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Why Do People Dread Awkward Silences?

It happens to everyone. You’re having a free and easy conversation with friends, and then someone says something that brings everything to an awkward halt. This sort of social faux pas intrigued Dutch psychologists, so they studied the phenomenon to analyze its effect on conversational dynamics, and human psyches. What they found was that this moment of silence, often about four seconds long, is enough to trigger “feelings of rejection and negative emotions” in people. The study, chronicled in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, concluded that awkward silences can damage one’s “feelings of self-esteem and belonging.”

Four seconds of emotional limbo:

  • The researchers conducted experiments where they measured students' reactions to awkward silences. Not surprisingly, the person who makes the faux pas feels anxious, and less self-assured.
  • In addition, the researchers found that people who experience an awkward silence also feel “distressed, afraid, hurt, and rejected.”
  • The psychologists didn’t recommend trying to fill an awkward silence, but suggested instead that participants try to identify the origin of the conversation-stopping comment, and then move on.
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