The other day I was at the gym on one of the cardio machines in the back row. I’ve seen this setup at many gyms, but at this gym all the machines are arranged in two rows in one area of the building. I was on the back row and I watched an interchange happen between two men that was really awkward. I don’t know either one of these guys, but for the sake of the story let’s call them Joe and Pete.
Joe is on the front row of machines to my left on a treadmill, walking at a normal pace. Two or three treadmills to his right (and mine) is Paul, also walking at a normal pace, wearing headphones. Apparently Joe and Pete know each other because Joe finished his time on his treadmill, walked over next to Pete’s treadmill, and gave that silly, smiling wave right next to Pete’s head. Just one problem, Pete didn’t see him. Lost in his headphone world, Pete had been looking the other way and had no idea whatsoever that Joe had come up next to him and waved.
Joe, looking a little embarrassed that he had gone to the trouble to wave and wasn’t noticed, turned and walked away and headed down the stairs. About this time Pete turns and notices Joe walking away and waves at him (yes that silly wave) but this time Joe doesn’t see him because his back is turned. Joe walked down the stairs while Pete watched and they never connected at all. For a few minutes Pete stood there rather stunned on the treadmill, clearly considering what he should do next. I guess he wasn’t that close to Joe otherwise he would have gone down and said hello. But he didn’t. Eventually he got off his treadmill and went to another machine.
The interesting thing about this story is that it has happened to me and has probably happened to you. Aside from the fact that I have this fear that someone will talk to me while I’m wearing headphones and I’ll completely ignore them, there are times when everyone’s timing seems to be off and it can be very frustrating. I miss your call and you miss mine when I return it. I get back from lunch and you call me asking if I’m free for lunch. Stuff like this happens a lot.
I think the most important thing about being in these situations is having the courage to press through the awkwardness. In fact, navigating awkwardness is one the most valuable skills you can ever learn. If you can forget about feeling embarrassed, forget about who saw you or what they may be thinking and simply move forward with what you were trying to do (say hello, have a conversation, move something etc), you’ll be fine. It’s pretty amazing how much we can miss out on because we allow the barrier of awkwardness or embarrassment get in our way.
It’s interesting that my embarrassment reveals more about me than about other people. It isn’t so much that everyone around me is super critical or waiting to laugh at me, it’s that I actually believe that I’m the center of attention and that I have to perform for everyone. Of course I don’t want to mess up when EVERYONE is watching me. The sooner I realize that I’m not that important to the world, the sooner I can accept my imperfections, the better off I will be. Rising above awkwardness is very rewarding.