5 Common Responses to Awkwardness (That Make Things Worse)
Sometimes awkward situations just happen, like when your pants fall down, or a bridge you designed collapses, killing hundreds of people. It's kind of hard to lighten things up when you're taken by surprise like that.
But there's also a lot of awkward situations we anticipate, and have a little plan ready to defuse the tension. Unfortunately, a lot of those strategies end up making things even more awkward. Like ...
Letting Someone Else Go First
I'm not talking about holding doors open for people, which is its own nightmare of misunderstandings and mixed messages. I'm talking about situations like getting out of an elevator, where someone right up against the door should logically be the first person to get out (assuming it's everybody's floor). Instead, some polite folks, anticipating anarchy, step away from the door to hold the it open and let people out, which in a crowded elevator, makes the people they are backing into have to scramble to rearrange themselves.
A lot of times they're worried about awkward situations like the doors slamming on people getting out or closing before the next group has time to get in. Meanwhile, they've created an awkward situation as the people right behind them, ready to follow them out, halt confusedly while they watch this person rearrange themselves into the corner, and then try to figure out who should exit first in this new arrangement. Sure, it's just a few seconds, but you all could have just poured out like subway passengers and no one would have to spend any time feeling weird.
OK, I admit the subway is probably not the best place to go for examples of non-awkwardness.
And that's assuming there's only one chivalrous knight on the elevator. If two people have the same idea, they could end up in a brief "after you" standoff after everyone's exited.
Or sometimes you're about to turn onto a busy street (or cross one as a pedestrian), and you're just waiting for a gap in the cars when some nice driver slows down and waves you in. In many cases this is a nice thing, but in some situations it just makes everything worse. For example, if there's more than one lane going the same direction, and one guy in one lane tries to wave you in, while the drivers in the other lane don't give a shit and keep going. You can't turn until both lanes are stopped, so this nice driver is just holding up his entire lane and accomplishing nothing, and everyone behind him is now mad at him and you.
"Nobody else wants to stop!" you mouth at him silently, and he just keeps smiling and waving you in, like he doesn't see what the problem is. Man -- just go, dude. There will be a gap eventually, or maybe not, now that all the cars backed up behind you will be catching up where that gap was going to be.
Or how about stop signs, where some people disregard the fact there are clear rules about who goes first and consider it a chaotic Lord of the Flies situation where somebody has to take charge and they're willing to step up and start waving people through like they are the Stop Sign Lord. Confused drivers assume he will go first because he stopped first, but no, in his magnanimity he waves some random person through instead. This is not a complex situation that requires a level-headed leader to save the other drivers from chaos. You stop first, you go first. This is not hard to grasp. Oh, and blinking red traffic lights? Those are stop signs. Same rules. You're welcome.
Trying to "Include" the Shy Guy
Every "quiet person" knows that there are people out there that think this is a defect. If you're not talking very much at a party or gathering, something is obviously wrong with you. You must be mad, or a little slow, or intimidated by present company. Not talking much couldn't possibly be one of the many diverse personality traits people can have.
And there's no question that one silent person in a group of talkative people can make the situation a bit awkward. So some people's solution is to try to "include" them by making a joke about how quiet they are, which is probably the worst thing you could do to make them feel less awkward.
"Hey, you're not talking to anyone! HEY EVERYBODY SHE'S NOT TALKING TO ANYONE!"
Phrases like, "Jeff hasn't said a word!" or, "Oh, look, we're probably boring Jeff with our baseball talk. I bet he's not a baseball fan," or, "Jeff must think we're a bunch of crazy gossips, his ears are probably burning!" Or they might make a joke about how quiet the person is. If the group has been talking about their crazy drunken exploits, they might say winkingly, "I bet Jeff has some crazy stories. I bet he's a wild man at parties! He's got a secret side we don't know about! Ha ha ha!"
Moments later, tragedy struck.
Of course the quiet person, being a quiet person, is able to respond to these jokes awkwardly at best, so all you've done is put them on the spot and call attention to how quiet they've been all night to anyone who wasn't paying attention before.
Trying to include a person is a nice thing to do, but there are way more discreet ways to go about it than what is basically, "HEY, LOOK AT YOU, QUIET PERSON!" Just ask them some things about their job or pets or life in a low-key way and if there's anything they really seem interested in and connects to other people there, expand on it. Maybe treat them like a person who might have some regular interests, instead of like their quietness is the most important thing about them. Crazy, I know.
Checkout Stand Jokes
I'm a bad person, so every time someone has a "special problem" at the checkstand and holds up the line, I hate them. To be fair, some of these problems aren't their fault -- a barcode the system won't recognize, a coupon the staff wasn't trained how to process, having a stroke, etc. But whether they're stuck there because of an honest mistake or because they're trying to pay in antique pennies, there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with it.
"That's 15 quarters and ... is that a doubloon?"
First of all, if you're arguing about an expired or forged coupon, just give it up. You've been caught. Just be a gentleman about it and say, "Well played," to the cashier and tell him he is a formidable opponent, and then be on your way. If it's something you've really got to see to the bitter end, though, for God's sake do not try to lighten things up for the people in line by making an awful joke.
Do not tell the checker, "I guess it's free, then!" when you can't find a price tag. Do not make a joke about "computers these days" when your debit card keeps failing. Do not turn to the line and remark about kids and what can you do with them when you have to stop paying in order to have a talk with them about whether a Naruto pencil case counts as school supplies or whether they have to pay for it out of their allowance.
I think the kid should pay YOU for being allowed to bring that to school.
The people in line don't want to know that you are sorry for holding them up, they just want you to hurry up. It's natural to think that making jokes would help defuse tension, but in a situation where people kind of think it's your fault anyway, it makes it sound like you're not taking their annoyance seriously and trying to pass off your coupon-arguing delay as no big deal.
"Oh, I've forgotten my ticket! What an amusing adventure we'll have arguing about it!"
It also makes it seem like you're taking your sweet time. You'd probably be better off with no eye contact, grabbing things frantically and rushing, which at least gives the impression you're trying to fix things and get out of there as fast as possible, which is way more appeasing to an impatient shopper than a corny joke.
Finally, the checker has probably heard those same exact jokes about a hundred times and is liable to stab you with a pen. Now that would be awkward.
Apologizing For Something Your Victim Didn't Know About
I blame Hollywood for this picture many of us have of cathartic confessions leading to deeper relationships and all that. Telling someone you thought they were stuck up at first leads to you confessing your love for each other and getting married, and telling someone you never learned to read leads to the breakthrough that makes you renounce your gangster ways and become a Harvard professor or something.
Like in that iconic scene from, um ... Empire Strikes Back? Was it? You know what, I'm not good with movies.
In Hollywood confessions, the listener always gets the right message, which is something along the lines of, "I've changed now!" or, "I'm vulnerable beneath my tough exterior!" In real life, if this is the first time the person hears about the thing you did wrong in the first place, they might be a bit fixated on that before they can listen to your beautiful message of redemption.
It doesn't have to be something as extreme as, "Last year I aborted your baby and never told you, but I've changed my mind, I see how much I've wronged you, and I've made up my mind to be honest with you about everything from now on! Isn't it wonderful?" It might be as simple as, "I'm sorry I was mad at you all afternoon." If the person noticed you were mad, this might be a nice closure that puts an end to the tension, but if they never noticed it's another story.
"Oh, you didn't notice anything? Then these flowers are for ... uh ... because I love you so much!"
"You were mad?" will be their first thought, and then, "What were you mad at me about?" It's possible you will actually end up having the argument you thought you were having earlier, since apparently they are just catching up to when you first started getting mad. They'll go "You were mad about me playing video games? I thought we agreed I would play two hours a day." And you don't want to bring it up again but you feel like you should explain, so you go, "I know, but we hadn't seen each other all week so I thought you could maybe not play today, but I'm not mad about that anymore ..." but they want to know why you even thought that, so they go, "But it's my two hours, we agreed on it, I don't even know why you would be mad in the first place," and so on.
Relationship obligations aside, I don't even see what the big deal about the new Fallout games is now that you can't aim for people's crotches anymore.
Another common confession is telling someone we didn't like them when we first met, which we think of as a great prelude to talking about how much we value their friendship now. Sometimes it has that effect, but just as often, the reaction is, "Wait, you didn't like me when we met?" This could be a bit of a shock if they thought you really hit it off to begin with.
A lot of friends have told me that I was very cold when I first met them and they thought I hated them. (Quiet people get this a lot.) They told me this to tell me how glad they are that we are friends now, which is sweet and appreciated, but I'm also left with this weight hanging over me because over a period of some months, some friend of mine was hurt and felt bad because of me, and I was blissfully unaware of it. So even though I've discovered my friend really likes me now, I've also discovered that apparently I am a huge jerk.
Another big bombshell might be revealing you're really someone's father like in that movie... I can't put my finger on it. Really big one. Titanic?
I mean, it's a situation-by-situation call, and there's some cases where it might be right to let your loved ones in on something awful you've been doing so they can help you change and all that. Some people love the idea of people butting heads and then falling in love and would be flattered to hear they're in such a story. But this whole knee-jerk reaction to confess anything you feel bad about without thinking about how it affects other people, that's bad news.
Trying to Not Let People Know You Are Pooping
Girls (in general) do not like anyone to be paying attention when they are pooping. There must be some modest guys out there as well, but I do read a lot of proud wacky stories about guys' poop experiences in public restrooms so maybe guys don't care as much. I can tell you that a lot of girls will go to great lengths when they poop in a public restroom to make sure nobody else is in the restroom when they poop, because it is incredibly awkward to be in a silent restroom that is acoustically perfect for broadcasting poop audio in every detail, and know that some lady is quickly packing up in the next stall trying to pretend she doesn't notice.
This is the last age most girls will feel comfortable pooping in someone else's presence.
In order to poop solo, girls will often check the stalls when they go in, and leave if any are occupied, which creates some minor awkwardness for the people already in the bathroom. They might also just go into a stall, get ready, and wait for the other occupants to finish peeing and leave. This creates some more awkwardness when the other occupants take too long, or dawdle doing their makeup, and new people come in, making the wait even longer.
DAMN YOU ALL!
But probably the most awkward situation is a poo standoff. This occurs when two people have the same idea - to wait out everyone else and then poop. Since each person is waiting for the other person to finish up and leave, after a few minutes it's pretty clear to both people what is going on. Trying to work it out with a conversation - "Okay, so did you want to poop first?" - is probably the most awkward of possible solutions since it involves directly admitting poop is going on, so either one person just goes, "Fuck it," and poops, while rolling the toilet paper loudly to make some cover-up noise, or one person packs it up (flushing in order to pretend they did something) and decides to come back later.
The Japanese (who else) have come up with a technological solution to the problem. The Sound Princess is a gadget that plays a running water sound to drown out your poo (and pee) noises.
The Sound Princess, a very real thing.
Before its invention, Japanese women were just flushing constantly to make that cover-up noise, which wasted a lot of water.
And even the Sound Princess causes its own share of awkwardness as people try to figure out how many button pushes they need to finish the job, and imagine themselves being judged by other people when they get out based on how many times they pushed the button.
Clearly, the only solution to this problem is to outfit all women with one of those suits from Dune.
An end to all awkwardness!
Be sure to check out more from Christina with The 6 (Wrong) Questions Men Love to Ask About Women and 7 Ad Campaigns That Prove Microsoft Was Never Good at This.