A Psychologist Tells Us Why We’re So Awkward

Are millennials truly “Generation Awkward?” In addition to being the favorite media descriptor, in my practice, millennials often describe themselves as “awkward” at some point in the first session! Some millennials celebrate awkwardness, while others experience shame and anxiety over this discomfort. Let’s look at an example of an “awkward” situation:

Ann and Jessica see each other from across the room and prepare to greet.

Ann: (Here comes Jessica.  Are we going to shake hands or hug?)

Ann offers a handshake; Jessica opens her arms for a hug. Ann pokes Jessica in the ribs with her outstretched hand, while Jessica proceeds with the uncomfortable embrace.

A: Hi! (WHY AM I SO AWKWARD?! Now she knows I’m socially inept. What was I thinking?)

J: Hi, yeah, that was a little awkward. (Maybe I should have gone for a handshake? That was awkward. Oh well. It happens.)

A: I know. (She knows I’m awkward…I better get out of here before I say anything stupid.) Anyway, I gotta go. Nice to see you!

J: Oh… OK. See you later? (That’s too bad. Should we hug again? Maybe try the handshake this time? I don’t know what to do.)

A: Sure thing! (Sure thing? Who says that? Run. Now.)

J: (I guess we are waving. Greeting new friends can be so awkward.) Bye!


Am I Awkward or Socially Anxious?

I must often decipher which of the three ways millennials use the term “awkward.”

Awesomely Awkward. “Adorkable,” quirky, counterculture young adults celebrate their awkwardness. They perhaps acknowledge that the world is too diverse for there to be a single set of social norms. They refuse to question the social acceptability of their behaviors, because individuality is the new standard of cool.

Neutrally Awkward. Awkward situations are a part of life. Jessica and Ann experienced an awkward encounter: new friends uncertain about how to greet each other. Jessica acknowledged the situation as awkward but assigned little judgment to the discomfort. The awkwardness was neither celebrated nor condemned. Often times, people who neutrally acknowledge awkwardness assign the adjective to situations (“This is awkward.”) and states (“I feel awkward.”) rather than personality traits (“I am awkward.”).

Anxiously Awkward. For some millennials, awkward acts as a euphemism for wrong, bad, inept, anxious, uncomfortable, etc. Ann’s awkwardness seemed to reflect anxious awkwardness and likely some social anxiety. She worried Jessica would see her “awkwardness.” She also took the situation personally and used it as evidence there was something socially wrong with her. Lastly, Ann got the hell out of there in order to sidestep additional “awkwardness.”

When you call yourself “awkward,” does it have a negative connotation? Do you silence your opinions out of fear that others will judge what you say or how you look when saying it? Do you make phone calls at weird times to avoid speaking to an actual person? Do these habits get in the way of your work or school performance? If so, what you call “awkward” may actually be social anxiety.


Millennials: A Bit More Awkward, A Bit More Anxious?

Before exploring effective ways of addressing social anxiety, it may help to revisit the original question: Are millennials truly more awkward than their predecessors?

It is unclear if millennials are in fact more awkward than previous generations, but research suggests that they may be more stressed. Explanations for millennial stress and anxiety include overprotective parents, increased attention on testing, poor economy, and the influence of social media and technology.  

Social media and technology likely account for some millennial anxiety. Many people feel naked without their phones. They avoid the discomfort of ambiguous encounters and social missteps by escaping to seemingly important phone activity—but what happens when we do this? We reinforce the notion that we cannot tolerate social discomfort. We do not learn that our discomfort is normal, survivable, and often times unnoticed by others. Depending on phones to avoid discomfort prepares millennials to be less tolerant of awkwardness and, in turn, to feel more social anxiety.  

As social media and technology limit the amount of face-to-face interactions, millennials may experience actual social skill deficits as well as negative self-talk. When surrounded by online interpersonal grace and confidence, millennials may believe they should be less socially awkward in their offline lives. Those who spend several minutes formulating witty responses will likely be disappointed in their cleverness when they cannot do the same in-person. In this way, social media also sets millennials up to negatively judge common social blunders.


Addressing Social Anxiety

If your awkwardness feels a bit more like anxiety or social phobia, it may help to consider the following suggestions.

Practice Skills

It may sound weird, but yes, you can practice not being awkward. Skills associated with social anxiety fall into two categories: social and cognitive. For social skill deficits the first step is to identify the lacking social skill (such as assertiveness, perspective-taking, body language, emotional regulation, problem-solving, etc.). The next steps include learning the skill, imagining yourself working on it, planning to overcome problems you might encounter, practicing with people you trust, and then practicing in real life.

In psychology, cognitive skills refer to the ways you think about events, other people, yourself, and your future. Automatic thoughts about socializing and awkwardness influence your feelings and behaviors. Important steps in overcoming anxiety include identifying and challenging the thoughts that lead to distress.

Both social and cognitive skills require real world practice. As a psychologist, I can try to normalize your awkwardness. For example, awkwardness often accompanies the developmental tasks of young adulthood (aka, “growing up”—*shudder*). Twenty-somethings of every generation have faced and will face transitions that create questions: How do I make friends when not in school?  What if I’m not good at my job? Where do I belong? Who am I? Why is this not what I expected? Is this normal? (It is common to feel uneasy when pondering such questions.)  

If you have any social anxiety, you might not receive much benefit from me suggesting that millennials generally feel awkward. Instead it might be more effective to arrive at these conclusions through experience, by hanging out with other people and challenging anxiety-provoking thoughts.

Find Your People

Again, finding friends can be especially difficult for 20-somethings of any generation. Many awkward encounters arise as you get to know people, decide who you do and don’t like, and then try to end, deepen, or maintain those relationships. I like the term “find your people” because of what it implies.

First, friendship, especially in adulthood, takes work and patience. For many people, the early twenties mark the first time they must find friends outside of the school setting, which can be challenging and a bit awkward. Secondly, “your people” encompass one to several individuals with whom you feel a sense of belonging. “Your people” are not people with whom you try to “fit in,” but people who truly accept your quirks, insecurities, and overall awkwardness.

How do you find your people? Much can be said on this topic. Keeping with the scope of this article, my main suggestion is to not let your discomfort with awkwardness keep you from trying to make friends. Then once you find your people, use them for social support.  

Own It

Determine what you are calling awkward and accept it. Perhaps you are introverted and call it “awkwardness.” Be introverted. If you prefer one-on-one interactions over parties, turn down the invitation and meet up with a good friend. Or if you would rather spend the night reading a book, that is fine too. You can also “own” social anxiety by accepting that sometimes you feel nervous or sweaty or you worry that people are judging you. Once you own the social anxiety, you can decide if you want to listen to it or work on it.

Owning your awkwardness basically means being yourself and embracing any subsequent discomfort. It could mean celebrating your quirks or merely meeting social discomfort with neutral acceptance. It could also mean acknowledging or even calling attention to your awkward thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. The ownership of awkwardness seems to mitigate anxiety. For example, I’d imagine the interaction above would have turned out differently if Ann declared, “JESSICA! What are we doing!? How awkward is this?!”

Head Shot 2 square (1 of 1)Bridgett Ross, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in San Diego, CA and owner of Ross Psychology. She specializes in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, mood disorders, grief/loss, and mindfulness. Dr. Ross has published articles in peer-reviewed journals and has presented at numerous conferences. Furthermore, she has published numerous editorials in magazines and writes a self-help blog on her website. When Dr. Ross is not rock climbing or playing with her son, she is usually reading, painting, or trying to play an instrument or learn another language. You can follow Dr. Ross on Twitter and like her page on Facebook.

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