We’ve all had those moments when we felt so socially awkward that we’d rather disappear than force out a conversation.
Maybe you accidentally told a bad joke, blurted out something inappropriate, or forgot someone’s name, and then… crickets—awkward silence.
If the idea of small talk, networking events or talking to strangers skyrockets your heart rate, you’re not alone.
Here are 8 signs you may be socially inept and 15 straightforward ways to overcome awkwardness.
What Does It Mean To Be Socially Inept?
Socially inept people don’t know how to comfortably socialize, engage in conversation, and calmly interact with others. They often misread social cues or feel physically anxious. They may have an intense fear of talking to new people and being humiliated in social settings.
Socially inept people feel like this in social situations:
8 Signs You’re Socially Inept
Like shyness, social awkwardness can manifest in different ways in different people.
The main signs of social awkwardness are:
- You feel super nervous in social interactions
- You misread people or don’t pick up on social cues
- You avoid socializing whenever possible
- Conversations don’t flow
- People don’t get your jokes or find them offensive
- There are lots of awkward silences when you talk to people
- You feel like people avoid talking to you
- You overthink or regret certain things you say in conversations
Some people are completely fine in large groups but feel extremely awkward one-on-one. Others may feel socially crippled and afraid to go out in public.
Wherever you find yourself on the continuum, know that you are fully capable of learning social skills just like you learned to ride a bike: with practice!
How to Stop Being Socially Inept
Someone who is socially inept may be shy, have social anxiety, or simply not have much experience socializing.
The opposite of socially inept is socially adept, a social pro who knows how to greet people, start conversations, and make others feel comfortable in their presence.
Surprisingly, many socially adept people (including Science of People founder Vanessa Van Edwards) are #recoveringawkwardpeople. She did not have natural social skills and had to learn to be more socially adept.
There are few things worse than the humiliating, stomach-churning feeling of embarrassing yourself in front of people. Being socially outcasted or rejected can feel more painful than physical pain. Moreover, loneliness is at nearly epidemic levels in America.
The combination of social awkwardness and loneliness makes for an even more awkward paradox: you desperately want to make friends and feel part of a community, but you feel so weird that you don’t know how to connect with people.
Fortunately, socializing is a skill that anyone can learn. Here are 15 ways to stop being socially inept and feel more confident in conversation
Be a good listener
It’s hard to think of perfectly witty answers or be conversationally charming. What is a better way to start? With listening?
Listening is a social superpower. Stop trying to think of a clever “socially acceptable” response while other people are talking–this will contribute to feeling socially inept.
Instead, remedy this by practicing better listening skills. Listen to understand rather than to respond.
When someone is sharing something with you:
- Be a Loud Listener. Humans love hearing ‘listening sounds.’ This is when we say “oh,” “ah,” or “Wow” as someone speaks. Show them that you are engaged and present by making eye contact, nodding your head, or subtly humming “mhmm” as they talk.
- Give Positive Reinforcement. When someone finishes a story, show enthusiasm with phrases like “wow, that’s cool” or “oh, how interesting.”
- Ask Great Questions. Ask a relevant and sincere question about what they told you. What makes you curious? Or ask a question about what got them the most excited. Something like, “How did you get started doing that?” or “Where did you find all those resources?” or “What’s the next step?”
Action Step: Notice how you feel when someone’s not engaged in what you have to say. Maybe they’re texting while you try to tell them a story. Does it make you feel unimportant or like they don’t care what you say?
Remember this emotion to ensure nobody feels that way when talking to you. Learn the essential traits of an active listener versus an unengaged listener and put them into practice.
|Active Listener||Unengaged Listener|
|Focused eye contact||Darting eyes|
|Eliminating or ignoring distractions||Checking phone, TV, or surrounding area during a conversation|
|Nodding or responding “uhhuh” as they talk||Complete silence or lack of responsiveness|
|Remembering details about their story or life||Forgetting something important someone told you|
|Asking relevant questions||Bringing up unrelated topics that show you weren’t listening|
|Engaged, open body language (torso facing the other person, slightly leaning forward,||Closed body language (arms crossed, body turned away from them|
Stop identifying as “socially awkward.”
Building new social skills requires changing how you perceive yourself in social situations.
When you feel socially inept, you may apologize for your behavior out of embarrassment or shame.
Socially awkward people often create a subconscious identity around their lack of social skills. For example, they may say, “sorry I’m so awkward,” “I’ve always been shy,” or “I have social anxiety.”
If you want to establish social skills as daily habits, you first have to change your beliefs around socializing. Habit expert and author James Clear asserts:
“To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.”— James Clear
Even if you follow all the steps in this guide, you may still feel socially awkward. As rudimentary as it may seem, you must stop believing you’re socially inept.
The most straightforward place to start? Listen to the way you’re describing yourself.
Eliminate these phrases from your vocabulary:
- “I have social anxiety.”
- “I am socially awkward.”
- “I’m sorry, I’m a dork.”
- “I’m shy.”
- “I don’t know how to talk to people.”
- “I feel awkward in social settings.”
And if you do find yourself saying these things, add a growth mindset. Add…
“But I am working on it!”
“I am growing my confidence.”
…or as Vanessa Van Edwards always says, “I am a recovering awkward person.”
- Avoid conversational traps
We’ve all had those mundane conversations that go like this:
“Hey, how are you?”
… Then what? That is a conversational trap! Traps happen when we ask questions that produce boring, predictable, one-word answers.
People with awkward tendencies often don’t know how to start conversations or get past the initial point of small talk. If you want to feel more prepared before a networking event, date, or party, rehearse a few conversation starters.
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Practice your social skills in low-pressure situations
Sometimes shyness and social awkwardness go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, they’re not a great combo: You feel too shy to socialize, but you feel socially awkward because you don’t talk to people very often.
Somehow you have to break this cycle to practice your social skills. But here is a big mistake we make…do not practice new social skills in high-pressure situations!
Don’t practice with your boss.
Don’t practice with a VIP.
Don’t practice with a crush.
Hone your skills in low-pressure situations first! One of the easiest ways to overcome shyness is by practicing your conversation skills with wonderful service workers such as:
- Cashiers and clerks
- Uber, Lyft, or valet drivers
- Waiters and waitresses
This is wonderful because you want to make their day better by offering something kind to say, and they are often relatively easy to talk to. After all, they are likely socially adept, and you can learn from them!
Say “hey, how are you?” and ask them a question like:
- “Did you grow up here in [your town]?”
- “What’s your favorite thing on the menu?”
- “What are your hobbies outside of work?”
- “I love your [complement their clothing or accessory]. Where did you get it?”
- “What’s the highlight of your day so far?”
Practice being less socially awkward by honing your conversation skills in these low-pressure settings. Just be sure the employee is not too busy with other customers.
Pro-Tip: Sometimes, you can tell people you feel socially awkward and are working on practicing conversation. Vulnerability and asking for help are empowering. You got this!
Replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations
Research shows that self-affirmations help you feel more competent when dealing with perceived threats (like socializing).
In other words, the things you repeat in your head have the power to shape your identity and your confidence around dealing with situations that scare you.
Action Step: Replace negative thoughts about socializing with positive beliefs about your social abilities. Whether you say it out loud or internally, affirm your new identity as a socially savvy person.
|Instead of thinking this…||Tell yourself this…|
|“I hate meeting new people.”||“It’s easy to meet new people.”|
|“I’m so awkward.”||“I am friendly and relaxed.”|
|“I’m horrible at talking to people.”||“I am a great conversationalist.”|
|“That was such a stupid thing to say.”||“Everyone says silly things sometimes. They probably won’t remember anyway.”|
|“They’re judging my lack of social skills.”||“Most people are too focused on themselves to notice me.”|
|“People think I’m weird and insecure.”||“I’m unique and confident in myself.”|
|“I feel anxious about socializing.”||“I’m excited to meet new people, even if it makes me nervous.”|
For more scientifically-proven affirmations, check out this post with 120 Positive Daily Affirmations for Happiness.
Pro Tip: Being shy isn’t a dealbreaker for your social life. Sometimes awkward shyness is just a result of repeated social habits. If you are introverted or feel super shy in social situations, try these 6 science-backed strategies for overcoming shyness.
Empathy is understanding and identifying with other people’s emotions and thoughts. Socially savvy people tend to be highly empathetic and easily relate to others.
But when you’re socially inept, you may not pick up on people’s emotions. Perhaps you laugh at an inappropriate time, or you don’t show any concern for a struggle they share with you.
Some of the most important Habits of Highly Empathetic People include:
- Curiosity about other people
- Seeking similarities and pointing them out
- Open body language (slightly leaning forward, uncrossed arms, and eye contact)
- Paying attention to what people are saying and sharing relevant commentary
- Making kind and encouraging comments
- Avoiding judgmental phrases like, “That sounds…” or “I can’t believe you….”
- Using “we” (instead of “me”) whenever possible to feel more connection
Action Step: Watch Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki’s TEDx Talk about the science behind empathy and how you can cultivate this skill in your life.
Find balance with eye contact
Oh, eye contact is a delicate balance!
Too much, and it’s overbearing and creepy.
Not enough, and it’s avoidant and dismissive.
So what to do? When you’re talking to someone, 3-5 seconds of eye contact at a time is usually socially acceptable. It’s normal to look away for a moment and then return your gaze. And don’t forget to blink!
But just like everything in life, balance is critical. Avoiding eye contact or looking down during a conversation can also be perceived as shy or socially unskilled, depending on the culture.
You don’t want people to think that you’re uninterested in what they have to say. Try to look at people about 50% of the time while speaking and 70% while you’re listening.
Don’t violate the personal space bubble
Like the “close talker” in Seinfeld, getting too close to people can make them feel uncomfortable.
Watch this funny clip from Seinfeld to see how people react to a “close talker” that violates personal space:
In America, it’s pretty common to keep at least 12-18″ of personal space between people unless you know them intimately. In other countries, pay attention to where other people stand in a conversation and mirror them.
Rule of Thumb: If you take a step in and they step back–you are too close!
Rule of Thumb: If they keep taking steps toward you, you are too far!
Take note of the social norms amongst people you’re hanging out with.
Don’t forget your filter
Do you know when someone randomly blurts out something inappropriate or cringey?
“Last night, I had the worst diarrhea after dinner.”
“I heard Sydney is sleeping with the boss.”
“If you didn’t vote for [political candidate], you are a fool.”
… Uhh yeah, awkward.
People with no filter can create incredibly awkward moments. In extreme situations, lacking a filter can also drive away friends.
People with no filter often:
- Blurt out random or irrelevant thoughts
- Talk very loudly or openly about private matters
- Bring up taboo topics like politics, racism, religion, or sexuality
- Rudely express their opinions
- Make offensive jokes
- Cuss and use profane sayings at inappropriate times
You wouldn’t drink unfiltered water straight from the river, so don’t go into a conversation without a filter. Socially adept people consciously think before they speak and avoid specific topics.
Avoid these topics to appear more socially adept:
- Private matters like relationships, personal finance, mental health, or family issues
- Taboo and controversial issues like religion, politics, gossip, body parts, or sex
- Strong or overbearing opinions
- Negative comments about other people
- Excessively deep emotional sharing (especially in the early stages of a friendship or relationship)
- Random topics irrelevant to the conversation (this shows you weren’t listening)
Work on building a mental filter that stops you from blurting out anything inappropriate or potentially awkward. But remember not to beat yourself up if you let something slip. Everybody says random or unnecessary comments at some point.
Action Step: Don’t just say whatever is on your mind at a given moment. Before speaking, take a deep breath and wait 2-3 seconds to think about what you say. This will help you socialize with more poise and respectfulness.
Be imperfect and laugh at your blunders
When trying to overcome awkwardness, you may feel pressure to be perfect in your social interactions. But something is endearing about seeing the imperfect sides of people.
Research shows that embracing your imperfections makes you more likable. This is called The Pratfall Effect, and it explains how small clumsy mistakes can humanize you and make you appear more relatable.
Laughing at yourself shows you don’t take yourself so seriously. It can also take the edge off of an awkward conversation.
Action Step: If you fumble over your words or laugh at a joke you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to shrug it off and chuckle at yourself. You can say, “oh, I don’t know where I was going with that,” or “haha, I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I laughed about being friendly.”
Show interest in other people
Showing interest in other people is the easiest “coverup” for lack of social skills. After all, people like to talk about themselves and like it when others are interested in them.
As you work to build up your socializing toolbox, take the pressure off of yourself to say clever comments or act interesting. Instead, keep the spotlight on other people by expressing interest in what they have to say.
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get people interested in you.”— Dale Carnegie
Pro Tip: Laugh at people’s jokes, ask questions about their life, and act fascinated by their stories. Most people want to feel cool, funny, interesting and valued by others.
Learn to read body language
Have you ever had an awkward conversation with someone that seemed to be looking for their first chance to escape?
They probably didn’t say they felt awkward, but their body language may have spoken volumes. As you notice how other people’s body language makes you think, you can avoid or mirror certain positions to portray yourself as relaxed in social scenarios.
Signs that someone is trying to escape an awkward conversation may include:
- Feet angled toward the door
- The torso is facing away from you
- Avoiding or darting eye contact
- Tense, hunched, or closed-off posture
- Shifting or fidgeting uncomfortably
- Arms crossed
- A forced or fake smile
On the other hand, when people feel comfortable, they appear at ease. Signs that someone is pleasantly engaged in conversation include:
- Feet and torso facing you
- Palms visible
- Engaged eye contact
- A genuine or relaxed smile
- Relaxed, intense posture
To avoid social awkwardness, it is vital to learn to read people’s body language so you can pick up on nonverbal cues.
Action Step: As you approach a conversation, practice friendly, open body language. Keep your shoulders back and down to look more confident. Show your hands and avoid putting them in your pockets, so you appear more open and trustworthy. Face your torso toward the person you’re talking to and take a few deep breaths to look more relaxed.
Avoid awkward silence with story-generating questions
When there’s a long pause in the conversation, things can get awkward. In the English language, a pause for longer than 4 seconds can make people feel uncomfortable.
If you find yourself in moments of awkward silence, just jump in with an open-ended question. When possible, avoid yes/no questions that may lead to more uncomfortable quiet.
For example, instead of asking, “Do you like working in marketing?” say, “What’s your favorite thing about marketing?” or “What projects are you currently working on?”
Story-generating questions tend to keep conversations open and flowing more smoothly. Here are some other good ones to keep in your back pocket:
- What do you love about what you do? (not ‘what do you do?’)
- How did you get into your line of work (not ‘what do you do?’)
- What’s your passion project (not ‘what are you up to?’)
Never say this phrase
Sometimes you can save yourself from social embarrassment by replacing a simple phrase.
For example, have you ever walked up to someone and said, “So nice to meet you!” And they reply, “Uh, we’ve met a few times before.” And you’re, like, “OMG, how awkward! My bad!”
Don’t worry. It happens all the time. Sometimes faces blur together, and you forget who you’ve met before.
An easy social save?
Never say, “nice to meet you.”
Instead, always use the phrase “nice to see you.” It is warm and relevant whether you’re meeting someone for the first time or you (might have) met them before.
Here are a few other awkward social saves that might help:
Remember people’s names
How many people do you meet that say, “oh, I’m so bad at remembering names”? Practically everyone, right?
Stand out from the crowd and start remembering people’s names so you can avoid awkward social situations like this:
“Hey, Ben! How’s it going?”
“Oh hey…. You!” *panic because you forgot their name*
“… Great, how’s life?”
One of the biggest social failures is forgetting someone’s name when they remember yours.
Dale Carnegie said, “a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
Scientists have found that more brain activation occurs from hearing your name versus hearing someone else’s. Social pros remember people’s names because it lights up their interactions.
Action Step: Brain and memory coach Jim Kwik developed a simple 7-step method that he’s used to remembering thousands of people’s names. The acronym BE SUAVE encompasses the method and the result. It is socially suave to recall names.
- Believe that you can do it. Stop telling yourself the story of forgetting names and acknowledge that your brain can remember them.
- Exercise the skill. Put in the effort to practice remembering names regularly, and eventually, it will become a habit.
- Say it. When someone introduces themselves, repeat their name back in the conversation. When you say their name, you hear it twice (once from them and once from your voice). This also gives them a chance to correct you.
- Use it. Aim to use someone’s name 3 or 4 times throughout the conversation, but don’t overdo it. Try to incorporate their name without forcing it naturally.
- Ask the person about their name: How do you spell it? Who were you named after? Where does your name come from?
- Visualize their face with a physical reminder of their name. For example, imagine Jim at a gym, Beau with a wrapped gift, or Logan with a wolverine.
- End it. When you leave a conversation, say goodbye to them by name. Chances are, you will be the most memorable person they talked to.
Make a promise to yourself to practice this method for the next month and see how your social interactions change. Learn more about Jim Kwik’s memory tips for names in this video:
Examples of a Socially Inept Person
There is no shortage of socially awkward characters in movies. If you want to study what not to do in social situations, notice how these socially inept characters act and how others react.
For example, in this Meet the Fockers scene, Ben Stiller’s character over-shares embarrassingly intimate information during a speech to his whole family. His character is a perfect example of social ineptitude and the importance of having a filter! Cringe!
In this scene from Superbad, Michael Cera’s character shows how awkward it can be to stare at someone for an uncomfortable amount of time.
There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments in movies that can make you feel awkward just watching them. You may even feel physically uncomfortable watching them.
But don’t forget to laugh it off! A little comedic relief can be a great reminder not to take yourself too seriously… at least you’re not [super socially awkward character].
Socially Inept FAQs
The key signs of being socially inept or socially awkward include feeling super nervous in social situations, experiencing a lot of awkward silence in the conversation, or noticing people avoid conversation with you. You may not pick up on social cues, say offensive things, or accidentally blurt out inappropriate comments.
Someone who is socially inept may be called an outcast, strange, socially awkward, weird, shy, nerdy, reserved, or odd. Often socially awkward people can feel incredibly lonely due to being ostracized in social situations or getting bullied. Thankfully, basic social skills overcome social ineptitude.
Being socially inept is not necessarily bad, but it may lead to disappointing or embarrassing social interactions. You may feel ostracized from peer groups or unable to connect to others. It can also lead to constantly overthinking what you did wrong in social situations.
Introverted people are not necessarily socially inept. Many introverts are socially savvy individuals that need time to recharge between social events.
Key Takeaways: How to Overcome Social Awkwardness
If you want to stop feeling like this while socializing:
And start feeling like this:
Remember these key tips for being socially savvy and avoiding awkwardness:
- Learn the power of confident body language: Posture, personal space, eye contact, and facial expressions are super important cues for making others feel at ease in conversation with you. Don’t forget to stand up straight, maintain 12-18″ of distance from people, balance a few seconds of eye contact with blinking and to glance away, and smile
- Change your social identity: Stop calling yourself “socially awkward” and replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. Anyone can become socially savvy, but first, you have to believe it’s possible.
- Be an active, empathetic listener: Instead of spending whole conversations in your head wondering what to say next, focus on listening and relating to other people. Leaning slightly forward, occasionally nodding your head, and making regular eye contact are key communication tactics for telling someone you care about what they’re saying. Practice empathy by trying to put yourself in their shoes and find similarities between your experiences.
- Avoid specific phrases and topics: Controversial and taboo issues are the source of awkwardness! Don’t forget to think before you talk and avoid discussing things like politics, religion, sex, personal matters, or gossip.
- Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself: Remember that everyone has socially awkward experiences. The best thing you can do is laugh it off, apologize (if necessary), and keep the conversation flowing.
Continue building your social skills and forging new connections with our Ultimate Guide on How to Make Friends.