You’ve been thinking about awkwardness in the workplace all wrong

Melissa Dahl looks at the world through cringe colored glasses, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In her new book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, The Science of Us editor explores the thing we all hate to think about. And being awkward in the workplace is just a part of life.

Heck one of the most popular television series of all times The Office (let’s count both the British version and the American one),  focused mainly on those unavoidable, daily excruciating occurrences that you face when you are a working person in an office.

“[Awkwardness] feels pervasive. It is a feeling that comes up often,” Dahl told The Ladders. “It’s something everybody feels at least once in a while or for me it’s like once an hour so that was why I was drawn to write the book. It’s also not very understood in scientific literature.”

Though she delves deep with experts into the painfulness of weird workplace interactions, making presentations, and those dreaded silences, the point that seemed to keep being emphasized was that being awkward and uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. In some instances, it can actually be used to your advantage.

The power of the awkward silence

When there is a lull in the conversation during an interview, or when your boss asks for feedback and the full room of people is absolutely silent many of us go into full panic mode. The awkward silence is one of the most dreaded moments for some. But you may just feel this way because you are simply approaching it wrong, according to Dahl.

In a salary negotiation, you can actually use silence as a power play as she explains in the book:

“Perhaps we fill the uncertainty of an awkward silence with our own imaginations, guessing what the pause might be causing the other person to think, and especially what they might be thinking about us … A negotiation will automatically throw you into this mode of thinking, because it’s one of the few scenarios in life in which you have to explicitly say, “This is what I think I’m worth. Do you agree?”

But if you go into a negotiation prepared and with a number in mind and then use the awkward silence technique, you are playing ball. Dahl interviewed Katie Donovan, founder of the consultancy firm Equal Pay Negotiation, who said after they give you a number say, “Thank you for the offer. I’m a little surprised about the salary though,” followed by SILENCE. The “I’m surprised” by that pause is a lethal combination. “During this pause, Donovan explains, the hiring manager is likely trying to work out serious you are and how much more to offer.” You want to make them squirm. “If you’ve done the work and you know what you are talking about it is worth taking on the risk,” Dahl told The Ladders.

One of the other ways to use the awkward silence is to give yourself time to think. Why do we always rush to say everything? Embrace your inner sloth and let yourself compose what you want to say. Dahl recalls interviewing author Brené Brown and how for each question she would take several seconds before answering. “Silence doesn’t have to feel confrontational to be effective,” writes Dahl.

Get out of the ‘awkward vortex’

Even the most confident of people have experienced that moment where you hone in on something you think you are doing with your mannerisms, the way you talk or even the way you walk.

And if you are giving a presentation of some sort or having an important work conversation, she writes that the chance of this increases:

“I would sometimes get so self-conscious when presenting that it was like part of me had split off from my physical body and was seated with the rest of the editors, most of whom were at least two decades older than me.”

She describes how the phantom version of herself was watching her actual self give the presentation now because she was so self-conscious. On any given day there are probably at least three phantom people floating around your office staring at their bodies talk. Dahl says try to make it a goal to think beforehand about what you want to get across in this conversation or take away from it.

“When you are spiraling into the awkwardness vortex try to think about the bigger picture. Don’t think about how you are holding your hands or if you sat down weirdly,” she told Ladders.

The work friendship paradigm

Though many studies show that having friends at work can help you be a better employee overall, they are still different and more complex than a purely personal relationship. People sometimes feel obligated to be social even when they may not actually care to be friends with this person. Dahl cites a 2015 paper that identifies “multiplex relationships” which analyzes the ambivalence of workplace friendships. “When you have to play multiple roles it can get really hard,” Dahl told Ladders.

She writes in Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness that being as straightforward as possible in these situations is also important and that doesn’t have to mean being cruel:

“You can blame work, saying that you’re too busy to listen to them complain or to do their work or to meet up for drinks after work. Most people will get the hint after you do this for a few times.”

We spend much of our time at work which means inevitably just like in life, it’s gonna get awkward. As Dahl says, being human is exhausting and embarrassing. There will be some cringeworthy moments that will haunt you but try to think of the bigger picture.

“Try to put yourself in a wider context. This is not the most embarrassing thing to ever happen to someone. Don’t just tell yourself it’s not that bad, but rather think about how you’re not special. Everyone has these moments,” Dahl said.

It’s the opposite of the advice we learned on Sesame Street but when it comes to cringeworthy moments, it is most comforting.

Meredith Lepore is the Deputy Editor of Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at