how powerful observation can be in shaping our idea of acceptable behaviour. And it shows how easy it is to pickup poor behaviours from our parents and siblings during our formative years.
Cause #2: You Haven’t Had Enough Social Experiences
This second major cause of social awkwardness is closely related to the first. In fact your own social problems might be caused by a combination of #1 and #2.
Everyone makes social missteps now and then. It’s part of life. You’re not perfect and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be perfect.
Usually when you make a misstep what happens? You recognize that you did something wrong (either through people’s reactions, or someone telling you) and you don’t do that again.
But this correction process requires that you first experience the misstep. It’s an unfortunate fact of life.
If you’re an introverted guy, or you tend to be shy, then you probably haven’t had as many social experiences as other people your age. This means that you have had less opportunity to make the mistakes that allow you to learn how to behave socially.
And when you do hang out with people you do so rarely which means that you end up packing in a lot of social missteps in a very small amount of time. This makes you seem more socially awkward then you actually are.
Let me explain this. If someone is extremely socially confident then they’ve probably been hanging out with people for years. They still make the same amount of social missteps you make but because they spend so much more time in the company of others those social missteps are spread out.
And because they’re hanging out with the same people (usually their age) they’re making the same missteps that their friends are making at the same time as each other. This makes their mistakes less noticeable and easier to brush off.
This group of socially active friends then progress socially together and learn how to behave properly quickly.
If you don’t spend much time with other people then you have two challenges:
- You’re behind other people your age in terms of progress.
- You’re squeezing more social missteps into the limited amount of time you socialize making you seem socially awkward all the time.
This might seem discouraging but it’s actually good news! Because the easy solution to your problems is just to spend more time interacting with other people.
The bad news is that you’re going to have to accept being socially awkward in many of those interactions for the short term. You have some social mistakes that you need to make in order to learn not to make them in the future.
I was someone who faced this journey myself. I learned that just having the goal of “being better socially” wasn’t enough to motivate me to get out there. When I focused on my end goal I would become quickly discouraged and stop going out.
The solution for me was to setup a systemized routine where the focus was on the social interactions rather than the end goal. I joined groups that would meet every single week and I would force myself to go whether I wanted to or not.
I recommend that everyone read a book called The Power Of Habit. It talks about how habits and routines can allow us to accomplish things that pure willpower or short term motivation could never do.
At first I needed to use willpower to get to the weekly meet up but after a couple of weeks it became just something that I needed to do. In fact I found myself dressing and walking out the door without even thinking about it!
What about the meetings themselves? Well I’ll be honest with you. At first things went pretty badly. The first time I went I sat in the corner of the room and didn’t speak except to give one word responses to anyone who approached me while sweating the entire time.
But soon I began to talk to the other people sitting in the corners. Then longer interactions began. And one day I actually found myself having an enjoyable conversation with someone and acting like a normal person!
Yes I made missteps and I would regularly fail to make a positive impression but that was okay! The next time I spoke with someone I corrected my behaviour and got further! And then further still!
But as you begin this process you might come to realize that you might also have the third cause of social awkwardness:
#3: You Experience Anxiety When In Social Situations
Do you ever feel anxiety when talking to other people? Maybe you’re afraid of them judging you, or scrutinizing you, or even just looking at you?
If this sounds familiar then you might have social anxiety. And it is a big cause of social awkwardness.
When people experience social anxiety their first reaction is to try to get rid of the anxiety. The easiest way to do that is by leaving the social situation that is provoking it in the first place.
But the more common way people try to reduce social anxiety is by modifying the way they act in social situations. They begin to use what are called safety behaviours.
Safety behaviours are used by people with social anxiety when they want to distance themselves from a social interaction, minimize the amount of time they are forced to be in the social situation, or to end a social situation prematurely.
Examples of safety behaviours can include things like:
- Avoiding Eye Contact
- Speaking Quietly
- Giving Short Responses
- Not Smiling
Safety behaviours all share the purpose of avoiding attention, discouraging other people from starting conversations with you, and preventing possible negative social judgement of you.
You might have noticed that someone who is using safety behaviours appears to be quite similar to someone who is socially awkward. And this is true!
One of the most common causes of social awkwardness are these safety behaviours used by people suffering from social anxiety who are trying to reduce their anxiety.
Ironically enough when we use safety behaviours to try to protect ourselves from negative social judgement we end up acting in ways that appear socially awkward and can lead to negative social judgement!
The fix for this third cause of social anxiety is not as quick and easy as the fixes for the other two. But the first step is often the most difficult and that is recognizing that you are indeed experiencing social anxiety and your behaviour is being influenced by your desire to withdraw and protect yourself in social situations.
The second step is to recognize that safety behaviours not only make you appear socially awkward but they also make your social anxiety worse in the long term.
I’ll write a future article about how to begin to move away from safety behaviours quite soon. Until then, if you suspect you may have social anxiety, read some of the articles about this problem on my website.