Embracing the Awkward: Why We Fear Awkwardness and What To Do About It

By Leah Hickman

“At least the awkward is over.”

It was a nonchalant comment made by a 20-something-year-old dinner guest at my parents’ home last year, but my mom immediately picked up on it. “What’s with your generation and the obsession with ‘awkwardness’?” she asked.

With three children now in their early twenties and a growing number of newlywed church friends, my parents have recently noticed an increase in the use of the word “awkward” in conversations. As they explained to me recently, awkwardness was certainly a concept that they remember acknowledging in their teen and young adult years. But, to them, “awkward” was a thing you just learned to deal with. Today, though, something about the way the younger generations treat the adjective has turned it into an issue that didn’t exist when they were in college.

“Oh, awkward is the ultimate no-no,” explained the guest in response to my mom’s question. “In our generation, we never want to experience it.”

Ever since my parents first told me about that conversation they shared with their young guest, the concept of awkwardness—what it is and why my generation doesn’t like it—has been slowly simmering in the back of my mind. I often ponder something my dad once said on the topic. “It seems as if fear of awkwardness has become a barrier to doing the right thing,” he commented. If that’s the case, then I say this fear is a problem worth addressing.

To define this elusive malady, let’s turn to examples of common situations that we avoid for fear of feeling awkward or coming across as awkward people. If you do a Google search of “top ten awkward situations,” you’ll find a plethora of hilarious lists naming any number of moments that have historically caused discomfort—including one that lists “Drool randomly coming out of your mouth,” which I found to be strangely relatable. One more serious list I found that was especially enlightening mentions several situations that I myself have feared in the past, including discussing “taboo” topics, confronting another person, admitting to mistakes, dealing with uncomfortable silences, and helping someone who is grieving. On top of these things mentioned in the list, I used to hate simple silly things like asking for help in a store, making phone calls, or offering to help people I don’t know. Even in college, I’ve often avoided contributing to class discussions for fear of explaining something poorly or tripping over my words.

Stepping back and looking at this list, I see some common threads in these situations. Each of these fears seem to be linked by a concern for my pride and an aversion to failure—even an inordinate desire to avoid embarrassment. It’s as if I try to maintain a particular image of myself to put before the world and so deeply fear ruining it that I’ll sacrifice healthy and necessary things just to keep it safe.

With these observations in mind, perhaps we can safely say that the fear of awkwardness is fundamentally a matter of pride. By focusing overmuch on our own feelings and how people perceive us, we become blind to the benefits and even necessities of certain actions and instead see them as merely destructive to our image—an image that my generation in particular seems so concerned with maintaining in social media, in the way we dress, in the people we hang out with, and in the way we talk.

This image seems to be defined by who we want to be or how we want to appear to others. We fear ruining it by making mistakes that will reveal how far we are from the standard of perfection we have in mind. We have certain celebrities or friends that we want to be like or a specific idea of the person we want to be when we “grow up,” and we are painfully aware of all the ways we fall short in comparison. I want to be eloquent and to fill an important role in my spheres of influence. But beneath my attempts to be that person is my own underdeveloped self who talks too loud at the wrong time and trips on the sidewalk as a professor walks by. I simply don’t have any desire to make myself vulnerable by entering situations that will make my inadequacies even more obvious to the world. Eager to maintain my own sense of dignity, I tend to avoid circumstances that will make me feel inexperienced or out of control.

This tendency began when I was still a child. I used to tell my mom about my fears of appearing awkward to other people in certain unfamiliar situations, and something she once said in response forever changed my perspective on social interactions. She suggested that people most likely don’t analyze us as much as we give them credit. It’s an application of Samuel Johnson’s wisdom expressed in his History of Rasselas when one of the characters says, “Every man may, by examining his own mind, guess what passes in the minds of others.” If I’m thinking about how I appear to others, then the chances are that they are probably thinking about how they appear to me. In other words, we worry way too much about what other people think even though they’re most likely not giving us that much thought at all. Yet, we persist in letting this excessive concern for ourselves keep us from entering awkward situations that have the potential for being extremely beneficial to others and to ourselves.

Once, a friend of mine admitted to me that her fear of having an awkward conversation with her parents was preventing her from asking them an important question. Echoing advice I had received in similar situations in the past, I reminded her that getting help is never worth sacrificing for the sake of avoiding awkwardness. In a second situation, another friend of mine let the fear of a potentially uncomfortable situation keep her from confronting a friend who was unintentionally hurting her. But when is avoiding awkwardness ever more important than preserving friendship? I myself have shied away from interactions with people who have faced some serious misfortune, fearing that I would say or do the wrong thing. But the truth is that nothing I do out of a desire to show them love could hurt them as much as actively avoiding them. In each of these matters, you’re ultimately making a decision between doing what is comfortable and doing what is right, and we tend to let our desire for comfort overcome our sense of what is right.

As I reflect on these three scenarios, I’m struck by the fact that none of them are inherently awkward. Rather, the discomfort we sense in these situations seems to hinge on our approach. If we have already determined that a situation will be awkward, our anticipation of the awkwardness automatically makes us clumsy. But, if we approach situations in humility and with a readiness to learn, then we might witness these uncomfortable situations transform into moments of growth. Even unexpectedly awkward situations don’t have to be fearful things if you acknowledge that awkwardness will always be a part of learning and maturing.

I can’t help but think of what different people we would all be if we didn’t have this crippling fear of awkwardness. Just think of the cool new things you would try and the obscure but awesome people you would meet if you were uninhibited by your aversion to discomfort. The fear of awkwardness that we tend to experience, however, limits our experiences and ultimately stunts our growth as humans. In light of this dilemma, I recommend that we follow the advice of a dear friend of mine: “Embrace the awkward.” This means adopting an attitude of humility and being willing to face potentially embarrassing situations or uncomfortable moments. Remember not to take yourself too seriously, because you’re probably not at the forefront of everyone else’s minds. Even if you were, sacrificing the right thing will never be worth avoiding awkwardness.

Leah Hickman is a senior studying English.


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