Two students having a conversation while the third student is on his phone
March 1, 2019
3 mins read

How to survive awkward conversations

Whether it’s scrambling to fill up silences in forced small talk, or accidentally getting into a long-winded debate about human rights with a stranger at the corner of the street, there are moments where we just want to...escape.

Follow this guide to survive your next encounter—and make sure you don’t just physically run away, as much as you might want to.

Scenario 1: You said something you shouldn’t have

You get on the same elevator with someone you kind of know, and they strike up a conversation. You ask them about their dog, to which they reply that they passed away—and in a brainfart, you blurt out, “Oh good! I mean—um—"...

Recommended next steps

Definitely, don’t stand there in silence! If you said something by accident that may have hurt their feelings, apologize to them and offer a truthful explanation. Then you can proceed to empathize with them, and perhaps change the topic if they don’t want to talk about it.

Suggested next words: “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say that! I’m so out of it. I’m sorry to hear—how are you feeling?”

Scenario 2: You got sucked into a conversation you don’t care about

You’re hanging out with a friend, and they introduce you to their boyfriend. Unfortunately, he’s a pilot and he starts rambling on about aviation techniques, none of which you understand or care about. This goes on for 10 minutes too long and you start to squirm.

Recommended next steps

Don’t pretend to be engaged if you’re not. If you continue nodding and smiling at everything he says, he will assume that you’re actually fascinated by calculations of an airplane’s wind turbulence.

Don’t be passive-aggressive either. In other words, don’t start tapping your foot and checking your watch!

Just be direct! (Without hurting their feelings, of course.) Instead of saying “Uhm I don’t care,” you can say “Hey, sorry if I’m interrupting, but I have a paper to write, so I’m going to go work on that now. I’ll catch you later!”

Scenario 3: The conversation suffers from awkward silence

You’re on the bus, and you run into a high school acquaintance. The bus ride is 40 minutes long. You exchange pleasantries where the word “good” is used 4 too many times, and now an awkward silence lingers, mixed with some confused eye contact.

Recommended next steps

One of these two below probably applies to you:

  1. You want to keep talking to them but don’t know how
  2. You silently pray they’re getting off at the next stop

In case one, here are some super safe and friendly topics you can bring up to keep the convo going:

  • Is there upcoming exam stress you can relate to?
  • Has there been some wild weather (like the snow) and funny stories you can share?
  • Are they wearing something nice you can compliment?
  • Did an event happen lately you can share thoughts about?
  • What about their upcoming plans for the weekend, or the summer?

If you don’t want to talk, you can always let them know: “Hey, I’m feeling a bit sleepy, so I’m going to rest for the rest of the ride, is that okay?” They’ll respect that.

A few things to remember

Pay attention to the signs

Looking at their body language, tone of voice, and use of words, is the other person engaged in the conversation, or do they (perhaps) want it to end as much as you do?

Build your responses based on that. If their body is turned away from you and their eyes are wandering, it may be a good time to end the conversation...for your sake and theirs.

Your time is valuable

So if you genuinely don’t want to be part of the conversation anymore, it’s okay to say no nicely (unless they’re super rude!) and excuse yourself.

Student looking up looking disturbed
It’s not your fault

When awkward things happen, it’s not your fault or theirs…it’s probably just bad timing.

If all else fails, it makes a good story

Awkward or unwanted conversations aren’t the end of the world, and honestly (at least in my opinion) they can make a good story sometimes. You may cringe in the moment, but you can laugh it off later.

At least this didn’t happen to you

If you ever feel bad, compare your encounters to me: I once was staring at a crush, and when they looked back, my nose decided to blow a snot bubble. It can’t get worse than that. (But if it does, you should totally share it on UBC Confessions and make it a meme.)

Now get out there and survive your next awkward moment!