Photo courtesy of Mariam Diab

From a People Person: Why Isn't Meeting the Same Stranger Awkward Anymore?

Ever wondered how social anxiety, stage fright, and awkward conversations work? Don't take a pop-psych quiz, read this instead!

Apr 9, 2023

Our scenario begins like this: It's your first class of the semester, at 8am. Miserable, grumpy beings are sitting in the brightly lit, chilly room waiting for the professor. If all of that wasn’t enough, it’s awkward. There’s a silent tension in the room making you wish the professor’s feet could grow wheels. You want to say something, none of us like awkward silences, but you know something funny: even less of us like awkward conversation, especially in a group setting.
Even if you don’t have [social anxiety] (, which is a serious mental condition that evokes crippling, unfounded fear, and apprehension of social situations, it’s not easy being the only one to talk in a foreign classroom. What if you say something and no one replies? This might have not happened to you often, because, thankfully, people are nice enough not to leave someone making an effort hanging (I know, there’s still hope for humanity). But another fun fact about our brains? They’re not only selective with the information they remember, our memories are highly [reconstructive] ( and inaccurate. This means we actively perceive information the way we want to and not how it is, and fill in gaps retrospectively when we’re recalling information. So even if you’ve dared to start a conversation in a group setting similar to the one you’re stuck in right now twice, your brain will misconstrue it by remembering they deliberately ignored you, exaggerate it by saying they even made fun of you, and inflate it by swearing this has in fact happened five times.
Whatever tom-foolery your brain decides to cook up in that moment, the end result is you won’t say anything. You’ll get [stage fright] (, which is common in any public setting. At NYU Abu Dhabi, this means we may experience stage fright more than the company of friends. There’s several theories on what causes stage fright, but let me tell you the most interesting one. [A PubMed paper] ( regards stage fright a by-product of separation anxiety, saying we’re afraid that if we assert ourselves as separate from the crowd instead of simply going along with it, people won’t like or admire us as we think they would otherwise. In fact, public speaking has been described as this ‘interactional tension’ between an audience waiting for the performer to mess up, and a performer who really doesn’t want to. So there’s all these emotions and thoughts you’re battling as you debate whether to say something or not. If you know anything about emotional contagion, you would know that we can emotionally read the room pretty well and be affected by what others are feeling.
What can you do to fix it? You could be unrealistic and pray to be that person who just puts everyone at ease the moment they walk into the room. In the presence of such a person, with a calming, comfortable ‘emotional signature’, awkward silence would never descend. But having that effect on people is a result of your experiences, education, upbringing, environment, and how pleasant your resting face is — numerous factors beyond your control. Alternatively, you could take WikiHow’s expert, well-informed advice on ‘How to Avoid Being Socially Awkward’ or take delightful, totally legit quizzes like this one. Or you could put yourself in supposedly awkward situations again and again. Because as all-pervasive as social anxiety is, it can only last so long, which is the reason why you wouldn’t feel awkward talking during the last day of that same class. You might even walk into other people already talking among each other. Never would that awkward silence befall you again, because you would’ve been seeing the same people every week for half a semester, and your brain would no longer categorize them as a hostile audience waiting for you to mess up, or care as much about their judgment once they’re not complete strangers. The stage would collapse.
But until then, here you all are, a bunch of miserable, grumpy, and now anxious beings sitting in the brightly lit, chilly room waiting for the professor. And then they walk in, finally.
Tiesta Dangwal is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at
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