Awkward Academic asks:
Recently I was at a social at a conference and I was talking to a friend of a friend after our mutual had moved on. Like you and several of your readers, my child is going through the college application process this year and she asked me a lot of questions about it. After a while I realized the conversation had been very one way with her asking questions and me answering and when I notice that happens, my habit (after reading about it somewhere– I am, as my name says, extremely socially awkward) is to mirror back the question I was asked. In this case, though, asking about a child’s college experience is a little weird if you’re not sure there’s a child, but instead of asking if she had been through the experience recently, I asked her if she had children. She said no and there was one of those awkward silences. I know from online that a lot of people consider this to be verboten question for various reasons and I just wasn’t thinking when I asked it– I was trying to do that mirror thing, but didn’t do it properly.
Now for my question: How do you rescue yourself from this kind of situation when you’ve said something that stops conversation cold?
Oh gee, that’s rough. I’m also not great about social interactions. I guess ideally I would try to followup with a question like, “How do you know so much about college applications?” or something, but that would require quick thinking which I am not good at. Changing the subject completely is probably what I would end up doing like, do you have any pets? But if they say no then the silence gets even awkwarder and longer. Apologizing I think just makes it sound like there’s something wrong with not having kids, which of course there isn’t.
#2: It doesn’t bother me when people ask if I have kids (unapologetically child-free), but I know it does bother some people. No real advice for what to do with awkward silences.
Maybe there are less awkward members of Grumpy Nation who can give advice?
January 20, 2023 at 7:58 am
I’d say try to just move on to a new topic if you can. “How do you know X” is one I turn to a lot. Another might be “So, what’s your favorite thing about the conference so far?”
As someone else who finds these types of social interactions hard, I find it helps to have a few practiced subject changes (or escape clauses) at the ready. Sometimes I’ve already run through them with a particular person, so a question comes out of my mouth and then I go “oh wait I already asked you that”. People are generally chill about it.
I find these questions annoying, but I’m just childfree by choice so I tend to answer cheerily and move on. If it’s someone who’s experienced infertility or loss, especially recently, a subject change is probably appreciated. You could also apologize quickly before moving to the new topic, but try not to dwell or encourage them to reassure you.
January 20, 2023 at 8:15 am
Oof. I understand (viscerally) why that question is to be avoided, and yet it’s a natural sort of question to ask given that someone was just asking you a bunch of questions about your kid’s experience of the college-application process. If I were thinking on my feet (which I probably wouldn’t be), I might then imagine that the conversation partner was interested in the topic not because (apparently) they are contemplating their own kid’s process, but rather (perhaps, given context) that they work in this space (or are interested in this issue) in their institution? In that case I might make my next question be something like, “What do you observe at [institution name] in terms of how students navigate the application process?” or even, “Do you have experience with the admissions side of thing at [institution name]?” or something like that.
January 20, 2023 at 9:09 am
I’ve found that when I openly acknowledge that I said something that landed differently from how I intended it in the moment, it tends to foster a better path. I think people are more apt to feel willing to go past it if you acknowledge that you phrased something less well or that you had a benign intent, but can see that it didn’t go the way you meant. Sometimes even just saying, “oh, sorry– that was awkward. I was trying to [insert] but it didn’t come out right” is good. The conversation that was happening in the moment may still be done, but it sets up better goodwill for the next time you meet. It can even help lead to a better connection down the line. It’s showing them that you’re someone who’s sincere, who tries to treat others well, and who doesn’t wallpaper over their own missteps.
I don’t think it’s possible to be alive and not have some of your well-intended words or actions get misinterpreted or turn out to be a problem you didn’t expect. But I do very much believe that decent, mature people see decency when someone is trying, and are willing to extend some grace. And you might as well assume that new people are decent and mature until you find out otherwise.
(Finding out otherwise: sigh and argh.)
January 20, 2023 at 2:28 pm
I second this motion. :-) Just acknowledge that things seem awkward, that you are feeling unsure if your words came our as intended, and if the other party appears offended, make sure to quickly apologize. It’s worse, IMHO, trying to pretend like the awkwardness isn’t there, because if it is and everyone is aware of it. You might as well lean into it and see if there’s a genuine path forward. Honesty and vulnerability tend to be disarming. Then, if the awkwardness has dispelled, you can take it from there with “I hope I didn’t bore you with all this college admissions talk” or “You know a lot / are very interested in college admissions; is it for work or personal interest?” (sometimes a person has a nibling or a godchild or a neighbor’s kid whom they are helping), or you can segue into asking how things were when/where they went to college etc.
January 20, 2023 at 2:19 pm
I’m so awkward that I don’t even notice most awkward silences (I assume). But when I do notice, I’m so uncool that I get to say things like “yikes, that was a terrible question. Sorry about that. I was just wondering why this topic was so interesting to you.”
I’m bad at thinking fast, and that includes being bad at changing the topic.
January 20, 2023 at 9:29 pm
I use, “tell me about your family”. Then if they are child free they can talk about their pets or parents or something else.
I’m a little awkward as well but oh well. Somehow I still manage to do a commercial job even if I can’t captivate a room with a riveting story and the perfect punchline.
I’m general I find that ignoring something stupid I did makes it fester in my mind and it’s torture. It’s better for me to try to actively fix my blunder and then forget and move on.
January 21, 2023 at 11:35 am
I definitely came here to see if commenters had good ideas because I am the worst at fixing awkward silences (unless I want one because the dude is creepy). I’m so bad at this sort of thing.
Alice: that’s a good “fix”.
FGA: I like that line a lot! It’s much more general and inclusive than assuming.
January 22, 2023 at 9:27 pm
In this case you could say something like, “Oh, so I guess you’ve missed out on all the college application insanity!” And I (no kids but have nieces/nephews/friends etc.) would tell a story about someone else’s crazy college story. Or you could follow up with, I never thought I’d be so obsessed with this, but I am! Sometimes it’s possible to get caught up in a drama that is really someone else’s drama – have you had any experiences like that? Or, do you remember having this much drama around college when you were deciding to go?