19 Signs You're Socially Awkward + How To Own It Anyway, From Psychology Experts
Being socially awkward is an interesting thing because it rarely shows up the same way. Social awkwardness is a common trait that can affect anyone, regardless of age, background, or even personality type. It often shows up in different ways and to varying degrees. In some people it may manifest as shyness, difficulty forming connections with others, or overwhelming anxiety while in social settings.
But while that can be hard to deal with at times, social awkwardness actually comes with some perks, too, more often than not—like being a good listener, becoming super observant, and being more empathetic to other people's social struggles.
Ahead, we explore the highs and lows of being socially awkward.
So, what does it mean to be socially awkward?
According to therapist Maria Sosa, MFT, social awkwardness is when we have difficulty communicating and engaging with others in social settings. "There's a sense of discomfort, feeling out of place, not being able to pick up on social cues or respond in a socially acceptable way. Interactions, as a whole, feel off for all parties," she tells mbg.
Poor social skills could be caused by a history of negative social experiences, says therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT. Perhaps a person was bullied, made fun of, humiliated, or mistreated when they were in a social situation. Another cause could be not receiving "adequate socialization at a young age," she says, wherein a person never got the necessary practice to help build their social skills.
Shyness could also contribute to poor social skills, she adds. People who are shy often get "the feeling that [they are] being judged harshly when they are in public." Some people are also simply overstimulated by certain situations, which may lead to that social awkwardness: "This often occurs in highly sensitive people—people who feel deeply and notice external stimuli on a deeper level than others. When one feels generally uncomfortable in public, it makes it difficult to engage with others," she says.
However, it's worth noting that just because you experience social awkwardness doesn't mean that you are awkward with all people or situations. Carol Queen, Ph.D., a sexologist and author of Exhibitionism for the Shy, says people who are socially awkward often have a small core group of friends who they are perfectly comfortable with, but outside that circle, awkwardness will likely manifest.
Signs you may be socially awkward:
Conversations are hard for you.
"One of the main markers of social awkwardness is difficulties beginning and keeping conversations flowing. Conversations are often disjointed, usually with long pauses or gaps," says Sosa.
Conversations with new people generally tend to be short, adds New York–based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D. "This is a sign that you're uncomfortable or making others uncomfortable with your body language or perhaps lack of words. It also indicates you need help with understanding/participating in small talk."
You're a wallflower.
You're typically on the outskirts of gatherings, Hafeez says. At work events, family gatherings, or parties, "you tend to float on the peripheries of groups. Because you don't participate well within social structures, groups tend to form all around you but not include you."
You have trouble reading social cues.
Clinical psychologist Carolina Estevez, Psy.D, says people who are socially awkward may have difficulty understanding the subtle cues that go along with social interactions. "They may struggle to pick up on nonverbal signals like body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. This can lead to difficulties in making friends and forming meaningful relationships."
Social interaction makes you nervous.
Socially awkward people often feel an unusual amount of anxiety and discomfort in social situations. As a result, they might avoid these types of encounters altogether, or they might appear tense and uneasy when engaging with other people.
You're hyper-aware of social situations.
Trauma and relationship counselor Katie Lorz, LMHC, tells mindbodygreen that people who are socially awkward are sometimes so hyper-aware of their social situations that "they find themselves having physiological or psychological signs of hyper-awareness." This may include overthinking, worrying about what others are thinking, thinking others are very aware of them, sweating, sensitivity of the skin or body awareness, salivating or dry mouth, change in hearing perception, or an upset stomach.
"All of these signals come from the body and mind going into a 'fight or flight' mode if a person feels nervous about the social situation and their own social abilities. It's also quite normal to experience this in new or different situations, and the more someone experiences these novel situations, the more these symptoms will soften, and the brain and body will get more comfortable and used to it," she explains.
You sometimes disconnect.
Sometimes socially awkward people feel more disconnected or "spaced out" in social situations. In these moments the person may be feeling like they are having an out-of-body experience; they may faint or feel sleepy; they may be forgetful, or their mind might go blank; they may feel overwhelming pressure in their chest or may even throw up or need to use the restroom.
According to Lorz, these may be signs that a person is moving from a "fight or flight" state into a "freeze" or "fawn" state, "one that signals to the brain and body that the best option for survival is to give up, hide, or shut down."
A person may experience these states if environmental sensory information reminds them (consciously or unconsciously) of a past traumatic event, if their current social experience feels threatening, or if they feel overwhelmed in their abilities to handle the social situation. In these instances, it is best to step away if they can and go to a calm and peaceful place or with someone they trust until the symptoms calm down.
You avoid social interactions altogether.
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., says those who are socially awkward often—and understandably—avoid social interactions due to a history of unfulfilling or negative interactions. Out of fear of repeating the endless cycle of feeling awkward and out of sorts, the socially awkward person often evades social situations.
Benefits of being socially awkward.
Being socially awkward can be a unique and valuable trait that can bring a lot of benefits, even if it may not always feel that way. Benefits of being socially awkward include:
A quirky personality
Sex and relationship coach Azaria Menezes says being socially awkward can "allow your unique qualities and personality to stand out. People may see you as quirky or distinct, which can be endearing and attractive." In fact, many people are drawn to the unique characteristics that make individuals stand out from the crowd, whether it's a gap-toothed smile, a passionate hobby, or a particular style of dress.
Increased capacity for empathy
"When a person knows how painful it could be to face an unavoidable situation such as social gatherings, they tend to notice fellow awkward people and empathize with them," Osibodu-Onyali says. "When one has a struggle in this area, they are able to pinpoint others who feel the same and can be a source of solace to them."
Osibodu-Onyali also says that social awkwardness tends to produce people who want to do their best in social situations, and so they sometimes will practice social skills. Because they don't want the attention on themselves, they learn to ask better questions and actively listen to the person who's speaking. They can engage others in a very gentle way.
And because they're such good listeners, Hafeez believes people may even be more likely to start conversations with socially awkward individuals. "Some people are more likely to spark up a conversation with a shyer-looking person at a party. They may be shy and insecure themselves, so talking to you could make them feel comfortable," she says.
You have a different perspective
This ties back into being a wallflower. "When you feel socially awkward, you step out of the chaos and see a bird's-eye view of what is happening around you. Rather than being involved in conflicts or problems, you view them from an outside perspective," Hafeez says. "This allows you to help innovate, solve problems, and inspire others. Your unique perspective can help people who are struggling to find solutions, and they will appreciate your presence more than you know."
Because social butterflies are more likely to interact with large groups, Estevez says, they tend to have to divide their attention among many individuals simultaneously. This can lead to a lack of quality one-on-one time with friends, leading to shallower friendships that lack depth.
"Socially awkward people, on the other hand, often have fewer friends, meaning they have more time to devote to each of them. Additionally, because socially awkward people may say the wrong things sometimes, the people who remain to be their friends are the ones that accept them for who they are," she says.
Being socially awkward means you may not feel the need to be around others all the time. This allows for a greater appreciation of your own company and can help cultivate inner strength and stability.
"Additionally, it gives you more time to focus on personal projects, interests, learning experiences, and other pursuits that bring joy into your life. Socially awkward people often find solace in independent activities such as reading or spending time outdoors. As a result, they may be better at self-reliance and developing hobbies that make them feel fulfilled without relying on others for gratification or entertainment," explains Estevez.
How to be more likable and confident, even if you're awkward:
Pause and breathe.
Before you head into a social setting or even when you're in the middle of it, Sosa recommends taking a few seconds to acknowledge the awkwardness and the discomfort, and breathe through it.
"Allow it to flow in and out of your body. By putting your body in a more relaxed and at ease state, you're less likely to fumble over words and fidget, allowing you to be more confident and less self-conscious in the conversation," she says.
Sosa also suggests taking an interest and being curious about the people you're engaging with. Taking the focus off yourself may ease the anxiety and allow for better connection. Ask questions. Practice making eye contact and being fully present and engaged. When we take a genuine interest and give our undivided attention to others, it shows respect and kindness. After all, we all want to be around people who we get to experience that with.
Another important factor in feeling confident as a socially awkward person is learning to accept and embrace yourself. "Self-acceptance is a powerful tool that can help shift your mindset from one of self-doubt to one of self-assurance. By embracing your unique qualities and celebrating what sets you apart from others, you can learn to feel more comfortable in your own skin and less self-conscious in social situations," Menezes says.
She recommends slowly trying to embrace your individuality and celebrate your social awkwardness, even if it separates you from the crowd.
Find your community.
We are seeing more people embrace their own social awkwardness and forming groups of like-minded individuals. In fact, the idea that everyone must act a certain way to be socially accepted may even be one of the causes of social awkwardness.
"The truth is that it takes all sorts of people to make up the breadth and depth of this human experience, and our own uniqueness is a way of living an authentic life and creating meaning in this world," says Lorz. "So, unless your social awkwardness is causing you personal or social discomfort or problems, there is no need to change who you are."
Finally, one quick note: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a great exploration of the highs and lows of being socially awkward, and you should consider picking up a copy after reading this.
Is it bad to be socially awkward?
Being socially awkward can feel like a struggle for some, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there are quite a few benefits of being socially awkward, including having an increased capacity for empathy, self-reliance, and listening skills.
What causes poor social skills?
Poor social skills are caused by several factors, including any past negative experiences with others, current beliefs about yourself and your self-worth, and possibly a lack of adequate social interaction as a kid to help build social skills.
How do you deal with a socially awkward person?
Dealing with a socially awkward person takes patience and compassion. Someone who experiences higher levels of social awkwardness might become easily frustrated with their struggles, but you can help them along by offering them a safe space to be themselves and not taking any insensitive gestures too personally.
If you deal with social awkwardness, it might be easy to shut down or avoid social interactions in general because you just don't feel like you fit in. But social skills can be developed and honed over time. We've all experienced some kind of awkwardness in our interactions. We've all had those moments after an interaction where we replay it and consider what we could have done or said differently.
Social awkwardness presents differently for everyone, so it's important to focus on your own personal growth and development. And don't forget to offer yourself some grace along the way.
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.