We’ve all experienced those dreaded awkward moments: you forget someone’s name, or they mispronounce yours, maybe you wave back at someone who is actually waving to the person behind you, or a friend or coworker unintentionally upsets you. While these uncomfortable moments are bound to happen, there are ways to deal with an awkward situation that can help you (and hopefully everyone involved) feel more at ease.
Just within the last 14 days, I’ve gone in for a hug when the person I was meeting went for a handshake, and I also assumed that an acquaintance and I were politically aligned, only to find out (after I spoke passionately about my opinions) that we are not. While both of these situations made me feel weird in the moment, I was able to laugh off the first one; the second one, on the other hand, still makes me recoil when I think about it.
For every awkward situation, big or small, there are ways to make it feel more manageable and less like you need to never again go out in public. Below, I've rounded up six expert-approved tips for dealing with those cringe-worthy moments where you put your foot in your mouth, forget something important, or someone accidentally offends you.
1. Identify the type of awkward situation you're in
Not all awkward situations will be solved the same way, so it’s important to identify if you're the one in the wrong, if you have been wronged, or if the situation is not offensive to anyone, but simply mutually awkward (a long silence in a conversation, for example).
Maybe you’ve been caught in a white lie, like: “You make up an excuse about why you can’t get together with a friend, and then you run into the friend while you're out,” an example Dr. Kirsten Brunner, (MA, LPC), an Austin-based private practice counselor who specializes in relationships, gives Romper. Another common foot-in-mouth scenario is accidentally denouncing something someone believes strongly in, (exactly what happened in my political conversation), or more innocuous but still uncomfortable situations, like forgetting an acquaintance's name or a friend’s birthday.
Other times you will be at the receiving end of an awkward situation, which unfortunately doesn’t make it any more bearable. Someone asks you when you're due and you already had the baby (nooo!) , or they remark that they hate Tevas, only to realize that you’re wearing this exact normcore sandal (this happened to me this summer, but I still stand by my Tevas).
Getting clear on the type of situation you're in will help you figure out how to best deal with it.
2. Take a step away from the situation
Try not to make the awkward situation more important than it is, or allow it to take up more mental energy than it deserves.
“Remind yourself that everyone has awkward situations. This is not the first and last time something like this is going to happen. Normalize it. Don't over-exaggerate its importance,” Dr. Kathryn Smerling, PH.D, LCSW who specializes in creating healthy and meaningful relationships, tells Romper. She adds that there’s no need to respond or react immediately. “Take a deep breath. Don't be in the parade — step back and observe.”
3. Apologize if necessary
It’s terrible knowing you’ve hurt someone, even if you did so accidentally. I think my friend who inadvertently made fun of my Tevas felt worse than I did. You don’t want to make the person you’ve offended feel even more awkward because of the intensity of your guilt.
“If you caused the awkwardness, it is always wise to own up to your gaff," Brunner says. "Acknowledge the awkwardness, apologize or make amends if appropriate, and move on. Learn from the interaction... so that you can work to avoid the same circumstances in the future."
Also know that you can't rewrite history. “Be easy on yourself, we’ve all found ourselves in awkward interactions," Brunner adds. "Give yourself grace and move on.”
4. Speak up
I’m generally pretty conflict-averse, which I think many people are. It can be hard for me to speak up when I feel wronged or if I need to correct something; this is exactly why I once allowed an old coworker to call me “Gabby” for WAY too long, until another coworker corrected him, and then we both felt weird. There is no shame in telling someone they've hurt your feelings, or momentarily making someone else feel awkward by correcting their mistake.
“If you are on the receiving end, acknowledge the awkwardness, assert yourself if it is something you feel strongly about and then gracefully move on," Brunner says. "If your interactions with this individual are awkward or offensive more often than not, you might want to reevaluate your relationship with them and set boundaries."
Smerling adds that when responding, try to, “be kind, and be thoughtful.” Most people will appreciate you calmly coming to them about the situation; this saves this person from future embarrassment and gives them a chance to smooth things over.
5. Don't over or underreact
If you're truly angry, Smerling says, it’s a good idea to “give yourself a moment to collect yourself” before confronting the person. “Don't do something you'll regret later,” she adds. This will only make you feel even worse about the initial interaction.
Some things that feel embarrassing can be laughed off and may not need to be acknowledged; tripping in front of a room full of people, for example. Remember that everyone has been there, and no one really cares all that much.
“Underreacting or overreacting can make things worse,” Brunner says. “If you don’t acknowledge the awkwardness, you could alienate a friend or co-worker. If you apologize too much, or laugh too much, or go on and on about the situation, you will make it more awkward.”
6. Remember that awkward situations come from a desire to connect
If we didn’t care about other people’s feelings or what they thought of us, then there wouldn’t be uncomfortable situations.
“Awkward moments are uncomfortable for most of us because we have an innate desire to belong and connect,” Brunner says. “We are continually seeking common ground and understanding. We also don’t like to be caught off guard or unprepared. Awkward moments feel like a breach in trust and connection.”
Try to remember, even with the situation feels totally cringe-worthy, that the reason you feel this way is because you care about the quality of your interaction with that person, or you care that you make a good impression. This is actually a good thing, as it makes for meaningful connections and ultimately friendships.
In the moments you find yourself ruminating over the fact that you forgot someone’s name or couldn't think of an interesting question to ask at a party, remind yourself that no one is thinking as much about your behavior as you are. If nothing else, awkward situations may help you figure out how to better prepare for the next party, meeting, or first date.
Dr. Kirsten Brunner, (MA, LPC), an Austin-based private practice counselor
Dr. Kathryn Smerling, PH.D, LCSW