Updated: Dec 18, 2019
If you’re needing mental health assistance please call BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636. Or if social anxiety has got you good, you can always message for help at lifeline.org.au/get-help/onlineservices/crisischat/ or text White Wreath at 0410 526 562
Kind of like Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, you blurt out comments that leave others staring at you in silence. Sometimes you just can’t maintain a normal, friendly conversation. In this case the question of, ‘Am I socially awkward?’ may come up, and you'll probably want to know how you can change this.
You might be that person who can’t cope in social situations. Kind of like Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, you blurt out comments that leave others staring at you in silence. Sometimes you just can’t maintain a normal, friendly conversation. In this case the question of, ‘Am I socially awkward?’ may come up, and you'll probably want to know how you can change this.
If this is the case, first consider whether you’re behaviour really appears so strange to others, or whether you are exaggerating situations in your head. You might discreetly ask the opinion of a close and trustworthy friend. If they don’t agree you’re socially awkward you might have a form of social anxiety, which would lead you to believe that people are judging you for what you say or do when in fact this is not the case.
Anxiety, unlike shyness, is a mental health condition that affects millions of people around the world. It can make life excruciatingly difficult and prevent you from taking opportunities you would otherwise leap at and impede day-to-day life. If you think you might have social anxiety you should speak to a mental health professional.
What are social skills?
Anyone can feel socially awkward from time to time and nervousness about meeting new people is common. But if it happens repeatedly it can get exasperating and in extreme cases nerves can cause you to behave in ways others might see as strange. Maybe you need advice about how to act around people in a more naturally confident and friendly way. You may want to improve your social skills, get some talking tips or gain knowledge about how to make friends easier. To do so you should break any situation down to its basics.
Consider what happens in early childhood, when we learn social skills through interacting and playing with others. As explained by Eileen Kennedy-Moore Ph.D., the skills we acquire involve a three-stage process of observation, interpretation and action. First you see or hear others and pick up on the cues that tell you the mode of the interaction. This person might be a friend or enemy. You might have to interact in a highly formal way or a more relaxed way, as you would with a close friend. You also take into account others’ emotions, whether they are happy, sad, relaxed or ill at ease themselves.
The second stage is to interpret the signals and work out why somebody is behaving in a certain way. Maybe something happened previously that influenced their mood. It might have been something you or someone else present said or did. Or it might be traceable to something that happened prior to meeting them. Those who are good at this will be better at predicting others’ behaviour and influencing people in positive ways.
The last stage involves your own actions. How you react to others, or what you say in response to situations will, in turn, impact the people around you. Those who are socially awkward might either feel too nervous to say anything, or they might blurt out something without thinking that will negatively affect the mood of any social interaction.
Passing through each of these three steps with positive effects makes up good social skills. It’s also useful to remember that acceptable behaviour can vary from culture to culture. So it can become particularly difficult to judge what’s a suitable way to act when you are outside your usual social group.
How to improve your social skills
Understanding these three stages of social interactions can help you to gain better social skills. If you are struggling to make a positive input into social situations, you might want to pay particular attention to the first and second stage. Think about how others behave and why. Looking at their face and the way they are holding themselves, you can quickly work out if someone is feeling excited, stressed, happy or bored. You may even want to research into human psychology for a deeper understanding of others. But a basic understanding of body language should help you pick up on social cues easier and allow you to act in appropriate ways based on others’ emotions and the setting.
Listening is particularly important for good social skills and key to any conversation. It will allow you to stay in tune with others and the more engaged you are with what they are saying and how they feel about it, the more likely you are to come up with a good response.
You could also try preparing for trickier social situations, like gatherings with work colleagues. If you know who will be present you can think about what you know about each person. Use this knowledge to think of friendly questions that are not too personal for the situation. For example, if it was their birthday recently you can ask them how it went. Or you might simply ask about what someone did on the weekend. You can also practice responses to questions people are likely to ask you, even if they are as basic as ‘how are you?’
Some things you might want to consider include the volume of your voice, your body language and the topics of conversation you choose. Check these remain suitable. By matching their own behaviour without mimicking them completely, you should also have a positive effect on the person. For example, if they speak quickly and excitedly, they will react more positively if you speak in a similar way. But be careful not to try to hard to copy them or it might sound like you are ridiculing them.
The more you engage in social situations, the better you will become at judging how best to act. But don’t be too hard on yourself if it does sometimes go wrong for you. Nobody is perfect and imperfections are sometimes appreciated. Others will sometimes be able to relate to any awkwardness you show and they can help put you at ease. Remember that interactions always involve more than one person, so you are not the only one responsible for how well they go.
Personally, I'm still struggling with this. It takes a lot of amping myself up to be able to any sort of social activity. But I'm getting a lot better, and I know that you'll be able to also.