Sep 9, 2014

On Being the Girl with an Awkward Smile

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

Standing in the crowded aisle of a new church, or hovering over the buffet table at a party full of acquaintances and strangers, I sometimes have trouble with my face. I wish it to express a pleasant, lively friendliness. I wish to look happy and approachable. I wish to make friends. Yet in open-ended social situations with people I do not know well, my facial muscles begin to feel clumsy. I can’t extract a genuine smile from the vacuum of my awkwardness and I know that my expression is far more strained than I would like. I fear that this makes me appear a little peculiar. “Relax,” I think. “Relax. Smile. Quick, find someone to talk to. Oh dear, that person walked away. Oh dear, this person is glancing into the distance. Does that mean she doesn’t want to talk to me anymore? Should I close the conversation? This is awkward. I better walk away.” The fear that I am doing it badly makes me try harder to look happy, and the harder I try, the more counterproductive my efforts become. It is even possible that I have sometimes given the impression that I don’t care to be friends with a person with whom I was very much hoping to form a friendship.

If only I had some sort of clearly defined role, even a prominent one like addressing a speech to the group or teaching everyone a dance, I would feel more comfortable. I would know what to do and what to say. If only the crowd was made up of only individuals who are related to me through blood or life-long friendship, I would feel no strain at all.

It is not that I dislike people. I enjoy friendships, revel in good conversations, and have long practiced a habit of hosting parties and dinners in my home. Yet I am not good at smiling at strangers, and smiling is one of the cardinal social values in America (my Finnish grandmother claims that Americans show their teeth too much). I am dreadfully challenged at making small talk. Perhaps this is because my mind runs along too literal of a path, and I tend to think that all conversation should be about something, preferably something meaningful, instead of merely creating the pleasant social noises that grease the wheel of human interactions. Apparently, I am understocked in grease.

Because such interactions are genuinely hard work for me (good work, but hard) they leave me drained. Two parties in one day is my personal equivalent of running two 5K races. Sometimes well-meaning people tell me, “Just relax and enjoy socializing,” but this is like telling a struggling student, “Just get better grades,” or an overweight person, “Just lose weight”-- worthy goals, and potentially achievable, but surprisingly complicated to reach (or we would all have achieved them before anyone else suggested it).

Shy, introverted, bookish-- whatever you want to call my own peculiar lack of social suavity, it makes me appreciative of individuals who are willing to accommodate my quirks and be my friend anyway. The topic of introversion vs. extroversion has been well-canvassed of late, with quippy articles on all the social-media-driven sites. At its best, it helps us understand that different people function according to truly different social rhythms and with different social needs. It helps us to be friends to a more diverse strata of society.

The thing is, we all have quirks. We all are weird in our own way. Some of us are just more weird than others. The more we develop compassionate tolerance for each other, the more fun we will have at parties, right? Yet for those of us who fall along the introvert spectrum, partying is one of our lesser concerns. More important, at least to me, is building friendships. I have changed residences quite a bit in the last few years. I would like to expand the circle of people whom I can ask over for tea, or with whom I can take a walk with while critiquing the way a recent movie made hash of our favorite book. As I ponder ways to do this, I have collected a few strategies that I hope will prove useful.

Seek out people with a similar conversational pace

I can talk a mile-a-minute on one of my pet topics, but in most social situations, I feel … slow. I pause to decide what to say next. I try to think of another topic to ask about. Quite honestly, I am often struggling with a bit of social tunnel vision (“Augh! Quick, quick, make small talk! Smile! Talk! Laugh! Does this person want to be my friend?”) that prevents me from conversing as easily as I otherwise might. When I find others who also allow little pauses in the conversation without apparent concern, it can be a relief. Of course, it can also result in both of us sitting there awkwardly together, but at least I know the fault is mutual, ya know?

Be willing to take more risks

For some reason, it feels hideously embarrassing to think that someone might be wishing I would go away so that they can talk to someone else. I think this feeling was born of experiences in which I did not fit into groups. It is probably also connected to hearing a friend complain about how sometimes, when she befriended people in order to be nice, they would misinterpret her gesture and think that she wanted to be close friends with them, which meant that they kept trying to demand more and more of her time. It would be so embarrassing to find out that someone one thought was a friend was trying to avoid one's "demands," wouldn't it? Yet maybe, if someone really doesn’t want to talk to me, it’s their fault too. Not just mine. Maybe I can deal with that in the cause of offering a play date to someone who might just find it a relief to get out of the house.

Find fellow new-people
It can be hard to break into existing social groups. Those women don’t really need me. They already have their own established dynamics, habits, patterns, and jokes. On the other hand, people who are new to the area or the church may have more space on their friendship roster. I may also be able to be genuinely helpful to them as they settle into the new community.

Be comfortable with my own social life

I do need to push myself to talk to people and to seek out opportunities for friendship. Yet I do not need to do it on anyone else’s pace. Maybe I don’t get out of the house as often as some people, or have as many friends as some people, or talk to as many people at church as some people do, but that’s OK.

Maybe these social problems are not your problems. You may thrive on all the things that I do poorly. You may be one of those invaluable, treasured, important people who make church potlucks lively and who cruise the crowd like the admirable social queen you are. If so, thank you for making small talk with those of us with awkward smiles.


This article is part of our on-going Tuesday series about friendship. 


Anna writes as often as she can, although sometimes it is with only one hand because her baby son requires the other. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania. Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados.

Title Image: From "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci


  1. These social problems are my problems. My problems exactly.

    I can talk a mile-a-minute on one of my pet topics, but in most social situations, I feel … slow. I pause to decide what to say next. I try to think of another topic to ask about.

    This is exactly how I am when I'm talking to people I don't know well. I'm terrible at small talk, even with people I know -- I always forget to ask questions! Someone will ask me how my week was, and I'll say a little something about it, and then I won't think to ask them how theirs was. Which makes me sound self-centered, I'm afraid, when really I just... forget. And then we have an awkward silence, which would be dispelled if I could think of a nice question to ask, such as repeating the question they just asked me, but my mind goes blank as I panic that I can't think of anything to say, and then I pretend one of my kids needs attention and excuse myself.

    But with someone I know well? Never a problem! Sigh.

    1. But with blogs, we introverts don't have to ask each other questions! Perhaps that is one small part of their attraction.


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