Have you ever had an awkward silence?
An awkward silence is an uncomfortably long pause in conversation, a presentation, or interaction.
Did you know they can be good or bad depending on the situation? An awkward silence can even be a negotiation tactic.
Here’s how you can handle or leverage your awkward silences.
How Long Should You Pause in Conversation?
Ideal pauses in conversation are a quarter to half a second–just enough time to take a breath. A pause can get awkward when it stretches into four seconds.
Although, conversational rhythm can differ between languages and cultures. Researchers have found that English speakers rarely last longer than 4 seconds in silence, while the pause in conversation for Japanese speakers commonly reaches 8 seconds.
For English speakers, there is rarely more than a fraction of a second of silence between speakers in a conversation. When this stretches longer, people start to feel uncomfortable or break the natural flow of conversation. Once the pause has lasted too long, someone needs to find something to say.
Why is Silence So Uncomfortable?
Social scientist, Ty Tashiro, explains in his book, The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome, that when you experience an unexpected silence, the amygdala starts to sound alarm bells. The amygdala is the same part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response!
This is what is happening inside your brain when silence lasts uncomfortably long:
Why does the brain overreact to silence? Researchers trace this reaction back to our hunter-gatherer roots. At that time, rejection from the community was incredibly dangerous for an individual. At a primal level, the uncertainty of silence feels like rejection, and the fear of rejection leads people to panic.
This is why when you feel safe and comfortable around someone, silence doesn’t trigger the same fear response — it’s not awkward. Being silent while with a loved one can feel incredibly comforting. You aren’t scared of silence leading to rejection, which reinforces the trust in that relationship.
How to Avoid Truly Awkward Silence
Here are some ways you can avoid an awkward silence:
Give a genuine compliment, followed by a question
A simple compliment helps the conversation shift to a friendly, positive note. For example, if there is a long pause, you could say, “By the way, I love your earrings. Where did you get them?”
Or when you find yourself next to the keynote speaker at a networking event, an awkward silence buster could be, “I really enjoyed how you presented your research on X. What inspired you to study that?”
Always have a back pocket question that you can use in your conversations if an awkward silence creeps in.
Ask story-generating questions
Instead of asking your date, “So, you work as a social media marketer?” Try, “What’s the most challenging part of working as a social media marketer?” or “What’s your favorite campaign you’ve worked on?”
Remember, “yes/no” questions are more likely to lead to an awkward silence.
Ask story-generating questions that allow the person you’re chatting with to respond in a way that can organically lead to another question.
Here are some more examples of story-generating questions:
- That’s so cool you play the piano. How did you get started?
- What would you do if you had an entire Saturday to spend however you wanted?
- What’s something you love doing that you wish you had more time for?
If you have personal experience with the topic—let them know!
When relevant, let the person you’re chatting with know why you’re interested and invested in the questions you’re asking. Try, “I remember you mentioning that you work as a barista. I love going to coffee shops, but I can’t imagine how hectic the morning rush must be! What do you like about your job?”
Can you hear the difference? By adding a personal connection, you show them why you are interested in their answer—you like coffee shops. You want the inside scoop on working at one!
You can do this with anything you think is interesting about the other person. Here are some examples:
- That’s so cool you play the piano. I’ve played the guitar since I was 12! How did you get started?
- I loved the research you presented in the meeting. I had never considered the correlation between X and Y. What made you interested in researching that?
- I heard you studied computer science at University — so did I. What are you doing for work these days?
Plan some conversation starters ahead of time
If you know you’re going to an event where you’ll engage in small talk, prepare ahead of time by brushing up on current events or industry-specific happenings. On your way to the event, think of a few conversation starters to help you strike up a conversation with a new person and keep the conversation going.
Here are some fun and easy conversation starters to get you started:
- What did you think of X sports game?
- What kind of music do you like listening to?
- What were your thoughts on the presentation?
A good conversation starter doesn’t have a correct or incorrect answer. It’s a way to spark some small talk and get to know the person you’re speaking with a bit better.
Want the very best conversation starters? Check out the article: 57 Killer Conversation Starters So You Can Talk to Anyone
When asked a question, answer with depth (and end on a question)
When someone talks with you, they likely want to learn something new about you. Steer clear of short answers and share some extra details that will help them get to know you better.
Next time your uncle you haven’t seen in a few years shows up to a family gathering and asks, “What are you doing these days?” share some fun details.
Instead of “I’m getting my Masters of Art History,” tell him how you’re planning on using your degree or what class you’re enjoying at the moment. This will show him that you appreciate his question and want him to know what you’re up to. It will also make it easier for your uncle to ask a follow-up question.
Vulnerability leads to vulnerability—if you let someone get a glimpse of your life, they’ll likely do the same when you ask them something.
The best part? After you answer, end with a question about them. This will let them know exactly where to pick up.
End the conversation graciously
Long pauses are most likely to happen when the conversation goes past its natural endpoint. When the natural rhythm of the conversation starts to lull, graciously tell the person you’re speaking with, “Thanks so much for chatting, I need to get going, but I enjoyed talking with you.”
This allows the conversation to end before either party feels the awkwardness that will inevitably ensue. And if you want the best ways to exit a conversation, check out this article: 62 Ways to Politely End a Conversation In ANY Situation
How to Use Awkward Silences to Your Advantage
Since awkward silence can lead to panic, it can be a potent tool—especially in specific professional settings. Keeping your chill in a business negotiation or team meeting allows others the time they need to think and formulate an answer. It can also push the other person to feel uncomfortable and “cave” into your request.
Gavin Presman, the author of Negotiation, was told that the rates he charged for his leadership and sales training services were too high. He responded with a simple, “I understand,” and then waited. After 10 seconds of silence, the man he spoke with said that his rates were acceptable, and he wanted to move forward with booking him to train his company.
The ability to sit in silence can be cultivated. Like any life skill, it will come more naturally to some than others, but you can practice silence and get better at it. Become more comfortable with silence by meditating, going for a walk in nature, or driving without turning on the radio. If you want to challenge yourself, try taking a vow of silence.
Times When Awkward Silence Can Be Beneficial
Remember the old saying, “Silence is golden”? There are many different situations where silence can be beneficial. Here are a few ways to use awkward silence as your superpower.
In a business meeting
If you’ve just posed a non-rhetorical question to a room (or zoom meeting) full of colleagues, let the silence settle for a moment. Your colleagues might be using that time to think about their answer or are nervous about speaking up first. Either way, count to 10 before you say anything else — there’s a tiny chance the silence will last that long. Usually, someone will speak up, and the discussion will pick up from there.
When you’ve been asked a hard question
The question could come from a job interviewer or a friend you’re catching up with. Either way, try responding with, “That’s a great question. Let me think about my answer for a second.” This communicates that you are listening and wanting to give a well-thought-out response to their question.
When the job offer isn’t what you hoped for
If the compensation you’re for a new job is lower than you had expected, try responding with, “In all honesty, my research on what other companies are paying for this equivalent position paired with my industry experience led me to expect the compensation to be a bit higher.” Then wait for a few seconds and see what happens.
There’s a pretty good chance that the interviewer will make a better offer. If they don’t, after a few seconds of silence, graciously ask if you can have a few days to consider.
When you try this out, make sure your body language exudes confidence. Silence can signal nervousness, which you want to avoid in a professional setting like this one. To look confident (even though you might be freaking out on the inside), sit up straight with your shoulders back. If possible, lean forward a little bit. Avoid any nervous ticks like tapping your foot or fidgeting with a ring on your finger. Stay calm and collected and see what happens.
Awkward Silence Takeaways
Remember, awkward silence isn’t only awkward because you think it is—humans strive to avoid silence on an instinctual level. After all, people fear that it means disapproval and rejection from those around them. As social beings, fear of rejection triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism meant to warn you of danger so you can stay safe.
Use these 6 Tips and Tricks to Avoid Unwanted Awkward Silence:
1. Give a genuine compliment followed by a question
2. Ask a story-generating question
3. If you have a personal connection with the topic—let them know!
4. Plan some conversation starters ahead of time
5. When asked a question, answer with depth
6. End the conversation graciously
- You Can Use Awkward Silence to Your Advantage. If you feel awkward in a given situation, you’re probably not the only one. In some instances, such as a salary negotiation or business meeting, letting silence settle for a few seconds can pressure the person you’re with to agree to your proposed idea or speak up in a group discussion.
- Cultivate Comfortability With Silence. By becoming more comfortable with silence, you’ll be able to consciously decide when to speak up and when to let the other person speak first. Your ability to handle silence can grow through practice. To cultivate comfortability with silence, spend time alone in nature, drive without turning on music, or meditate.
And remember, not all silence is created equal! Sitting with someone in silence is a sign of trust and emotional intimacy. Furthermore, when you cultivate curiosity about the world and people in it, you’ll find unplanned awkward silence will be a much rarer experience.
As Lao Tzu said, “Silence is a source of great strength.”