The awkward silence is one of the most troublesome social problems. When we run out of things to say & we feel that awful pressure to say something and are worried about the consequences of not doing so, especially so in one-to-one settings. Here’s a run down of common causes.
Causes of awkward silences
So far identified
- Not listening; being distracted by anxiety and worried about what people around are thinking, missing out on talking points (anxiety-related hindrance)
- Not listening; planning what you’re gong to say next in your head (a safety behavior; attempt to avoid silence)
- Self-censorship; e.g. hmm, can’t say that it’s too boring, unoriginal, I’ll sound stupid etc. (a safety behaviour)
- Asking too many closed questions; the ‘interview trap’ (conversation skills related)
- Not giving much for the other person to work with (conversation skill; what can we do differently)
- Mind going blank due to other sources of anxiety within the social situation*, (anxiety-related hindrance)
Don’t forget the other person is a factor too. Sometimes the other person maybe hard to get a response from for any of the above reasons. This article is focused on identifying your main reasons since these are things you have control over.
The social situations that influence your anxiety when you hit a silence
Chance are, awkward silences are more of a problem in some situations & less so in others. What I want to get to is when you get one of those moments, what influences our degree of anxiety? All these factors can influence the degree of discomfort experience when your conversation hits a wall;
- Excusability; the degree to which you feel ‘trapped’ with the person; whether an absolute one-to-one or a mingling or group environment. The latter two have the advantage that you don’t have the being trapped factor
- How publicly visible the awkward silence is; do you feel more anxious when you feel the silence is publicly visible or you get a feeling that others around are watching your social performance?
- The types of people around; if there are types you see as unforgiving around, you’ll likely feel greater anxiety during those moments you do hit a silence
Excusability; how ‘trapped’ you feel in the conversation
Some people report that they find group conversations & mingling environments easier than purely one-to one situations. This is purely because if they hit a silence, they know it’s easy to escape (& for the other person) without feeling you’re being rude to the other person. In group conversations you and the other person can focus on what the group’s on about, knowing that the person you were talking to is doing the same. In mingling situations (focused on making lots of small talk with many people) it’s relatively easy to excuse yourself and either talk to someone else.
In pure one-to-one settings such as dates, you don’t have the escape route of excusing yourself without appearing rude or having to dig yourself out. That is why some people say they find one-to-one settings more challenging than group settings. As you’ll see in coping strategies, excusing yourself is one of the best ways of coping. How easily you can excuse yourself without offending the other person is a factor that can influence your degree of anxiety
How publicly visible the silence is
Silences are also things that people can become self-conscious over. When you hit a silence, one thing that can make you anxious is the thought that others around you are noticing, and are thinking that you look awkward. Hitting a silence is likely more of a problem in some settings and around certain types of people and less so in others.
Get to know your culprits
Not listening; due to being distracted (anxiety-related hindrance)
A major source of awkward silences is due to not adequately listening to the other person & missing out on talking points and ‘hooks’. One thing that can prevent us from adequately listening is being stuck in our heads worrying about what people around you are thinking. This is particularly so if there are things that you may be self-conscious about. One reason why many people with social anxiety think they have bad social skills is purely due to the way anxiety can hinder conversation and listening. Usually, when in situations where there’s no anxiety they’re perfectly capable of conversation free of awkward silences. This is why it’s important to get to know any sources of anxiety.
Not listening; due to planning what you’re going to say next (a safety-behavior)
Sometimes we can be so focused on planning what we’re going to say next out of fear of ending-up without anything to say, that we can end-up not actually listening & missing out what the other person is saying. Again, we can miss out on talking points.
Self-censorship (safety behavior)
Even if really good talking points or hooks come our way, sometimes we won’t respond to them, pass a comment, share our opinion or bring-up any facts, stories etc. due to fear that the other person will think it’s boring, stating the obvious, or that we’ll sound ignorant or stupid.
Asking closed question after closed question (conversation skills-related)
Another major cause of silences can be due to asking closed question after closed question. Closed questions can effectively force the other person to give a one-word response such as yes/no answers, ‘good’ ‘I’m fine’, single adjectives or other hard-to-respond-to things. If that’s the case, it maybe a question of looking at what we can do differently.
Not giving the other person much to work with (conversation skills-related)
On the flip side, we can be guilty of not giving the other person much to work with ourselves. Even if people do show curiosity or bring up relevant experiences and other things, we can sometimes not give the other person much to work with in return. One reason there’s so much advice advocating to flesh-out your answer and elaborate on what you do say is not that you have to be impressive, but simply to give the other person things to work with. Again, the degree of discomfort and anxiety will have an effect here.
Mind-going blank due to other sources of anxiety (anxiety-related hindrance)
Sometimes when you’re having a conversation, other sources of anxiety can cause your mind to go blank, trip you up and cause you to forget what your going to say and forget what someone’s just said (a hook) which a thread could have been made from.
The other person (for any of the above reasons)
Conversation takes two to tango. The reasons we’re silent could have just as much to do with the other person as you. Sometimes the other person might not give us much to work with. The reasons could be any of the above & them being rude. In the worst case scenario, people might give the ‘silent treatment’; a rude, passive-aggressive response. Most likely if someone’s unresponsive it’s probably because of any of the above reasons, the same reasons you might struggle. I’ll talk about how to handle unresponsive people in a future post.
What you can do
If you’re prone to awkward silences, do take note of the reasons that might apply to you, the situations you tend to become silent in, and any sources of anxiety within those situations. It’s also helpful to be mindful of what you might be doing in conversations that could be a culprit, being interrogative, censoring yourself for fear of sounding stupid, and worrying about what you’re going to say next. As can be seen, there’s a distinction between anxiety-related hindrances and other causes. Social comfort and anxiety plays a major role, though it’s not the only thing that can result in silences.