The Science Of Awkward Silences

Socially adept person: "Good morning!"

You: "I'm good, thanks."


Don't worry — we've all been there. But why do you get such a gut-wrenching feeling during those few seconds of awkward silence? It all goes back to humans being social creatures with one ultimate fear: rejection.

Four Seconds Too Long

According to a 2011 Dutch study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, awkward silences are "particularly disturbing if they disrupt the conversational flow." For the study, psychologist Namkje Koudenburg and her team of researchers held two experiments where they measured volunteers' varying reactions to awkward silences. In both scenarios, the subjects were exposed to conversations where one person made an insensitive or inappropriate remark.

In the first version of each experiment, the remarks are followed by obvious silence. The alternate versions had the conversation flowing easily after the awkward remarks (no pause). After the conversations with awkward silences, the participants reported feeling "more anxious, rejected and less self-assured." So you're not the only one experiencing negative feelings after that painfully awkward silence — others feel it too.

When conversations remain fluid, however, the findings reveal that these "conversations are associated with feelings of belonging, self-esteem, and social validation." And how long does a silence need to be before it's considered awkward or disrupting? According to this study, just four seconds. One Mississippi... two Mississippi...

Let's Work On Your Flow

So why is this important, anyway? It's true that social exclusion was often a matter of life and death in the early, primal days of humanity, but the modern effects are considerably less dramatic. Having said that, you probably don't want to be known for creating awkward silences.

Fluid conversations can help us feel a sense of unity, belongingness and shared reality in a social situation. That sounds MUCH better than four awkward seconds of screaming inside your head "take it back, take it back!" While moments of awkwardness are bound to happen every now and then, we have one simple suggestion for easing the path of communication with almost anyone: the FORD method.

Salespeople commonly use the FORD method in order to quickly build genuine relationships with their clients. If you apply this method, you'll likely find increased success in people opening up to you. It's simple—ask others about their Family, Occupation, Recreation, or Dreams. If you find that your conversational partner is doing most of the talking, the technique is working! Cheers to fewer opportunities for you to put your foot in your mouth!

For even more conversation tips, learn to "Communicate Like A Mind Reader" on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

Written by Curiosity Staff November 3, 2017

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