A psychologist’s surprisingly reassuring advice for socially awkward people

A group of about 100 African penguins are released into the sea near Cape Town September 16, 2005 after recovering at the SANCCOB (South African…
A group of about 100 African penguins are released into the sea near Cape Town September 16, 2005 after recovering at the SANCCOB (South African…
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Growing up, I was a socially awkward kid. Cool people seemed to occupy the opposite end of the social spectrum. Still, I was always trying to seem cool—whether was my stint as an aspiring break dancer or my measured decision to never again wear my Battlestar Galactica T-shirt to school.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever been a teenager can attest, trying to act cool usually just makes you seem even more awkward. That’s because, for those of us who are not naturally blessed with Beyoncé-like aplomb, the pressure to hide our awkwardness actually generates an unhelpful sense of anxiety.

Anyway, what’s so great about being cool? As a psychologist, I’ve found that most of us just want to find meaningful human connections. And that’s rarely going to be achieved via Instagram likes, a glamorous wardrobe, or a fancy job title. Instead, the socially awkward among us should simply embrace the bumbler’s best friend: good manners.

The magic of manners

Most of us associate manners with parents or teachers who nagged us to follow seemingly arbitrary rules of etiquette. If you’re a parent, then you know the angst of constantly trying to instill social graces in children, reminding them to say please and thank you and chew with their mouths closed and hold the door open for the people behind them.

Parents and other adults know that good manners are important because they’re a way to demonstrate your spirit of cooperation and respect for others. Anthropologist Mary Douglas has noted in her book Purity and Danger that our sharp attention to manners evolved from small hunter-gatherer groups, whose survival relied heavily on groups functioning as a coherent, cooperative whole. A rogue member who stole food, slacked during the hunt, or committed a treasonous act endangered the lives of everyone in the group.

Manners served as a kind of early-warning system—a way to identify people whose actions might go against the broader good. A person who wasn’t good at waiting his turn for food was a potential threat. A simple “thank you” acknowledged that the group member was capable of recognizing the value of other people and their contributions.

Today, we remain extremely sensitive to people who deviate from minor rules of etiquette, even when these acts don’t have practical value. People still say “bless you” to sneezers even though no one needs divine salvation from bubonic plague. Grooms at heterosexual weddings still stand on the right to keep their sword hand free for a surprise attack. So kids are right to think that some rules of etiquette are a little silly. But in the big picture, courteous acts are still a powerful way for two people to subtly convey mutual respect.

Today, a growing number of scientists are exploring manners as they attempt to design robots that are trustworthy and likable. Early findings from this research suggest that it’s not the processing power or resolution of the graphic interface that matter when it comes to likability, but instead robots’ ability to execute routine manners properly—like not standing too close to a person, or listening when others speak. If people perceive a robot to be poorly mannered, then they don’t care about its technological brilliance.

Rules of etiquette

I do not see myself as more well-mannered than anyone else, but I’m pretty sure that I’ve had to study manners more intensively than most people—because I’m naturally prone to missing social cues or clumsily handling social expectations. For that reason, etiquette has always mattered a lot to me. When you’re a socially awkward person at a party or going on a first date, it helps to have a ready-made set of rules that pretty much everyone agrees constitute socially acceptable behavior.

There are some widely-known rules of etiquette that can help steer awkward people into safe waters. It’s rude to comment on a person’s weight, and asking “What do you do?” can get you into trouble when it turns out your conversation partner is unemployed. And communication studies suggest that simply squaring your body to your conversation partner, smiling a little, and nodding your head is a powerful way to convey the courtesy of your full attention.

I’ve also developed a few personal etiquette guidelines based on trial and error. For example:

Don’t force rose-colored glasses on anyone. A lot of us feel obliged to act happy and optimistic, and may even try to force that optimism on others. But the truth is that sometimes life is not so great. Comments like “I’m sure everything will be all right” or “Everything happens for a reason” can make a person feel that their experiences are being minimized. Instead, say “I’m sorry—how are you doing?” This response shows you care, and are giving the person your full attention.

Show support for the process. People are under a lot of pressure to appear cool and accomplished online. But once in a while, a friend will be brave enough to put something out for public consumption before it’s fully polished—a song recording, a new business page, or a photo celebrating their first day back at the gym. These posts can make us a little uncomfortable, but why not make a small gesture of support? A few “likes” here or there can go a long way toward boosting others’ confidence.

Don’t disclose other people’s struggles. One of my first counseling psychology supervisors in graduate school gave me a great piece of advice for professional life: “Never talk about someone’s problems out of fascination or curiosity, only out of necessity.” One of the best courtesies you can give to your colleagues to show respect for their privacy. When you do talk about co-workers in their absence—particularly in groups—make sure to avoid putting their trials and tribulations in the spotlight.

The next level up

Even with good manners, I still have moments where I stumble through the rules of engagement and create minor inconveniences for others. So I’ve become extremely appreciative when the people around me exhibit an oft-overlooked virtue: grace.

Unlike patience and tolerance, which involves suppressing a strong feeling of annoyance, grace arises from a spirit of goodwill—a provisional assumption that people mean well. I am more likely than the average person to accidentally call people by the wrong name or spill my drink on their lap. After these gaffes, no one feels worse than me. So it means a tremendous amount to me when people react with grace. They not only show forgiveness, they also demonstrate their faith that I am a well-intentioned person—who also happens to be clumsy at times.

Being awkward has made social life challenging for me, but it has also given me a deep appreciation for the subtle acts of kindness and courtesy that take place between people on a routine basis. As someone who had to purposefully study social life, I discovered that trying to be cool never helped me make good friends. Rather, it’s minding my manners that’s laid the groundwork for meaningful relationships and the sense of belonging that all of us yearn for.