October 7, 2016

The Science of Surviving Awkward Conversations.

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Imagine this: You are sitting with a group of strangers around a table. Everything seems to be going great, the conversation is flowing, polite smiles are exchanged, when suddenly…there’s a lull.

Everyone, including you, has suddenly run out of things to say. There is a black hole of silence.

You smile faintly at the closest pair of human eyes, and quickly glance away.


Someone looks down at their phone.


A nervous chuckle is heeded.

More silence.

Shifting, shuffling of feet.

This is so darn awkward, you think. Now what?

With each passing second the silence grows. The air is thick, as if there were one mighty elephant sitting there in the room, which everyone is politely trying to ignore.

Then—after what seems like a lifetime—one brave soul comes up with a feeble attempt at new conversation,

Oh, it’s boiling hot in here, isn’t it people?”

And with her hand, starts to dramatically fan herself, looking up to the ceiling in frantic desperation searching for a non-existent fan of some sort.

Someone agrees. Another makes a guess at the temperature. A wave of relief washes over the group. Whoa. That was close.

Sound awkwardly familiar? You’re not alone.

For the majority of human beings in a new relationship or group, there exists a phenomenon of deep uncertainty in silence. That awkward gap in conversation actually makes our minds race, our heartbeats accelerate, and as a result we find ourselves frantically wondering what the other person is thinking. In our anxiety, what might be a mere 10 seconds on a clock seems like eternity.

Of course there are the inevitable situations where silences are perfectly acceptable, like when you are riding with your family in the car, sitting next to a random passenger on a plane, or relaxing and watching a movie with a friend. But, let’s say you have just introduced a friend to someone at a party. The new dynamics of the group dictate that one of you will be able to keep the conversation afloat. But sometimes even the greatest conversationalists and most experienced speakers can bomb a conversation.

And then there are some people who clearly take pleasure in awkward silences, as part of their branding. In fact, they go so far as to brace their audience for that intimate feeling of silence as if to teach them a lesson in “the art of discomfort.” John Cage, a well-known American musician and composer, has a piece known as “4’33,” which is composed of just—well—silence.

Let’s delve into this unique human phenomenon and the science behind why we loathe the conversational faux pas of awkward silences:

When does it become awkward?

Brace yourself. A recent study conducted by researcher Namjke Koudenberg from The University of Groningen points out that a mere four seconds of silence within a conversational flow can elicit feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment.

Why are we uncomfortable or afraid of silence?

According to Namjke, experiencing pure conversational flow is rooted in a deep-seated primal fear regarding social acceptance and belonging. “In our research we found that this conversational flow is very pleasant; it informs us that things are all right: We belong to the group and agree with one another.” She continues, “As such, conversational flow serves social needs. That is, the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for social validation.”

What does the silence mean to us?

Another plausible claim is that silences are awkward among strangers because people feel the need for constant stimulation, and silence indicates that no stimulation is to be had. Thus a person ends up thinking, Well, how do I get out of this situation without being rude?

Three Ways to Experience Real Conversational Flow.

Because of our social need for acceptance, awkwardness is definitely not fun. But the reality is, sometimes it’s unavoidable—even necessary. However, if we practice these three tips regularly, we’ll find we can relax into authentic and enjoyable conversation wherever we go.

1. Be Curious.

All great conversationalists are naturally curious. Keep the momentum going by asking lots of good questions. This is a great tactic to keep the pressure off yourself and more importantly gives your conversational partner the chance to talk about themselves. Numerous studies have shown that people love talking about themselves above anything else.

2. Actively listen.

One of the primary reasons conversations go awry is that people are not really listening to each other. Instead, they are busy thinking about the next thing to say, which can lead to a unnatural dead end. Or they’re busy daydreaming about removing the chicken from the freezer when they get home. An authentic conversation consists of two people who are present for one another, actively listening for what lies behind the words. To practice being an active listener, maintain steady eye contact always, especially when the other speaker is making a point. And use the opportunity during gaps in the conversation to throw in small words like, “I see” or, “great” to show you are genuinely interested. If you feel that the silences are getting longer, you can also paraphrase some of what they’ve told you to reignite parts of the conversation.

3. Allow The Silence, Let Go of the Awkward Attitude.

Sometimes, rushing to fill the silences too quickly can create a vicious cycle of superficial small talk—where neither you nor the group are enjoying the conversation. For example, if you panic and start meandering off about an irrelevant topic, such as the weather, or even by mistake reveal something too personal, it could do more damage than repair. Your instinct will reveal to you if this is a “natural progressive silence,” which I feel is a key staple of any genuine and good conversational flow. In this case, there is no need to think of any more things to say. In fact, rejoice and appreciate the fact that nothing is being said. I read once that sometimes “the most crucial parts of a conversation happen when nothing is said.” You just never know—maybe the other person needs time for information to sink in, or the conversation flow is taking a good turn and moving into a new dimension. One that you both will naturally enjoy talking about.


Further References:




Relephant Read:

9 Easy Steps to Stop Being Socially Awkward.


Author: Pamela Kirpalani

Image: cia de foto/Flickr

Apprentice Editor: Tammy Novak, Editor: Toby Israel





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