In romantic comedies, the common trope of the socially awkward heroine is adorable. She trips up the stairs, commits faux pas in social situations, and generally displays her air of awkwardness when talking to the man of her dreams. But ultimately, she triumphs in the end. Her quirky behavior lands her the man and a great career.
That’s well and good for the movies, but in professional situations, awkwardness is less likely to seem charming. In an interview, networking event, or work conversation, people may view awkwardness as a sign of a lack of confidence or even incompetence. So how can you overcome awkwardness in professional contexts?
You’re not the only one
Many people worry about coming off as socially awkward. Social anxiety is a real and common fear. Even people who seem confident and self-assured may feel uncomfortable at times. Feeling awkward isn’t limited to work situations; many people experience discomfort in social situations, even with friends.
Understanding that other people may have similar feelings can help you overcome shyness at events. If you’re worried that you’ll embarrass yourself or say the wrong thing at networking events, remind yourself that the other person may be equally uncomfortable.
So…how do you overcome awkwardness?
While you may not fully overcome feeling awkward and uncomfortable in some situations, there are ways to project confidence and avoid committing professional faux pas.
Networking events can be difficult for the introverted and socially anxious, because there’s no prescribed direction. In situations such as conferences, you may be tasked with creating your own schedule and facilitating your own interactions. If you feel uncomfortable and are concerned about giving off an air of social awkwardness, remember that other people are in the same boat.
First, make sure you’re exhibiting the right body language. If you’re crossing your arms or looking down, people will be unlikely to approach you, because you’ll seem closed off and unwilling to engage in conversation. Instead, display positive and open body language. Make eye contact and smile. Stand up straight and keep your arms at your sides. That will make it more likely for an unoccupied person to strike up a conversation with you.
Scan the room for people who appear to be alone. At networking events, most people want to engage with others as much as you do. If someone looks alone (maybe even awkward!), she’s probably hoping someone will talk to her. It may take a little courage, but if you approach her, she’ll probably be relieved.
Ask her some questions. Most people love talking about themselves, so this will help break the ice. Start by introducing yourself and explaining why you’re attending the event. Ask her why she’s there, where she works, and so on. If she seems receptive, the rest of the conversation will be easy. If she seems unwilling to engage, or you're engaging in awkward conversation, politely excuse yourself after a few minutes.
When you do find someone with whom you can engage, let the conversation flow naturally. Start with a little small talk. You might even say, “I feel so awkward at these events” to break the ice. Showing your own vulnerability can make the other person feel more at ease.
Remember: As always, flattery can go a long way. If you approach someone you admire, tell her so! Explain why you admire her. She’s likely to be flattered and welcome the interaction. It may even help you in your career. Asking for advice is a form a flattery, too. It demonstrates that you view this person as an expert in her field and value her insights. Still, recognize when someone doesn’t want to interact. Try not to feel insulted; she might just not have the time or be waiting for someone else.
Whether you’re the interviewer or interviewee, there may be a degree of awkwardness in an interview. Even if you’re the most confident person in the world, a few seconds of silence, an “um” or “like,” or nervous laughter may occur. Don’t worry if they do. It’s natural, common, and unlikely to kill your chances of landing the gig.
To avoid coming off as overly awkward in interviews, start by practicing. It may help to have friends practice with you by posing questions your interviewer may ask. Try to vary your responses so you don’t sound rehearsed. Also, try to project confidence. Interviews are not a time to be humble; instead, show that you’re proud of your achievements. If you don’t feel naturally confident, or shyness is holding your back, fake it ‘til you make it; it’s a cliché for a reason.
Peddling back from awkward moments
It may feel like the end of the world in the moment if you’ve done something awkward. But it’s definitely not. Chances are you’ll be able to rectify the situation smoothly.
If you’ve said something inappropriate, it’s very possible nobody even noticed. If nobody reacted or seemed upset after you told a joke that fell flat or made a comment that was in poor taste, you can probably just move on. Shift the conversation to something or someone else. Ask questions or change the topic completely.
If it seems like people did take offense to what you said, apologize and move on. Simply saying, “I’m sorry I said that. It was inappropriate” often clears up the tension.
If people still seem upset, you may want to excuse yourself. Fortunately, at a networking event, there are generally plenty of people, and one bad social interaction won’t destroy the whole experience. Find a new person or people with whom you can talk.
You’ve inadvertently told an off-color joke. You’ve insulted your interviewer. You’ve paused for a long time…too long. What do you do?
Everyone makes mistakes. If it was a minor mistake, like you paused for a beat too long, laugh it off and move on. Perhaps you were caught off guard by a question and needed some time to compose yourself. A little silence is okay. Take a beat to think about what you want to say next. You might even ask if you can take a beat to collect your thoughts. Say something like, “That’s a great question. Let me think about it for a second.”
If it was a more major mistake, like you insulted your interviewer without meaning to do so, apologize and move on. Perhaps you let a swear word slip out. Make a joke and turn it into a positive. Saying something along the lines of “I just get so excited when I discuss my work” can clear up any tension.
If you accidentally talked too long about your dislike of your previous or current employer, try finishing on a positive note. Mention something you like about your employer and how that quality is evident in the position for which you’re interviewing.
Some final advice
• No matter what the situation is, always do your homework. If you’re attending a networking event, try to find out who will be attending, and develop some key talking points. In an interview, practice thoroughly. Looking up your interviewer on LinkedIn can help you better connect with her as well.
• Avoid drinking too much alcohol or coffee. It may be tempting to drink as a way to calm your nerves, but if you overdo it, you’ll be more likely to make social mistakes and may end up embarrassing yourself. Instead, stick to one or two drinks. Coffee may overly stimulate you and make you anxious, so make sure you know how it will affect you before partaking.
• Use any mistakes you make as learning experiences for the future. Chances are, you’ll have opportunities for a redo down the line, and you’ll know not to repeat your mistake the next time.
• Awkward situations happen. Many people experience a degree of awkwardness in their social interactions. Try not to obsess about an awkward moment or time you may have exhibited poor social skills. If the other person noticed at all, she's probably not still thinking about it, so you shouldn't, either.
• Don’t worry about what others think about you. It can be difficult to avoid thinking about other people’s judgements, but if you get too wrapped up in their opinions of you, you’ll spend your life worrying about minor mistakes. The truth is, people are far more likely to be thinking about themselves than worrying about what you did or didn’t do.
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