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What Is an Awkward Silence?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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An awkward silence is a moment between two or more people in which there is a lack of conversation or communication which is uncomfortable in nature. This can occur as a result of a number of different stimuli, though it is typically due to some type of inappropriate comment or social faux pas. An awkward silence can produce feelings of anxiety or distress in those involved, especially the person or people who may have caused the silence. This is in contrast to comfortable silences, in which two or more people are able to exist together without communication and all parties involved feel a sense of ease or comfort in the silence.

The exact cause of an awkward silence can vary a great deal from instance to instance, though there typically is some type of trigger for the silence. It is possible, however, for such a silence to simply occur on its own, such as between two people who do not share much in common and have little to talk about. An awkward silence is often caused by a particular event or comment, however, and this is usually a result of someone saying something inappropriate. If a person says something negative about a particular group of people, for example, unaware that the listener belongs to that group, then this may cause such a silence.

When an awkward silence does occur, it can often result in feelings of inadequacy or anxiety in those involved. This is especially true when the silence is caused by the comments or attitude of one particular person in a group or conversation. Some researchers speculate that the anxiety and distress felt during an awkward silence may be tied to instinctual attitudes toward group acceptance. During the primitive youth of humanity, a lack of acceptance by a large group could leave an individual open to attack or starvation; modern anxiety over acceptance may stem from vestigial instincts based on these survival needs.

While an awkward silence may be the result of poorly chosen words or a hostile attitude between two or more people, there are also comfortable silences that can occur in groups. A group of very close friends, or two people in a long-term, healthy relationship may experience such silences. These often indicate closeness between those involved, as each person feels accepted enough to withstand a lack of communication without experiencing the anxiety triggered by an awkward silence. The difference between these two states may be indistinguishable from outside the group, but it is vital for those in such a relationship to feel comfortable with their place in a group.

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Discussion Comments
By bluedolphin — On Apr 13, 2014

There used to be many awkward silences between us when I briefly dated someone. Now that I look back at it, I think it was because we were not a good match. We always misunderstood one another and had great difficult communicating. So perhaps frequent awkward silence should be seen as a sign that all is not well in a relationship. But this is just my opinion. I realize that not everyone experiences awkward silences for the same reasons.

By serenesurface — On Apr 12, 2014

@mrwormy-- That's so true. There was an awkward silence between my husband and I yesterday. Right at that moment he said "and the awkward silence" in a funny way. We both laughed and moved on to talking about something else. Acknowledging it is really the best thing to do, if it's possible in that situation of course.

By turquoise — On Apr 12, 2014

An awkward silence occurs usually when I talk to people I don't know very well yet. Sometimes I meet someone who is very different from me and who holds a very different worldview. In conversation, one of us says something that the other dislikes but doesn't really know how to react to.

I actually do this often because I'm surprised and I don't want to say something wrong and hurt someone's feelings. So there is that very awkward moment of silence when both of us wish that we were somewhere else. And the conversation usually ends soon afterward.

By Cageybird — On Apr 02, 2014

I've experienced awkward silences when a new person brings up something the rest of us know is a sensitive issue. Our supervisor's wife passed away last year, and a new employee started inviting us all to a housewarming party. He then said "Be sure to bring your wives, too." It created an awkward silence, but he honestly wasn't trying to be hurtful. We explained the situation to him later, and I apologized to the boss on his behalf. Sometimes an uncomfortable situation just pops up and no one knows quite how to handle it.

By mrwormy — On Apr 01, 2014

It seems to me the only way out of an awkward silence is for someone to acknowledge it exists and try to laugh it off. I've been in conversations where someone will bring up the one thing we never talk about in public, like a friend's bad hairpiece, and the result is an awkward silence. After a long, uncomfortable pause, one of us might say "Well, that was certainly awkward. So, um, anyone up for coffee?".

There's really no other way to get out of an awkward silence without drawing more attention to the thing that triggered it. The friend with the hairpiece might feel humiliated, the friend who made the remark probably feels embarrassed, and the others might just want to forget it ever happened.

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