The Great Perils of Social Interaction

If an alien ever immigrated to Earth, he’d be a social disaster.

He’d try his hardest to learn by observing how humans behave, but it wouldn’t be easy—he’d see someone ask a stranger for a cigarette and he’d go ask for a sip of someone’s latte. He’d see a couple kissing on the street and he’d go try to kiss the policeman on the corner. He’d stare. He’d get food all over his alien face. And when he got tired, he’d lie down on the sidewalk.

Our alien immigrant wouldn’t last a day before being arrested. He wouldn’t be behaving correctly, and he’d quickly be forcefully removed from society.

That’s the way things are—there is an intricate set of thousands of social rules, and we’re all sharply attuned to them. If we weren’t, we’d be sent away somewhere. Even being nearly perfect will get you into trouble—you can have 98% of the rules down cold, but that last 2% will leave you with a reputation of “rude” or “weird” or “creepy.”

But the hardest part of trying to abide by the Social Rulebook is that it’s far from a perfect book. It’s a lot like the Constitution:

  • It takes you to a certain point but then leaves much up to interpretation
  • There are parts that are outdated or badly thought-out and terribly in need of an Amendment
  • And to further complicate things, every nation, ethnicity, culture, and subculture has its own unique version of the Rulebook

Unfortunately, in the world of social interaction, there’s no Supreme Court to interpret tricky situations, no legislature to amend bad rules, and no international law to help standardize things across cultures.

It’s the wild fucking west out there.

So you’re welcome to head out into public, but before you do, I’ll sprinkle you with just a sampling of the perils you’ll face, as a final warning—

Perils of Interacting With Friends and Family

You’d think that friend and family interactions would be on the safer side, since those people are likely to be using mostly the same version of the Rulebook as you. The problem is, with those closest to you, an expectation of intimacy and comfort puts pressure on each interaction going well, your history together often leaves things highly charged, and since this is the arena where gossip and long-term memory live, the stakes are at their highest. Also, you’re probably kind of an awkward person and awkward people are never safe, no matter whom you’re with.

When meeting up with a friend or family member, things can get tricky before they even start, with a potential 30-Second Hello:

Extended Hello

And just when you’re relieved that that’s over, you’ll find yourself trying to pick a door in one of the great social struggles of our time, The Handshake/Hug Decision of Doom:



Handshake-Hug Mixup

Handshake-Hug Mixup

I’ll be 90 and I still won’t have figured this out. There are different rules for everyone and nothing’s clear—Do I shake my grandfather’s hand or go for the hug? How about my friend’s father? Old friend? New friend? Opposite-sex acquaintance? Longtime work colleague? Sibling’s good friend who I’m meeting for the second time? It’s unbelievably complicated.

And there aren’t just two options you’re choosing from—there’s the high school bro handshake/backslap douche possibility, there’s the vertical, loose-hand high-five that morphs into a weird springy-finger tension thing as you snap away, there’s even the easy but taking-yourself-really-seriously non-ironic fist pound. And even if you both go for the hug, there’s a question of duration and firmness and who’s in charge of those decisions.

(Hugs are a weird concept, by the way. There are a large handful of people in my life I hug tightly every time I say hi or goodbye to them who I would never in any other circumstances touch that intimately. It kind of makes no sense. Whoever wrote the Social Rulebook didn’t really think that hard about it.)

Anyway, just when this couldn’t get any harder, somewhere along the line, society decided it was a good idea to bring kisses into the mix. Kisses were doing just fine in the romantic and parent-child arenas, and it’s unclear why kisses have any part in any other situation. Unless it’s specifically part of your culture, no one under the age of 18 kisses people when they greet them, and as you move into the adult world, you’re just expected to figure out when to kiss people during a greeting. And there are multiple versions of kiss too—the light cheek kiss, the near-cheek air kiss, the absurdly drawn-out one-kiss-on-each-cheek-as-if-we’re-an-Arabian-prince skit—all further complicating the situation and putting us in deep peril of the dreaded Accidental Mouth Kiss:

Accidental Mouth Kiss

After surviving the greeting, some close friends continue to show affection, which leads to more trouble, such as TheWait How Do We Stop Doing This” Physical Contact Situation. I often end up resorting to making up a drastic thing I need to do with my arms.

adjacent embrace 1

adjacent embrace 2

adjacent embrace 3

adjacent embrace 4

adjacent embrace 5

adjacent embrace 6


And all of this is nothing compared to The Money-Related Song and Dance. There’s the obvious:

Fighting over the bill

Fighting over the bill

restaurant 3

Fighting over the bill


restaurant 5

Fighting over the bill

Fighting over the bill

But friends can break into a Money-Related Song and Dance almost anytime, anywhere:

Fighting over the bill

Fighting over the bill

And it’s not just limited to transactions. At some point between the ages of 22 and 40, it goes from being totally okay to discuss your income, price of rent, and general financial situation with friends to not really okay at all. And we all have to figure out how to make that transition.

Perils of Interacting With Acquaintances

An acquaintance is someone you know, but you don’t hang out with them socially, and if you ever did, it would only be as part of a large group of people. It could be someone you went to high school with but were never friends with, someone who lived down the hall from you in college for a year, a friend of someone you know, or someone you work with or used to work with but you don’t know very well.

Most of the time you’re with friends, things are fine—the awkward parts are the exception to the rule. But with acquaintances, awkwardness is the rule. My theory is that the word “acquaintances” is derived from the word “awkward” to mean “people you’re awkward with” and was originally spelled “awkwaintances,” but then they changed the spelling to try to make things less awkward.

Here’s the issue—there are three ways to converse with someone:

1) Pre-Written Social Skits—You do this when you’re not trying to get to know someone better but you’re also scared to just act normally around them.

2) Climbing the Hill—Trying to get to know someone better or to catch up on their life.

3) Being Normal—Accepting the state of a relationship and just enjoying whatever you can from each other’s company.

In general, the main thing that makes interactions awkward is inauthenticity. Authentic is the enemy of awkwardness, and with acquaintances, the only two authentic options are #3 or, if you really do want to advance the relationship into friendship territory, #2. Since usually, neither party actually wants or plans to become better friends, we’re left with “Being Normal” as the key to acquaintance interaction. But here’s where we run into trouble. This is how most people see these three above types of interaction:

Acquaintance Interaction

But that assumes that you can only be normal around someone you know well, which is not true. I started using a new barber last year, and I was pleasantly surprised when instead of making small talk or asking me questions about my life, he just started talking to me like I was his friend or involving me in his conversations with the other barber. By doing so, he spared both of us the massive inauthenticity of a typical barber-customer relationship and I actually enjoy going there now. He doesn’t go by the above graph, but rather, sees things more like three doors that you can choose from:

Acquaintance Interaction

You’re not required to either smalltalk or pretend to want to get to know someone—it’s a choice to do either and you can choose “Be Normal” instead. Unfortunately, the Social Rulebook doesn’t talk about being normal with acquaintances, only a bunch of chapters about how to survive the terror of an acquaintance interaction, authentic or not. We badly need to make a Rulebook amendment here—until we do, my barber relationship will be a rare one.

For now, we’re stuck with things like The Work Acquaintance Trap, which happens when two people who are acquaintances by circumstance and have to see each other every day make the short-sighted mistake of sacrificing what had been the peace of an authentic non-relationship for the hell of a permanently-stuck-in-#1 bullshit cycle:

Awkward Work Relationship


Awkward Work Relationship


Awkward Work Relationship


Awkward Work Relationship

Awkward Work Relationship

Because conversation type #1 involves a large number of pre-written-by-society, canned Robot Phrases, The Work Acquaintance Trap also leaves you at great risk of a Robot Phrase Mismatch:

Smalltalk disaster

Even worse is running into an acquaintance in public. Both people are typically so petrified by the awkward-potential that they end up acting insane. And it can go on for a hideously long time if anyone makes the grave error of asking about the other’s life, leading to The Everlasting Acquaintance Run-In:

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Awkward Social Interaction

Perils of Interacting With Strangers

Interacting with strangers is another way of saying “interacting with the rest of your species,” and it’s often uncomfortable. Even though unlike the former two categories, nothing real is at stake (other than your dignity), stranger interactions can provide some of the most awkward moments in life.

Introductions are awkward by nature, and they’re severely complicated if you’re not entirely sure of whether the person you’re introducing yourself to is actually a stranger. The main way to get yourself into trouble is having a bad memory for whom you’ve met before, which can lead to a Nice to Meet You / Nice to See You Disaster:

Nice to Meet You

Then, of course, there’s The Sidewalk Direction-Mirroring Quagmire:

walking direction 1

walking direction 2

walking direction 3

walking direction 4

walking direction 5
walking direction 6
walking direction 7
walking direction 8

walking direction 9

One of the most asinine and outdated clauses in the Social Rulebook states that despite having zero relationship with me whatsoever, a nearby stranger must vocally command God to save me if I inhale some pollen. The Inexplicable Sneeze Standoff is possibly the single most awkward part of my life, especially since I’m a Multiple Sneezer.

sneeze 1

sneeze 2

sneeze 3
sneeze 4
sneeze 5
sneeze 6
sneeze 7
sneeze 8
sneeze 9
sneeze 10

sneeze 11

sneeze 12

sneeze 13

sneeze 14

Men also deal with a whole pile of stranger awkwardness in the urinal arena. This might just be a weird issue I have, but at some point, I become incapable of peeing if there’s some pressure to pee and I start to think too hard about it. Being next to one other person at the urinal in an otherwise-silent bathroom usually does the trick:

Urinal Stage-Fright

Urinal Stage-Fright

Urinal Stage-Fright

Urinal Stage-Fright

In the rare circumstances that the other person next to me is a weird neurotic person too, we run the horrifying risk of a Silent Urinal Standoff Nightmare:

Urinal Stage-Fright

Urinal Stage-Fright

Considering all of the hazards out there in the world, you’d think at least an interaction with a not-yet-sentient blob would be safe. Think again. Interacting with stranger babies in public is a high-stakes endeavor—if they respond well to you, you’re the most charming person in the room and everyone is suddenly smiling at you and wants to marry you. It goes like this:

baby 1

baby 2

baby 3

The baby acted like a reasonable person and everything went well. But the problem is, a large percentage of babies are dicks, and you never know who’s who. Nothing will make you look and feel like a big fucking weirdo quicker than a baby reacting badly to you. Beware The Dick Baby:

baby 4

baby 5

baby 6

baby 7

baby 8

baby 9

It’s a tough world out there. And just when you’ve had enough and you’re heading home to safety, you’ll likely say goodbye to whomever you’re with before realizing you’re about to embark together on a Same Walking Direction Post-Goodbye Walk:

Awkward Goodbye

Awkward Goodbye

Awkward Goodbye


If you liked this, check these out:

Why I’m Always Late

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

10 Types of 30-Year-Old Single Guys

  • Max

    I just stick to handshakes. Handshakes for everyone no discrimination. People know what they can expect you know..

    • Rose

      Won’t work in Finland – they don’t do handshakes apart from the very first time you meet and look at you weirdly if you persist (wich I do because it’s a hard habit to break…)

    • Tony

      I do the same thing as Max, but with tongue kisses.

      • Jason


      • Gordo


    • Marie

      I like handshakes too! Who said because i’m a woman you get to come close to my face, feel my tight and kiss me? Bleh, I hate it when strangers do that! I usually reach the hand as fast as I can and then stay at a safe distance.

  • Mel

    As always, pure brilliance from Wait But Why. My sides hurt from giggling. Speaking of which, you should have included laughing at Wait But Why posts in your office in front of people to your list of perils.

    • Gabriel

      Just what happened to me right now!

  • taz

    literally cried laughing at the Robot Phrases Mismatch and Urinal Awkardness. then realized these have happened to me one after the other, in reverse order. hmmm.

  • Maggie

    Cried with laughter about the multiple sneezing one – and the urinal one actually had me rolling on the floor,laughing my ass off. Good job I’m at home today!

    • Nancy

      Tears streaming down my face from the sneezing and urinal awkwardness.

  • Coco

    Nice post as always.
    Funny you mention “kiss greeting” because I know an American woman who came to France because of her husband’s job in the us army. She had been told that the usual way to greet someone was to kiss them. Thus, when she met the French general in charge, she kissed him with a MOUTH KISS. Ouch!

    Of course it depends on your culture but here in France we barely hug anyone, we kiss – basically a cheek touch with a kiss sound – our close friend or opposite-sex friends (or friends of friends at a party), and handshake at work or the people we don’t know.

    In 2003, I was with my class in the USA during a month. We assisted to class in an high school near Alberta, NY. I will always remember the face of the american students in high-school when I “cheek-kissed” a French female friend of mine there…

  • Maria

    I’ve been reading your blog for a little while now. I got hooked by the one on why Millenials are so miserable. I happen to be a sociologist who works in the marketing and consumer research field. I study people. I do a lot of focus groups. I am so impressed and gratefully amused by these posts because of how well you nail the human condition. You write what many of us in my field often see — and wish we could say to clients. Thank you for putting a smile on my face! If you were here, I’d hug you — but not one of those drawn out weird hugs.

  • Ashley

    There was a naked woman bathing that followed me all the way to the bottom of reading this… If her eyes weren’t closed I’d be majorly creeped out.

    • Wait But Why

      Super awkward when Google puts racy ads on the site. For the record we don’t choose the ads.

      • Pakosis

        Do the Amma thing.. Just hug them all!

  • Faith

    the The Inexplicable Sneeze Standoff always happens to me!!!

  • John Wiz

    The peeing thing…bathroom interaction is it’s own topic. Person #2 entering the room is an automatic asshole for not respecting the ‘Every other urinal’ rule when more than 2 urinals are present. It’s like that scene in Harold and Kumar when the guy decides to piss on the same bush. Life is all about personal space and comfort bubbles man! And there’s a definite inflation of the bubble when the men’s room is involved. It’s the fear every guy has of accidentally seeing some other dude’s goods.

    • Jonathan

      It’s even weirder if you’re gay. I’m not afraid of seeing another guy’s goods, given the right context. But I’m afraid guys are afraid of me not being afraid, or somehow otherwise threatened. I don’t think anyone of any gender should be forced to urinate within hearing or seeing distance of anyone else. I’m not sure when it was decided that guys should stand in the same room beside one another facing the same direction pissing into receptacles mounted on the wall.

  • DS

    The worst is the perils of walking your dog and running into other dog-walkers. You have to either stand there silently watching your dogs sniff each others’ butts or talk about what breed your dog is…and then one of you arbitrarily decides when it’s time to leave…and then you end up walking in the same direction…and your dog does not want to allow distance between you and the stranger because she really has not yet gotten enough of the other dog’s butt…and you end up hating that person because this outing that was just supposed to be you and a nonhuman ended up being a long, drawn out horrible awkward mess.

    • Wait But Why

      One of the reasons I own a tortoise. He’s so much slower than all dogs that this is never an issue.

  • Squarebear

    Fantastic and hilarious, great observational humour. The sneezing thing made me think of the awkward moment when you wrongly assume that there is an appropriate and commonly known pop-culture reference that suits the occasion, e.g the Seinfeld response to sneezing “You are SOOOOO good-lookin’!”. Sadly I have cracked this out once or twice in aquaintance company and it has epically failed to amuse. Yerrrrrrr.

    • Jason

      Yea… no clue what you’re talking about.

  • AL

    awesome post WBW, I laughed so much, specially with the bench sneezes… and all is so true!

  • Jonathan

    awkwaintances: best word of 2014

  • Krusty Shakelford

    Brilliance, as usual.

    I’d like to add the two people in an elevator stranger awkwardness.

    I find myself staring at the buttons and/or the floor number changing as we go up, or I get curious about what the fire alarm sounds like, or I just stare at the corner furthest from the other person, or last resort, I read each and every letter of the OSHA certification required in all elevators followed by a careful study of any accompanying graphics, state seal, or OSHA logos. Anything to occupy my mind while I hold my breath and panic at the thought of he or she saying ‘hi’.

    Looking at your smart phone and playing Words With Friends is great in the moment to avoid any communication, but I end up hating myself for once again looking like a dork with no friends (like a guy with a yo-yo).

    • Jess

      Omg elevator awkwardness is the worst! Sometimes it can be a bit fun though, if something funny occurred or the weather is awful and you can jointly laugh and/or complain about something. It’s especially nice if the person gets out before you and says “have a nice day”. Makes my day haha!!! Sometimes the best social interactions I have are with complete strangers!

  • ragebol

    imagine the suffering of Dutch people. It’s completely unclear when we cheeck-kiss, when whe shake hands, when we hug or do nothing, but whén we cheeck-kiss our custom is to kiss three times. THREE times. First left, then right, then left cheeck again. It’s horrible when you meet a group of people, and it is HELL when it’s new years eve 00:00 and the drunk neighbor sees you. Or when it’s new years day at work.

    It got even worse when people in bigger cities suddenly decided it was hip and urbanlike to give only one kiss, you never know whó consider themselves hip and urbanlike. And I’m completely lost when I meet foreigners initiating to cheeck-kiss, I have no idea how many to expect since there are some 2-kisses-countries as well.

    • igdi

      In some parts of Croatia there are FOUR kisses on the cheek, and in some others two, so it’s always awkward afther the second because you can’t tell whether the next two are expected or not. So either you or the other person becomes “pushy”

    • amy breeze

      Yes! I was thinking of my Dutch family as I read this. They give 3 kisses. (They must not be hip urbanites.) I visited them when I lived in Spain (a 2 kiss country) and nearly ended up making out with my aunt when she went for #3! When I moved back to the US, I worked in Hispanic marketing: 1 kiss. Every time our advertising agency would come to present to us, it was a round robin of 1-kiss, 1-kiss, 1-kiss…until I would get to the new guy on the team and we’d do the awkward handshake/kiss dance (much worse than handshake/hug in my opinion). I’d be going in for the kiss (“let’s do it your way!”) and then he’d force his hand out (“no!…let’s do it your way!”) I have to say, I prefer the 1 kiss greeting – and love how Latinos go around and greet and say goodbye to everyone in the room individually (from business meetings to social gatherings). I’m hoping it catches on so I don’t confuse people with my whiteness!

  • Ymmit

    Each week is a gem. So funny. You need to write a book. I’d be the first in line to buy it.

  • Jennifer

    The worst is when you meet someone for the first time and they try to squeeze your hand off while giving you this fake, plastered smile and it becomes this unspoken competition.


    I’m a small woman, so when a man does this to me, naturally I want to kick him in the balls and just might. SO WATCH OUT ALL YOU BIG, BURLY DOMINATE MOTHER FUCKERS. AND JUST STOP IT.

    Plus, I haaaaaaaate being touched by strangers in any way. You don’t know me. Why do you get to put your hand in my hand? Don’t know me = DON’T TOUCH ME IN ANY WAY.

    • Tink

      Secret tip: extend your index and middle finger when they’re giving you the ‘handshake of death’. It makes it anatomically harder for them to squeeze your hand that hard.

  • N

    I have sweaty palms, so I hate handshakes of any kind. With non-work acquaintances, I am the over-friendly hugger. With work acquaintances, I’m usually the girl who is carrying too many things in her hands (wink) or simply a non-friendly snob.

  • Kobus

    I used to walk to work in an area where there are very few pedestrians. Every day, at the same time I would pass a guy who’s walking in the opposite direction. Everything was peaceful for about a week until the one dreaded day that he said ‘Hi’. That ended up being our extent of conversation for the following 3 months! Seeing a stranger approaching everyday, having the smiling contest (as depicted above) for over a minute and ending with ‘Hi’… is the absolute peak of awkward.

  • Chairs and Boats

    I’ve found that what works best for me is to simply not mind that things are awkward. Deciding when to kiss or shake hands or whatever other social gesture used to scare the shit out of me, but now I just pick something I feel like doing and go with it. For instance, I like hugging people and I very much dislike doing the thee kiss thing (unless it’s with a member of the opposite sex that I like, you can often tell whether they like you by how they do it) , so when people try to do that to me I just hug them, and when they stand there with a confused and awkward look on their face I just smile because I find it very amusing (like this: ^.^) and they will instantly stop being awkward. I also enjoy using unconventional social gestures. One thing I especially enjoy is patting people on the head while saying hello or goodbye, which is especially handy when you’re standing and they’re sitting.

    I think the reason this works is because the awkward moments that many people desperately try to avoid are not inherently awkward. The only thing that is inherently awkward is when people are desperately trying to avoid awkwardness. Once you stop being scared of awkward moments (which takes practice) these moments will stop being awkward and start being enjoyable.

  • Maarten

    This situation: when you see someone walking in your direction on the street, but you don’t know the person well (only met a couple times, through friends et cetera), and you can tell the other person has spotted you as well; you just don’t know whether or not they are going to ‘acknowledge’ to recognizing you by their reaction.

    When he / she is near, jump at them smiling and being all “Ooooooh it’s you, how are you doing?” That’s one of the most satisfying acts of guerilla warfare against the Social Rulebook.

    Another good and insightful post , WBW. Props to your barber.

  • Znap

    Last week I experienced a new one in the Handshake/Hug/Kiss Decision of Doom. Having spent 10 days working in East Africa, we said goodbye to some of the people we had worked with and who were kind enough to bring us to the airport. Apparently, they all do two hugs. So, being used to doing a cheek kiss, I went for that, but since I had to rapidly switch sides for the second hug, my kiss somehow ended up on her shoulder. She looked at me weird, as though I had done something profoundly indecent. While being embarrassed, I shrugged it off as if it never happened, but I felt pretty stupid for some time afterwards.

  • M

    You are fucking brilliant. I want to marry you

    • Jennifer

      I’ll marry you.

      • Dann

        Let me marry you both.

        • Jennifer

          Okay, Dannn… I am free. I hope you are nice…and like pizza. I am allergic to cats doh.

  • Jennifer

    This alien you speak of… I AM JUST LIKE HIM.

    It’s like you reiterated a typical day in the life of Jennifer with his description.

  • Jennifer

    You are like the Mick Jagger of blogs.

  • Charlie

    I order some food at a some restaurant.

    Cashier: Enjoy your meal!
    Me: You too!

    I always do this and it is always super uncomfortable. I recently moved to Germany, and I’ve learned that I am awkward in two languages.

    • Christine

      ahh I hate when I do that!!

    • Will

      You can parlay that into, “thank you”, if they comment.
      Cashier: enjoy your meal!
      me: you too…
      cashier: you too?
      me: I said thank you. Lol

    • Jess

      I do this sometimes as well, not just with food but with anything, they’ll say “Enjoy” but what I’ve been waiting for them to say is, “Have a nice day!”, and of course the default response is “You too!” ha ha….

  • Luna

    Ahhh this is hilarious, you make my Tuesdays! If we were to ever meet I’d go for a Non-accidental Mouth Kiss 🙂

  • Q

    Elevators are the worst. Hrrrrrrrrrrghhh

  • Igorea

    Daily/hourly moments of workplace awkward: Sharing an office with the girl who feels she has to be best friends with everyone in the office and eminates nonthreatening “tell me everything I won’t judge” vibes that lead to calloused ears from shoving iPhone ear buds in my ears (often w/out anything actually plaing) just so I don’t have to pretend to also care and/or hear the same said girl’s “interesting story” about what happened that weekend.

    • Igorea

      P.S. “Friends to everybody girl” is also boss of “iPhone buds” girl. Calculate that into the exponentialy cluster of neverending workplace awkward moments. But I do have a lovely view out my window. 🙂

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  • Ian

    Holy hell, I lost it at the last panel.

  • Divs

    Best thing to do….in any awkward moment, I say acknowledge it.

    I always do, and when I don’t, i cant seem to shrug off.
    Handshake/kiss/hug, what ever, if it was misread, laugh it off and be like ‘sorry i am used to just handshakes’… 😀

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  • Alberto

    This blog is wonderful…i’m reading all posts. WOW! You are a genius

  • Stephen

    i loved this to death, especially the misery zones (kind of similar: i’ve replied to “my bad” with “no bad” before) and I am also a Multiple Sneezer. I do actually have a solution for the Same Walking Direction Post-Goodbye Walk, though — just ask which way they’re headed before saying goodbye. easy peasy! anyways you are a wonderful wonderful person and i hope you get two egg yolks in all your eggs forever and ever.

  • Tink

    Suffering from face blindness adds a whole new level of awkwardness. Even though I’m on the mildest end of it, I can still walk past an acquaintance like a neighbour, colleague or friend’s parent if they’re out of context and not recognise them (has happened multiple times, much to my embarrassment). I have huge trouble learning the faces of new people and putting their names to them, until I’ve seen someone a certain number of times or had a certain number of reasonable interactions with them, they don’t stick. I could have had a really lovely conversation with you yesterday, today if I met you in a different place I’d never know it was you. I’m perpetually trying to remember new acquaintances’ faces and names and trying not to offend people by accidentally blanking them or not remembering them (still fail, BTW). So if someone doesn’t remember you, please don’t be offended; they’re probably even more mortified than you, and they really, really can’t help it. If this kind of thing comes easily to you, you don’t realise how much effort it takes some of us.

    Even if I think I’ve recognised someone I don’t know that well when I’m out, I’m never fully sure it’s them, so normally just have to smile and hope they respond and give me a clue. It was a revelation finding out that it’s an actual thing and I’m not just terribly scatterbrained and awfully uncaring. Which is how people who can’t remember faces or names come across.

    Weirdly, I can observe faces just fine, I love drawing portraits. It’s not that we can’t see the features, but rather that they don’t stick in our memories, so prosopagnostics rely on more general markers of appearance, like someone’s haircut and colour, skin colour, body shape, clothes and height. This also means that it can be hard to follow films or TV series whose cast is made up of unknown-to-you actors, if they all kinda look the same. I even think it’s the reason I’m a ‘fall in love once I get to know you’ kinda gal, when you’re bad with remembering faces, love at first sight just doesn’t quite work!

    * and that’s being mildly face-blind. Imagine the people who can’t recognise their friends or family out of context, and the troubles and social awkwardness they face.

    • Steph

      This is a thing? I swear no matter how hard I try, what tricks I use I almost instantly forget faces. Terrible with matching names too, it really is unreasonable….I’m talking within seconds or minutes after interacting, even if I make a point to remember. Even sometimes after long term repeated interaction, like work. So many horror stories of awkwardness…

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  • John

    What about when you meet somebody in a supermarket, even somebody you know well. You have a chat to catch up, then carry on shopping. Then you keep passing them in every aisle that you go down. How are you supposed to behave then? Keep acknowledging them as you go past each other? Pretend not to have seen them by inspecting the shelves closely as they pass by? Skip an aisle in the hope that you won’t see them again, then find that they’ve done the same thing?

    As for the urinal problem, use a cubicle. But you might want to sit down, in case the noise lets the other guy know that you were too shy to wee in public.

  • Charlie Vetsworth

    Touching doesn’t bother me because I simply refuse to do anything more than a handshake, and only if they are the ones to instigate it. I have an aversion to being touched. That creates some awkwardness on it’s own I’m sure but I don’t care. Now conversation is another story, I just can’t seem to do it right with anybody I don’t know well.

  • elle

    I saw a friend of mine at a social gathering and went to say hi. She didn’t notice me and kept on walking on. But I had already shouted out her name and dramatically waved my hands so I NEEDED her to acknowledge me.. seeing as everyone in the room had seen me look so desperate to say hi.
    I just couldn’t walk away feeling snubbed. I pushed ppl out of the way, jumped over chairs, ran around tables, snapped my fingers at her. And finally got my acknowledgment when she stopped to pick her bag.

    • Jack Liu

      I had t hat happened to me once as well, the difference is that I ended up mistaking her for the wrong person.

  • Gina

    awkward aliens need to unite :/
    Screw rules, be yourself

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  • Cool dude

    You are not the only one with the bathroom awkwardness of silence haha

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  • Anonymous

    Its not just rules for acquaintances that is hard, the rulebook for once you have become friends just as complicated. How frequently should I text my friends? Or email them? Or invite them to do something? I’ve got no end of admiration for extroverts who are able to navigate this minefield with ease.

    • James

      Tim wrote another article about exactly that, I’ve learned to just not worry about it too much and be yourself. Its important to not be a “lazy” friend of course, but it gets tiring trying to be someone you’re not.

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  • JSA

    Very first world problems.

  • Dang it

    *Reads through post*

    *Laughs and relates to examples given*

    *Reaches end of article and realizes there are no solutions or advice provided*



  • mark chu

    i like the “oh let me check what time it is” encounter when two somewhat familiar people walk toward each other and just when one of them is about to establish eye contact the other one checks their watch and starts mumbling something along the lines of “oh look at the time, i’m super late for an imaginary meeting”. I have even seen someone trying to do this and did a double take when he raised his wrist realizing he didn’t wear a watch…

    • Jess

      That made me laugh out loud!!!

  • Laney

    I want so badly for the sneeze blessing to go away. Whenever I have asked people close to me to not bless me when I sneeze they have become quite indignant, “What do you want me to say?” How about nothing? We don’t say anything when people yawn, or hiccup.

    • Mike_NL

      Where I am from people say Gezondheid or Gesundheit – but I guess it’s kind of weird to say “health” to someone 😛

    • James

      I grew up overseas and they don’t say anything when someone sneezes, so I never do.

  • BugoTheCat

    Socialization: Strange Game. The only winning move is to not give a single fuck.

    • wbw sarcasm

      Hello fellow person in their 40s lol

  • Mike_NL

    This is absolutely hilarious!!
    I recognise most or all of these situations, though I managed to become a lot less awkward by not caring as much what people think of me.

    The urinal situation.. oh god I have had to so many times – it’s probably one of the most awkward things there is when you have a duo urinal and you both can’t pee and you’re just looking away to the ceiling or wall or whatever.. or someone grabs out their phone waiting for the other to leave. Hysterical.

  • Frank

    We had tradeshow booth hand signals for when someone you were supposed to know came up and said hi but you couldn’t remember their name. The signal to a booth colleague meant come over here and join the conversation and say their name (and company) in a few sentences to get me out of this uncomfortable situation.

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  • Charlie

    humans are weird.

  • Katie Duval

    Someone once gave me some wonderful advice and I’m happy to say that I’ve found the cure of The Sidewalk Direction-Mirroring Quagmire. As you’re approaching someone and you can see this horribly awkward dance is coming for you (and you can always spot when it’s on its way) choose the direction you’ll be going and point at it with your eyes. The mistake we always make in this waltz is eye contact. But if you look at the direction you’re choosing the other person will follow your lead and decided on the other direction. Works like 90% of the time.

    • Guest

      If only someone would come up with a universal rule as to which side of the road all traffic goes…

  • Mark Monnin

    This part confuses me:
    Even being nearly perfect will get you into trouble—you can have 98% of the rules down cold, but that last 2% will leave you with a reputation of “rude” or “weird” or “creepy.”

    Wouldn’t “perfect” by definition not make people feel uncomfortable and therefore not be rude, weird, or creepy? I’d really like to see an example where someone is nearly perfect and ends up rude, weird, or creepy.

    • Beowulf

      98% is nearly perfect. He’s saying that even when you’re 98% perfect, the other 2% can screw you over.

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  • Jetstream

    The sneezing thing is easy when you realize that almost nobody actually cares about the god bless you thing.

    I just ignore it when people say something to me about sneezing. Nobody gives a shit. I imagine some day I’ll get someone being self-righteous about it, and then I can launch into my lecture about how my bodily functions are my problem and they can bugger off. Until that day, however, they can say “bless you” or “salud” as much as they want and I’ll simply continue to disregard it.

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