Like lots of other people, I was always the ‘weird’ kid at school. I was interested in things that no-one else was interested in and I had no idea how to fit in with the crowd (and, honestly, I often wouldn’t have wanted to fit in with them, even if I could).
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much better at fulfilling social expectations. I’m still “odd” or “quirky” (i.e. I’m still me), but I don’t get told that I’m super weird to talk to anymore.
This isn’t going to be another post telling you to ‘just be yourself’ and assuming that everything will be alright if you do. If you’re taking the time to read this, feeling weird is probably making life pretty difficult for you.
The good news is that you can learn to act more normal in social situations, without having to pretend to be someone you’re not. Here are a few of my key strategies to help you not be weird and act naturally around people.
Feeling that you are somehow weird is actually much more normal than you might think. When we say something that feels awkward or weird, we tend to feel like there is a spotlight shining on our mistake. Psychologists actually call this the Spotlight Effect.
The spotlight effect is an illusion. In fact, other people notice much less than we assume they do, and they judge us less harshly for the things they do notice.
Consider asking a trusted friend to let you know whether you come across as weird. Try to be specific in the way that you ask and explain that you are trying to understand. Otherwise, they may believe that you’re just looking for reassurance.
Try saying “I’d really like to have a chat about how I come across to new people. I’m worried that I seem weird and I wanted to get some feedback to help me decide what I need to do about it”.
If you come across as a bit weird, you’ve probably had at least a few people try to reassure you by telling you that it’s a good thing to be a bit weird now and again. They’re not wrong, but it doesn’t help you to feel better in social situations.
This is often because they’re using the word weird to mean something slightly different from the way you mean it. Weird can mean quirky and unusual, but it can also mean creepy or obnoxious.
The good news is that people who are worried about coming across as creepy rarely actually do. Creeps push social boundaries. If you feel weird and awkward, this is usually the last thing that you do.
One of the best ways to make sure that you don’t come across as obnoxious or creepy is to be careful with other people’s boundaries, especially when it comes to talking about very personal things or making physical contact.
A good rule of thumb is to not get too personal too fast. For example, if someone asks about my job (slightly personal), I wouldn’t ask them about their relationship (more personal). But I still want to create a personal connection. So I might ask about their hobbies or where they went on holiday.
It’s important to gradually become more personal if you want to connect with someone. But don’t push it. It’s fine if you become more personal over the course of a few weeks or months.
“It’s like there was a class in Social Rules 101 and I missed it”
It might seem like there are a whole host of completely arbitrary social rules that you are expected to automatically know. Not knowing the rules can lead you to worry that you’re about to make a mistake or make someone uncomfortable.
It can help to learn that social rules are usually not completely arbitrary. Once you can understand the purpose behind different social rules, you can start to make good guesses as to what would be normal in a new situation.
Most of our social rules are designed to show others that we are safe, can be trusted, and respect the other person. That’s why, for example, we stand further away from strangers than we do from our friends. We stand further away from strangers to give them time to learn to trust us. We don’t cut in line because we understand that other people’s time is as important as our own.
The next time that you find a social rule that you’re not sure you understand, ask yourself what effect that rule has on other people and how it might make them feel safer, more relaxed, or respected. Not all social rules can be understood this way, but most of the really important ones can.
Social skills is a big topic. For more in-depth advice, see our guide on how to improve your people skills.
Although putting effort into understanding social rules can help to improve your social skills, sticking to them too rigidly can also come across as weird. This is one of the reasons that it is so important to try to understand what each social rule is trying to achieve; it allows you to know how and when to break it.
As I’ve said, most social rules are there to help everyone to feel comfortable. Sometimes, sticking to the rules has the opposite effect. For example, a (female) friend of mine worked for a man who believed that ‘men must hold doors open for women’. For him, this was a strict social rule and part of being polite. Unfortunately, it highlighted the fact that my friend was the only woman on a team with 16 men. It became really awkward when he would push her out of the way so that he could hold the door open for her.
This boss stuck to his ‘rule’ even after his employee explained that it made her feel singled out and uncomfortable. This left her feeling that he cared more about the rules than he did about her feelings.
If you are unsure, remind yourself that socially capable people view social rules as guidelines. Try watching socially skilled people around you and analyze what makes their behaviors work. Try to notice how they demonstrate that people are more important to them than rules. It can also be helpful to notice how what they do makes you feel. This way, you can learn from real-life examples.
A huge part of the difference between ‘good weird’ and ‘bad weird’ is how warm and friendly other people think you are, but it can be difficult to know how friendly you seem.
Body language is really helpful to show that you are warm and approachable. Try to have open body language and avoid crossing your arms in front of your chest. Try to relax your muscles, especially the muscles of your face, and practice how to smile. I know it sounds a little strange, but smiling really is something that you can do ‘wrong’.
People also perceive you as warm and friendly if you focus on them during conversation and remember things that matter to them. Ask questions and listen to their answers.
Try to learn people’s names. Personally, I find it really difficult to remember names. Once I started teaching, I had to learn the names of 100 new students every September. I quickly realized that the only way to learn everyone’s name was to use it in conversation a lot. It felt unnatural at first, but it worked.
If you feel weird or shy around others, you probably also feel like you’re the only one who feels that way. You might be surprised to realize that 80% of people say that they dislike being the center of attention and about half would describe themselves as shy.
Realizing that almost everyone else you meet also has some form of insecurity or weirdness can make it easier to accept the ways in which you are weird. Try to take a few steps to stop being so shy. You don’t have to do everything on that list, but even just trying one or two things can make it easier for you to socialize.
When you feel weird and out of your depth in social situations, it’s natural to want to spend less time socializing. Unfortunately, this can mean that you miss out on chances to learn new social skills and become more comfortable with acting normal.
Try to think of the time you spend socializing as time that you are learning or training. If you were training to run a marathon, you would run slightly longer distances each week. Socializing can work the same way.
Set yourself goals for your socializing, such as talking to two new people at an event, or practicing two new social skills per week. It’s hard not to get discouraged when you have an awkward or weird moment at a social event. When this happens, remind yourself that this is a good thing. You’ve learned something else that you can improve.
See our guide on how to be more social.
A lot of what makes the difference between whether something is normal or weird is timing. Talking to a close friend about how upset you were when you got divorced is completely normal. Bringing the same topic up during your first conversation with a stranger will come across as pretty weird.
The same is true of your personality quirks. We all have aspects of ourselves that are important to us and that make us unique. You don’t want or need to hide these, but you also don’t want to force them out at the very earliest opportunity. Allow people to find out about you slowly and naturally.
Take your time introducing yourself to people. Talk about your hobbies and interests when they are relevant to the topic of conversation, and try to match the level of detail other people are offering. For example, if someone asks how I spent last weekend, I might say “I went kayaking. It was really nice weather and it was the first time I’ve been able to take my dog along”. I probably wouldn’t say
“On Friday night I packed up all of my camping gear and I put my kayak on the roof of my car. It was really tough to get it secured. I drove down to the river and listened to heavy metal all the way there. Once we arrived, I set up a wild camp and I slept in a hammock with my dog snoozing on the ground nearby”.
The first answer gave enough detail to keep the conversation moving, without pointing out all of the ways that I’m a little unusual. If the other person is really interested, they can ask questions and find out all of the other stuff naturally.
Lots of people say stupid things now and again. If it becomes a habit, or gets in the way of you relaxing in social situations, it might be contributing to you feeling weird. Learning how to avoid saying stupid or strange things can help you to act more normal.
One of the biggest tips to avoid saying something weird is to take a moment to think before you speak. Consider whether what you are saying matches the conversation you are having. Is it on the same subject (or closely related)? Are you matching the emotional tone (not joking when everyone else is sad, for example)? Is it a similar level of detail? If the answer to those questions is no, think about whether your comment is really necessary. If not, you might want to think of something else to say.
Focusing on the person you are talking to can reduce the opportunities for you to say something that you later realize was weird or that you regret. I used to come out with weird or random comments all the time, but it usually happened when I stopped concentrating on what the other person was saying and became focused on what I could say next.
Ask questions, and really pay attention to the answers people give. If it’s relevant ask follow-up questions. This shows that you’re really interested and, because you’re asking questions rather than making statements, it’s harder to say something really weird.
A good tip for follow-up questions is to ask someone how they feel about the thing you’re talking about, or what they like about it. For example, if you ask someone about their job and they say that they’re an architect, you could follow up with
“Oh wow. What made you get into that?”
You could then follow up again with
“What do you like best about working in architecture?”
I know I said earlier that you don’t have to change or hide who you are to have comfortable normal conversations. For everyday conversations and social events, I stand by that. There are times, however, when it can be helpful to be able to adopt a really normal persona.
This doesn’t have to feel fake. It’s about fulfilling social expectations in important situations, such as job interviews or when talking to your doctor. These are times when it’s really important that the other person takes you seriously.
This isn’t hiding your personality or pretending to be someone you’re not. Try to think of it as allowing the more serious parts of your personality to take over and allowing the other person to realize that they should take what you have to say seriously.
It can be really tiring to use your ‘normal persona’, so keep it for use when you really need it.
Underlying issues such as ADHD, autism, or social anxiety can all leave you feeling weird and isolated.
Doing a little research into any conditions you may have been diagnosed with can help you to understand exactly what you are likely to find difficult. For example, people with Aspergers often avoid eye contact and those with ADHD can jump between topics in a conversation in a way that others find difficult to follow. Both of these traits can come across as weird to others.
If you feel comfortable enough to do so, it can be helpful to tell people about your diagnosis. This allows them to understand the reasons behind anything that they find weird and encourages them to accept you as you are.
One of the difficult things about trying to act normal is that “normal” usually means a somewhat extroverted personality. This is largely because we notice extroverted people more, even though the population is pretty evenly split between extroverts and introverts.
Worrying about whether your behavior is normal can easily lead to you constantly monitoring your words and actions. You may find that it is more helpful to consider whether your actions are kind than whether they are normal. The next time you find yourself wondering whether you seem normal, try asking yourself “What would make me feel comfortable or happy if I was the other person?”.