How to Deal with Social Awkwardness At Work

If you stumble, make it part of the dance.

For many people, dealing with awkward social situations at work is a daunting challenge. 

I know it was for me.

I mean all the small talk that you're expected to do with your colleagues, the phone calls you have to make in front of everyone, and the meetings you attend several times a day can really put you on the spot. And before you know it, you can find yourself in those dreaded socially awkward situations with no clue how to scavenge what's left of your composure.

Sounds familiar? 

In this article, I'm going to look at some of the most common socially awkward situations at work and how you can deal with them gracefully, without losing your composure and looking weird.

Small Talk


Social Awkwardness At Work


Back in my office days, I dreaded small talk. It felt utterly awkward having to engage in a conversation with no substance whatsoever. Whenever colleagues asked me questions to which the answer was obvious, I always felt a little irritated deep inside. What's the point? Are we seriously having this conversation? Why?

Colleague: "It's freezing cold outside, isn't it?"

Me: "... yes, it is." (He's a keen observer of the obvious.)

Colleague: "Aren't you cold?"

Me: "Yeah, a bit." *Cringe*

Small Talk, the Social Lubricant

As you can imagine, my first embarrassing attempts at small talk weren't pretty and that's because I didn't understand the true purpose of small talk. 

It is conversation for its own sake. And that's one of the reasons why so many people find it uncomfortable to engage in small talk. I mean it's never going to have any particular purpose other than bonding with your colleagues. So oftentimes the topic is going to be shallow and uninteresting. Or blatantly obvious to the point where it's not worth discussing at all. 

But that's perfectly okay.

Small talk is not something you do for the sake of the information that it conveys. It serves a social function by bonding you with your colleagues and that's actually pretty important if you think about it. 

When Small Talk Gets Awkward


Socially Awkward Cats


Small talk is one of those social situations that lends itself to endless awkwardness.

The number one way you can make small talk embarrassing both for you and your colleague is if you get bogged down in the actual content of the small talk. Remember, it's not about what you're talking about. It's the act of casual bonding that's at the heart of it. 

Therefore, whenever one of your colleague asks you a seemingly weird question out of the blue, don't get caught up in the meaning of it. It's not about the meaning. Let's look at an example:

Colleague: "God, it's so hot in here, isn't it?"

You: "Yeah, kind of..."

The Right Way to Do Small Talk

That's not a very good way to keep the conversation flowing, right? You kind of cut it off with your response and it almost felt like you did it on purpose. It can come off as you being grumpy or stuck up. It can make you look like a conversation killer.

And the reason is, you focused on the content. You heard a question and you gave an answer. And with that you cut the conversation short with an awkward silence.

But is that why your colleague walked up to you and asked you if it was hot? Nope. They wanted to bond with you. And the right way to respond to their approach is to ask about something trivial in return to keep the conversation going.

So the content of the conversation is not that important. What's important is to smile, look excited and welcoming while you're engaging in small talk.

(And yes, it's okay to smile, most people won't think that you're flirting with them.)

Just remember, it's about bonding and not about the content of the conversation and you're golden!

Making Office Phone Calls in Front of Everyone

Whenever you make a phone call in the office, your colleagues are going to be eavesdropping. That's just the reality of it. People have an innate curiosity to listen in on conversations that are happening around them. 

And this fact can turn a trivial office phone call into a public speaking performance in a heartbeat.

It's hard enough to call a customer about something you probably have no idea about. But having your colleagues eavesdropping on your conversation is going to make it much harder.

Don't Try to Whisper

Probably the most awkward thing you can do in a social situation like that is to start speaking in a low voice or try to whisper. 

It's not going to work.

The person on the other end is not going to be able to hear you clearly so you'll end up having to repeat yourself over and over and thus drag out the conversation. 

And your colleagues will immediately realize that you're uncomfortable with the situation. And it will probably be super awkward for all of you.

Getting Stuck in an Enclosed Space With Someone You've Been Avoiding

You're frantically running to catch the elevator before the doors slam shut. Yes! You manage to stick your foot in between the doors just before they close on you. And as you step inside greeting whoever is in there with a sigh of relief, you suddenly find yourself standing face to face with that unpleasant colleague of yours that you've been avoiding for weeks.

Sounds familiar? It has happened to me. And it was incredibly awkward. 

But it's not a big deal, really. It happens to everyone. There's always going to be people at work who you can't get along with and so you end up avoiding them. Maybe it's not even a conscious decision, you just don't get on very well and they're not your first choice of company. It happens.

However, there's always going to be social situations at work where you'll be forced to talk to these people. That's just the nature of a workplace. 

Don't Ignore Them

  • One thing you definitely don't want to do is ignore them. There's nothing weirder than standing next to each other in an elevator engulfed in thick silence while you're staring at your shoes for reasons best known to you. 
  • Don't avoid eye contact, either. If you look away as they're trying to talk to you, it might come across as rude. 
  • And as a  general rule of thumb, try to break the awkward silence that ensues. Small talk works wonders here. Ask them about their weekend plans, the weather, anything that can spark a friendly conversation. Remember that it's not about what you're saying, it's about the gesture of starting a conversation with them. It's about creating a connection between the two of you. 

Small gestures like that can go a long way even if you've avoiding that person for several months. 

Speak Up!

Another mistake that shy people often make in socially awkward situations is lowering their voice or slurring their words.

I used to do that all the time. People would always tell me to speak up because they couldn't hear me.

Now if you're at a work, you constantly need to be communicating with clients and colleagues so you can't afford the luxury of not being heard clearly. Being a soft-spoken person is actually a disadvantage at work. 

Especially if your work involves making phone calls. The person on the other end will have a very hard time hearing you if you don't speak up. 

Get into the habit of speaking up when talking to colleagues. Practice it if you have to. Speaking in a loud and clear voice helps with making an impression of confidence, too which is a nice bonus.



Conference Room


Oh yes, meetings. I'll never forget the sight of everybody filing into the room and settling around the big round conference table ready to either participate or doze off very soon. Sometimes there's a talkative person who will hog all the attention to themselves and carry the conversation on their own. 

But more often than not, there's no one talkative like that and you might have to play your part in the social charade convincingly. 

If social situations make you anxious, then corporate meetings can be a dreadfully awkward experience. 

Try to Blend In


Chameleon Blending In


When it comes to meetings, what tends to happen is people generally form cliques as they settle around the conference table and they start chatting and laughing.

So chances are, if you remain quite, it's going to look suspicious. You'll end up being the odd one out. And since conference tables tend to be large and round, a good number of your colleagues will be seated in front of you, looking at you from across the table. 

Some people might get worried about you and even put you on the spot by asking you why you're so quite. 

This can be a very awkward situation if you don't have enough experience under your belt about how to carry yourself in awkward situations.

So for the most part, try to blend in with other people. Even if you don't want to actually join the conversation, just listening to your colleagues as they're talking and laughing together is a great way to express your interest and avoid looking very quiet.

Meeting Mistakes You Must Avoid

  • Try not to play with your phone, or your fingers... or just don't do anything that involves you constantly looking away and blocking eye contact with your colleagues. Doing so can seem kind of rude, like you're not interested in them or bored by the conversation they're having. Even if you don't take part in the socializing aspect of meetings, casually making eye contact and just putting on a friendly face can go a very long way in preventing awkwardness.
  • And while keeping quite might seem like a good strategy to blend in unnoticed, it's actually a double-edged sword that can backfire. Keep in mind that being the only quiet one in the group can actually draw a lot of unwanted attention to you. 

How NOT to Avoid Socially Awkward Situations at Work

Now let's look at some very common strategies that people that struggle with social anxiety make when trying to avoid a potentially embarrassing situations at work. 

#1 Clamping Up

Probably the most common reaction to an embarrassing situation is to fall silent. For fear of embarrassing yourself even more, you choose passive defense - after all, if you don't say a thing, no one will be able to judge you, right? 

As a result, you stop trying to engage in conversations with your colleagues, and even if they do try to talk to you, you respond only in very short sentences in a soft-spoken voice.

The problem with this strategy is that it can come across as rude. People might think that you don't talk to them because you don't want to, and not because it's causing you severe social anxiety.

For me clamping up was one of my favorite strategies for several years back in college. Unfortunately it can quickly pigeonhole you into this role of a social outcast who thinks they're better than everyone else.

#2 Keeping Busy

Have you ever buried yourself in your work in an attempt to let everyone know that you were crazy busy and not available for socializing? 

I used to do it all the time. Even when I went to meetings, I would bring my notes - that had nothing to do with the meeting whatsoever - just so I would have something to look at and let my colleagues know that I wasn't available for chit chat. 

It was only for show but it worked. People thought that I was going to give a presentation or something and I was busy preparing myself. What they didn't know was that I was so bored daydreaming that I often ended up doodling on my notes to kill time. 

The problem with this strategy is that if you do this all the time, people might think that you're a workaholic. For them, it seems like you're choosing a bunch of boring data sheets over their company. And let's be honest, that's not a very flattering impression.

#3 Trying to Be Helpful... and Then Being Taken Up on Your Offer

Sooner or later, you will get into a situation where you have no choice but to socialize with your colleagues.

For the love of god, do not try to help everyone. 

Trying to be polite by being helpful is great but if that's your only way of dealing with socially awkward situations at work, you'll soon find that people are lining up by your desk waiting for you to help them out. 

Because they will take you up on your offer. So really be careful with this one. Being the "helpful guy" at work is a great way to socialize but if that's all you've got going for you, before you know it, your willingness to help is going to be used and abused by your colleagues.

The Right Way to Avoid Socially Awkward Situations at Work

First of all, while socializing is important, it's okay to be learning the ropes. It's okay to do something awkward every once in a while. 

Most people will not judge you for that because, guess what? It's something they have to deal with to an extent, too and so they know what it's like. 

So even though you might feel that whenever you do something embarrassing, people are judging you, they really aren't. Most of them won't even remember it the next day. 

Acting weird won't make you any less likable, either. And people aren't going to compare you to the person who was doing your job before you entered the company. 

What I'm trying to say is, the best way to deal with socially awkward situations at work is by embracing them. It's part of life and even though it's a pretty bad feeling when you act weird or say something silly in front of the office, it's all part of growing a thick skin and developing the necessary social skills.

I personally firmly believe that gradually and consciously exposing yourself to potentially awkward situations is a fantastic way to get your brain desensitized to the occasional embarrassment that follows. 

Carrying yourself with composure even in the face of overwhelming workplace awkwardness, which inevitably happens to all of us, is a skill. It's something you learn. And the best way to learn is to fail forward. 

One of my favorite quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States ties in nicely here:

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

How do you deal with socially awkward situations at work? Let me know in the comment section below!

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