If you’ve had a social interaction today, then chances are good you’ve also experienced some sense of awkwardness as well. Awkwardness arises when we feel uncertain or disadvantaged in a social scenario. Why is it that everyone else seems to know how to behave, but we don’t? There must have been a lesson in high school where everyone was handed a book of social norms to study, but somehow nobody told us we needed to attend that day.
This is often the reason why people don’t seek advice. We think social skill is either something you naturally have or something you don’t; or something you learn from a young age like a mother tongue and once missed can never be recovered. So it’s too late, might as well accept the fact that we will never understand how to behave when someone else is looking us in the eyes.
In reality, awkwardness is something that everyone feels, no matter how savvy we are. It’s an acute awareness of the hiccups that occur in any interaction, because no two people perfectly align in the ways they communicate and, even if they do, it’s quite easy to stumble over words and behaviors. Interactions are complicated, after all. Those of us who excel at it just have better coping mechanisms; we’re constantly course-correcting from our own mistakes and we’re not overly worried about making mistakes because we know they’re unavoidable for everyone.
Social Reality is Relative
One of the core principles that helps to understand social norms—and whether we’re appropriately following them—is that they don’t actually exist. Nobody sits down and studies a book of social norms. Instead, we pick them up from the people around us. And you may notice that people who are particularly adept at social situations appear to creatively break those rules, often without negative repercussions. How do they do that?
We are all constantly measuring social norms against the reactions of the people around us. A dirty joke is a great example of how this process works. Usually, a dirty joke will have a premise or a punchline that intentionally breaks social norms. It’s something inappropriate to talk about in polite company. If the comedian tells the joke in the right situation, then everyone laughs together. If he misses his mark, though, then the exact same joke elicits groans and a sense of awkwardness. Either way, the most important moment in this sequence occurs just after the punchline is delivered and before the audience reacts. If you pay attention in this moment, you will usually notice that the crowd takes a moment to reach a quorum on which response is appropriate: laughter or derision. That’s the moment when everyone is taking cues from everyone else about propriety1.
The takeaway lesson is that nobody knows which response is appropriate—there is no objective sense of appropriateness. Rather, we all start moving in the same direction together, usually in response to the first few people who decide how to react: the first-movers of the group. And those first-movers themselves are making guesses at appropriateness based on precedent and their current emotional state.
This process of quorum-seeking applies not just to jokes but to all human interaction. We do have a sense of “rightness” that we carry around with us based on prior experience, but in general that sense of rightness is highly variable depending on who we surround ourselves with. Most of us are natural followers; we’ll shift our social norms to fit whatever the group appears to think those norms are. Just watch any episode of Candid Camera for proof of the power of this effect. Individuals behave in surprising ways in response to the cues they receive from their peers, even to the point of changing their beliefs. It’s so natural that we rarely notice we’re doing it.
1. There’s much more that goes into the appropriateness of a joke. How the comedian has established their personality beforehand, for example, will lead to a set of expectations about behavior. If an inappropriate joke was already well-received by the group, then the members have already reached a quorum about appropriateness and won’t need to reassess. The quorum itself, too, is a simplified concept for the sake of this article. Nothing in social behavior is this simple, yet these simplified models remain useful.
Leaders and First-Movers
Typically a group of people can be divided into leaders and followers. We all have a combination of both traits when it comes to determining the appropriateness of a social event, but in some situations certain people will make up their minds faster than others, or others will naturally look to some people for social guidance. If you watch a child and its parent then you’ll see this pattern play out again and again. When something potentially scary happens, the child will look to the parent to determine how to react. The difference between comfort and terror is the reassuring or agitated affect of the parent, and not necessarily any intrinsic fact of the situation.
What sets leaders apart from their peers? The answer is fairly complicated, but as a rule of thumb it’s this: the leader has the strongest sense of reality. That is, the leader behaves confidently, as if they know what the objective social norms are in a situation. They don’t look to others to determine how to react; they independently react based on their own internal compass. And based on their social standing within the group, the group will look to that person with more or less affinity for their decisions. A strong leader can redefine the social reality of their followers.
Hacking the System
If a strong leader can redefine social reality and if a socially aware person can learn how to lead strongly, then a socially aware person can learn to redefine social reality. In other words, you can change how you react to a situation in order to determine for the group whether your behavior is appropriate, rather than having the group determine the appropriateness of your behavior on their own. Mind you, this isn’t an absolute rule. People still maintain some sense of precedent subject to their own bias and self-assurance, and people are capable of following multiple leaders (having higher affinity for those people who have already developed rapport: friends rather than strangers). But if you learn to lead, then you can bend the social rules.
The core lesson is this: the way people react to your behavior is not set in stone. You can change the way people perceive you; entire groups of people at a time, in fact. You can take control of awkwardness by choosing not to feel awkward about it, and thus reset the expectations of your audience. This, by the way, is the definition of “cool”: non-reactiveness to small social mistakes, acting as if you’re behaving totally appropriately (or, at least, that you understand appropriateness and are selectively breaking the rules when you do).
A part of getting from “awkwardness” to “cool” is mastering control over these social norms. Due to precedent, you can’t completely break the rules and get away with it, but you’d be surprised just how far you can get. I’m not necessarily suggesting that you do exactly this but, if you’re clever enough about it, you can insult someone to their face and have them love you for it (think of the way a comedian deals with hecklers, or the way an older brother adoringly teases his little sister).
When it comes to controlling social norms, there are a few concepts that help with the process. The first is “mirroring”.
The human brain is built to socialize. Empathy is our main tool for understanding the emotions and behaviors of others. It’s built into us and, as such, has its own dedicated anatomical/physiological aspect: mirror neurons. Without going into the details, your brain has structures that help to understand another person’s mind by mimicking the other person’s mental state. That is, when you watch a person behave a certain way, your own brain will start to behave the same way.
Contagious yawning is the best example of this: you see a person yawn so you yawn, too. By watching another person’s yawn, the part of your brain responsible for yawns is also triggered. The same is true of laughter and of body language. Watch any two people in close rapport talk to each other. Soon you’ll see that when one person crosses their legs or scratches their arm, the other one follows. It’s the same with emotional states. This is how stories and plays work: if you evoke a certain emotion with the way you express yourself, then your audience also feels those emotions, as if they’re being carried along on an emotional ride that you’ve created for them (this is, in part, why stories with a variety of emotional aspects are so interesting to us, because it’s entertaining to taste the platter of emotions offered).
The second concept is called “pace and lead”. If two people share an emotional or behavioral state, then they are more likely to copy the state that follows. So if you are currently energetic and someone with low energy tells you a story about sadness, then you’re unlikely to follow them down. But if you’re sharing an energetic state with someone, then that person can suddenly shift tone and this time you are more likely to shift tone with them. This is part of the basis of rapport: the more you share in common with a person (including your current state), the more likely you are to look to them as a leader (and they to you).
Putting the two of these concepts together yields a potent tool for changing the nature of social interactions. By allowing yourself to mirror the state of your audience—by watching their energy levels, their ways of speaking and emoting, their body language—you begin to pace each other. You can then change your own state in a direction that you desire and your audience will follow your example. Thus, you have some control over the emotional state of your audience.
The Full Circle
Now we have a working understanding of awkwardness. You feel awkwardness when you are not leading an interaction and when you feel like you’ve made a mistake. You’re a follower looking for a leader to tell you whether your behavior is appropriate. And your audience will interpret your uncertainty as awkwardness itself. They’ll feel awkward at your presence and will associate that feeling with you, and then they’ll start to expect and to feel awkward just because you’re around. It’s a self-fulfilling concern and is difficult to stop once it starts.
We also now know how to foster the alternative. If instead we feel in control of our social reality, then we will start to elicit a sense of leadership. We can mirror our audience’s emotions in order to pace. Then, if something potentially awkward occurs, we can remain nonreactive to it. If we so choose, we can completely ignore the awkwardness and instead lead the group into a better emotional state. At that point, we’ve become the socialite who appears to naturally and appropriately navigate social situations. This behavior will reinforce the group’s perception of our leadership and, since everyone in the group is paying attention to everyone else, that perception becomes a positive feedback loop that gains us more and more followers. Our reality becomes the new group reality; and thus little we do is awkward anymore because it is appropriate by definition. We defined it so.
So go out there and take control of your social interactions and learn to avoid awkwardness entirely.