We all feel socially inept and awkward at work from time to time. That’s just part of life. We’ve all gotten a coworker’s name wrong before, showed up late, broken a glass, or been reprimanded by a manager in front of others. Even though awkwardness happens to everyone, overcoming social awkwardness is still quite a challenge for many of us.
Learn more about what it means to be socially inept or awkward in the workplace and how you can overcome awkwardness at work.
Socially Inept Meaning
To be socially inept or awkward means to lack the necessary skills and ability to flourish or even get by in social situations. The terms social ineptness and social awkwardness are often used interchangeably, and they both refer to uncomfortable feelings or moments in social situations or conversations.
Social awkwardness is a feeling or fear that people will think you lack social skills or aren’t up to their social etiquette standards. The most well-adjusted and mentally healthy person in the world can experience moments of social awkwardness. It is in no way limited to painfully shy people or people living with mental illness. It happens to everyone.
Socially Awkward Meaning and Consequences in the Workplace
Difficult conversations can make someone feel awkward. For example, both preteens and parents fear getting or giving ‘the talk’ in equal measure. It’s awkward. Society has long declared that conversations about sex or going to the bathroom are taboo; therefore, speaking about these things openly leaves people feeling awkward because it defies social norms.
Social awkwardness also often occurs when you’re in a new situation or environment. What’s the etiquette? Will I say the wrong thing? Most people feel awkward starting a new job. Your new coworkers all know each other, and they’ve already formed relationships. They have shared experiences and inside jokes; feeling like an outsider and feeling awkward often go hand-in-hand.
If you regularly feel anxious or awkward in social situations, a workplace can present a number of challenges. Being in a workplace requires you to talk to people, whether they’re coworkers, customers, or clients.
If you greatly fear being awkward, you will likely avoid interacting with people as much as possible, which will limit your chances to demonstrate your value to the team. You could be passed over for promotions, leaving you feeling stuck in a position and with people you can’t connect with. Plus, the more you avoid practicing your social skills, the worse your situation will become.
Socially Awkward Examples in the Workplace
There are a number of different examples of how you can feel awkward in the workplace.
Social awkwardness at work can include:
- Calling someone by the wrong name
- Asking for help
- Making a mistake
- Being late
- Having a crush on a coworker
- Having a challenging work conversation
- Being reprimanded by a colleague or superior
- Having to terminate an employee
- Not feeling comfortable in your clothing
- Feeling out of touch with current trends
- Being much older or much younger than the people you work with
- Being asked personal questions
- Feeling ill at work
- Spilling a beverage or breaking a glass
- Having something stuck in your teeth
- Running into a work colleague or client outside of work
- Worrying about bad breath or body odor
All of these examples can make people on both sides of the situation feel awkward. It’s awkward to forget someone’s name, and it’s awkward when someone forgets your name. It can feel awkward to ask for help (it shows you don’t know everything), and it can feel awkward to be asked (what if you can’t answer the question?)
How to Be Less Socially Awkward at Work
Whether we’re introverted or extroverted, awkward situations have made all of us feel socially inept at one point or another. Below are our tips on how to be less awkward in social situations at work.
Treat Yourself With Compassion
Let’s face it; workplaces can be awkward, and we all know it. That’s why The Office ran for nine seasons in the US and two seasons in the UK. If you can treat Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute with compassion, surely you can do the same for yourself.
Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone experiences varying degrees of social awkwardness. Yet we tend to judge ourselves a lot more harshly for social slip-ups or moments of social awkwardness than we do others—especially if you’re particularly shy or self-conscious. Keep in mind that your coworkers probably aren’t judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself.
Go easy on yourself. This means avoiding negative self-talk or putting yourself down in front of others. If a coworker drops a coffee in the kitchen, would you start ridiculing them for what an idiot they are? Would you yell at them about how they can’t do anything right? Probably not. So why are you talking to yourself like that?
If you do something socially awkward, show yourself the compassion you would show to a coworker, friend, or family member. Take a deep breath, and try to do better next time.
Practice Improving Your Social Skills
Some people are born with natural social abilities and a love of being around people, but even if you weren’t born with the gift of gab, social skills are something you can hone. Social adeptness is a soft skill you can acquire with regular practice. Keep in mind that just because someone is extroverted doesn’t mean they’re great with people. Introverts and extroverts alike can improve their social skills.
It starts with body language and making yourself more approachable. Stand up straight, make eye contact, and smile at your coworkers. This may sound intimidating to introverts and shy people, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is looking for a conversation. People just want you to acknowledge their presence so that they don’t feel invisible. Plus, a genuine smile is a signal to people that you’re not about to harm them; it lets them know they are safe with you.
Practice making eye contact and smiling in front of a mirror and with friends and family members you trust.
Put Your Focus on Other People
When you feel socially awkward, it’s easy to get caught up thinking about yourself—how you’re feeling, what you sound like, and what you look like. It’s challenging to get out of your own head during moments like this. But you can put a stop to those voices by placing your focus on the other person. Focus on their voice. What is their body language telling you? Are they comfortable? Or do they feel as awkward as you?
People are more interested in themselves than they are in you. Each of us is more tied up in our own thoughts and feelings than we are in the feelings of others. That’s why it’s so hard to get out of our own heads.
If you want to overcome an awkward silence or moment, try asking the other person a question and then show genuine interest in their response. Follow up with them. If you ask them what their favorite food is, ask them what they like most about it. When was the first time they tried it? Showing genuine interest in your coworkers and what they have to say will put them at ease and help you build rapport with each other, thereby reducing awkward silences.
Ask Interesting Questions (And Remember the Answers)
If you don’t like to talk about yourself, keep in mind that you don’t need to. The best conversationalists ask lots of questions. Most people (even people who say they don’t 😉) love to talk about themselves. Do they like to play sports? What’s their favorite sport? What’s their favorite team?
And the most important part of asking these questions? Remembering the answers. The next time you see your coworker, follow up with them.
Have a few interesting questions on hand for whenever you need them. Interesting questions cut the tension and fill awkward silences. This is especially useful when you don’t want to talk about yourself. The other person or people will have fond memories of your company and conversation skills even though all you did was ask questions.
People love to talk about themselves, so if that’s what you can do for them, they will associate you with positive feelings.
Here are some small talk questions to get you started:
- If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
- If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
- If you could teleport to anywhere in the world right now for a two-week vacation, where would you go?
- If you could transform into any type of animal, what would you choose?
- What’s a movie, book, or show everyone hates, but you love?
- If you could instantly become an expert at any skill, what would it be?
📚Learn more: Being Approachable at Work: A Guide to Water Cooler Talk.
Lean Into the Awkwardness and Have a Laugh
Sometimes there's no getting around an awkward situation. It’s just awkward. But that’s okay. You can use these awkward moments to your advantage to build rapport and make friends in the workplace by showing that you don’t take yourself too seriously.
Maybe you walked out of the bathroom with a piece of toilet paper on your shoe. While it may be embarrassing, it’s also objectively funny. It’s worth having a small laugh with your colleagues.
Work at finding the humor in these situations. Being able to laugh at yourself makes you more approachable and relatable. It shows you know you’re not perfect, and you’re perfectly okay with it. If you let your guard down around people, they’ll feel comfortable letting their guard down around you.
Situations are what we make them. You can allow a situation to be awkward or you can laugh at it and turn the situation on its head. What was once awkward has now made a coworker’s day, which they’ll appreciate you for tomorrow.
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