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The Psychology Of Awkwardness

By Doni Joszef
Awkward silence.
Awkward small talk.
Awkward elevator rides.
Life is full of awkward moments. Some people drown the awkwardness in drink. Others diffuse it in digital distraction. But regardless of our coping mechanisms, the awkwardness awaits. We can run, but we can’t hide.
What, exactly, is this phenomenon we’ve come to call “awkwardness”? Is it some sort of cognitive glitch, where we freeze up and forget our lines in the show of life? Is it a social handicap, signaling an inability to mingle among minglers and blend naturally within the collective canvas of humanity? Not quite.
The term awkward is, actually, a misnomer. What we call awkwardness is, more often than not, a misguided reference to our own sense of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is exactly what it sounds like: consciousness of our own selves. We feel analyzed, scrutinized, evaluated—because we are analyzing, scrutinizing, and evaluating ourselves! We become the prosecutor and the defendant, as we subject ourselves to a semiconscious process of internal interrogation.
But why does this occur? Why do we turn the investigation inward, putting ourselves in the hot seat when we’d much rather be judging someone else?
To understand the why of self-consciousness, it helps to observe the when of self-consciousness. What contexts and conditions combine to induce this mental state? Let’s observe some common culprits . . .
Exhibit A: You enter an elevator. And so does he. You press a button. And so does he. You glance upward. And so does he. You take out your phone. And so does he. As the elevator climbs from floor 4 to floor 44, so does the level of discomfort. You feel self-conscious. And so does he. You get off ten floors early just to escape the escalating awkwardness. But so does he. You can run, but you can’t hide.
Exhibit B: Your wife introduces you to her friend. Her friend introduces you to her husband. Your wife and her friend step aside, gleefully chatting away. You and your “new friend” stare at each other, wondering how to make this work. He takes out his phone. And so do you. Problem solved. Sort of.
What these exhibits have in common is a combination of ingredients:
A. Another human being.
B. A lack of conversational material.
C. A self-imposed expectation to compensate for ingredient B by either escaping from, or performing for, ingredient A.
In other words, when someone else observes us, we feel the need to deliver. But when we feel observed—by another, and by ourselves—we’re not always able to deliver. Because delivering on demand is a demanding task, especially when we feel scrutinized by our own self-awareness.
When I was younger, I thought I had some kind of social phobia because these thoughts and feelings invaded my mind and heart whenever I met new people. I thought I needed medication, therapy, or both, to make this sense of self-consciousness go away. But I’ve gradually grown to realize how normal self-conscious actually is. Nothing could be more human. I’ve come to believe that self-consciousness is a common symptom of self-awareness. Some of the most introspective and intelligent people I know are also among the most self-conscious people I know. The wisecrackers and the one-liners may be charming, but they’re usually pretty shallow once you peel past their surface.
I know, I know—you wanted a solution, a prescription, a revolutionary formula for everlasting social savvy. And I apologize for bursting this bubble.
But I tend to think of it as a Chinese finger-trap. The harder we try to escape the self-consciousness, the more tightly trapped we find ourselves.
Accepting and embracing the awkwardness is, ironically, the best way to transcend it. And if that doesn’t work, you can always take the stairs instead of the elevator. v
Doni Joszef, winner of the 2014 Cedarhurst “Best in Mental Health” award, works in private practice with individuals, couples, and families. Trained as a cognitive-behavioral therapist, he is completing his Ph.D. in media psychology. Doni presents innovative workshops at schools and organizations on a variety of psychosocial topics. For more information, visit or e‑mail

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Posted by on December 4, 2014. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.