How tolerant are Americans of awkward situations?

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
October 19, 2022, 9:49 PM GMT+0

Awkward silences, clogged toilets, and gossipy text messages mistakenly sent to the wrong person. Everyone encounters embarrassing or awkward situations, yet there is a great deal of variation in how people respond to them. A new YouGov poll explores how Americans cope with awkwardness, which situations they find awkward, and whether they personally consider themselves to be an awkward person.

How awkward do Americans consider themselves to be?

Everyone has embarrassing moments, but some people encounter or enable them more often than others. One in four Americans (26%) say they're much or somewhat more awkward than other people, while 41% consider themselves less awkward, and 25% say they're about an average amount of awkward. Youth appears to foster awkwardness: Younger adults, particularly ones under 30, are far more likely than older Americans to consider themselves especially awkward. Only 11% of Americans who are 65 and older think they're more awkward than other people.

How much tolerance do Americans have for awkward situations?

Some people cope with awkwardness better than others. One in three Americans (34%) say they're much or somewhat more tolerant of awkward situations than other people are. Just as many (34%) say they're about as tolerant as others, while just 21% believe they're less tolerant of awkwardness than others. Americans 65 and older are more likely than younger adults to say they're more tolerant of awkwardness than other people.

Regardless of whether or not they're tolerant of awkward situations, do Americans enjoy them? The majority dislike (50%) or hate (15%) being present for awkward situations, while only 15% say they love or like it. Despite Americans 65 and older reporting a greater tolerance of awkwardness than younger people, they also are less likely to enjoy these situations: Only 8% say they like or love them, compared to 21% of adults under 30.

How do Americans fare in social situations?

Three in five Americans (60%) say they feel anxiety in social situations at least some of the time, though only 21% say they often do; 25% say they rarely do and 8% say they never do. Social anxiety appears to wane with age: Adults under 30 are more than three times as likely as people 65 and older to say they often experience anxiety in social situations. People who say they are much less tolerant of social situations than other Americans are twice as likely as the overall population to say they often feel social anxiety.

How savvy do Americans think they are at picking up on social cues? Half (48%) say they're very or somewhat good at doing so, while 27% say they're about average and 17% think they're either very or somewhat bad. People who are 65 or older are more confident in their social abilities than are adults in younger age groups. People who say they have an above-average tolerance for awkwardness are twice as likely as Americans overall to believe they're very good at picking up on social cues.

Up for some small talk? Americans are divided when it comes to how much they enjoy small talk with people they don't know well: 29% say they like it a lot or somewhat, while 33% say they dislike it a lot or somewhat and 33% neither like nor dislike it. Americans 45 and older enjoy engaging in small talk than younger Americans do. Additionally, we find that people who report a greater tolerance for awkward situations are much more likely to enjoy small talk than the overall population is.

If you don't like small talk, how about going deeper? While small talk with strangers isn't one of Americans' favorite pastimes, even fewer are fond of having more personal discussions with people they don't know well. Around half of Americans (47%) say they don't enjoy discussing sensitive topics such as sex, religion, or politics with people they don't know, while only 19% say they like doing so. People who say they're much more tolerant of awkward situations than the average person are also more open to discussing sensitive subjects with strangers.

Embarrassment on repeat?

Have you ever been unable to sleep at night because your mind keeps rehashing something awkward you said, which no one but you likely remembers? Half of Americans (50%) say they occasionally experience flashes of embarrassment remembering something awkward they said or did. One in three (32%) say they rarely do and 10% say they never do.

What about vicarious embarrassment, or feeling second-hand embarrassment from observing the embarrassing actions of another person? Almost half of Americans say they often (10%) or sometimes (35%) experience this feeling; 35% say they rarely do and 12% say they never do. People who classify themselves as especially awkward are four times as likely as Americans overall to say they often experience vicarious embarrassment.

How do Americans react to awkward scenarios?

If you can't avoid an awkward scenario, you have to find a way to cope with it. When asked how they respond in awkward situations, the largest share of Americans – 33% – say they typically try to make things less awkward. Fewer say they attempt to leave the situation (22%) or make a joke about it (19%). One in 10 (9%) say they do nothing, and a mere 3% say they "lean into the awkwardness."

How do people physically respond to awkward situations? Of the 10 options provided, the three most common that Americans do are avoiding eye contact (37% do this), smiling (29%), and laughing (29%). However, the ways that people react depends on how awkward they consider themselves to be. People who consider themselves more awkward than others are far more likely than those who consider themselves less awkward to say that they tend to avoid eye contact (54% vs. 30%), fidget (44% vs. 15%), blush (31% vs. 13%), sweat (30% vs. 8%), or stammer (25% vs. 6%) in awkward situations. People who consider themselves to be less awkward than others are more likely to smile than people who say they are more awkward than others.

How do Americans rate the awkwardness of 16 hypothetical scenarios?

Which situations do Americans find most awkward? The poll asked respondents to rate 16 hypothetical scenarios on a scale from 0 (not at all awkward) to 10 (extremely awkward). The situation rated as the most awkward, receiving a score of 10 from 35% of Americans and a score of 7 or higher by more than half of Americans, is a person accidentally sending a gossipy message to the subject of the gossip. In second and third place for the share of Americans who rate them extremely awkward are watching a movie sex scene with your parents and clogging a toilet.

Awkwardness as entertainment

A growing genre of television, referred to by some as cringe comedy, portrays people in humorously awkward situations. One in three Americans (32%) say they enjoy cringe comedy, and 8% say they love it. Slightly more – 38% – don't enjoy the genre, though only 9% say they hate it. People who say they love being present for socially awkward situations are more likely to be fans of cringe comedy; nearly half (46%) say they love cringe comedy, about six times the share of Americans overall.

How do Americans rate specific cringe-comedy shows? Of the 10 shows asked about, which have been characterized by some as cringe-inducing, a majority of Americans say they have seen two of them, Seinfeld and The Office. These are also the two most beloved shows among those who have seen them. The most recently released show on the list, The Rehearsal, was produced by comedian Nathan Fielder, who has been hailed by some as "the king of cringe comedy." While the show hasn't been seen by many, it is more liked than disliked by people who have seen it.

— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article

This poll was conducted on September 15 - 19, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.

Image: Adobe Stock (Asier)

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