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How To Avoid Awkward Silence When You Don’t Know What To Say

Photo: Iryna Inshyna
guy and girl unsure of what to say during an awkward silence

It’s always so uncomfortable, isn't it? The two of you are seated at the dinner table, face to face with each other, alone. Well, there's that third wheel friend tagging along named Awkward Silence.

Sure, you could complain about the unbearable summer weather, or talk about your job or how your team lost the game again. And if worse comes to worst, you can always "accidentally" glance at your phone and realize you were supposed to (insert ridiculous, obviously B.S. story here) before you dash away. But where's the fun in that?

The next time you're at a loss for words, try one of the totally genius conversation starter ideas below to get your date to open up.

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Who knows? That stranger could become the next love of your life (or at least, a fun hookup) and you want to feel confident about yourself andyour ability to really get to know him.

10 tips on how to avoid or break an awkward silence

1. Ask them to share an embarrassing story, then do the same.

"A guy said to me once, point-blank, 'Embarrassing story — go!'I was totally caught off guard, but the way he asked was so funny that I couldn't help but blurt out about the time I fainted right in the middle of my high school music recital. But then, he shared his embarrassing story with me (not telling!), so it turned out fair enough." — Jenelle, 29

2. Ask them to share their hidden talents.

"'Any hidden talents I should know about?' This is a great one ... that is, if you can pull it off without sounding creepy. Minds out of the gutter, people!" — Tania, 31

3. Make a confession.

"We were meeting at a Thai spot in my neighborhood. I suggested the date idea. When we got there, she looks at me kind of sheepishly and says, 'Can I confess something to you?' She admitted to me that she hated this particular restaurant because it was a favorite spot of her ex's, so there were bad vibes and whatnot — but she was just afraid to make it awkward. It did feel awkward at first and she didn't need to get into details, but I felt much more open with her. It's like, you have dirty laundry and so do I, and it's fine. It was just that sincere honesty that I liked!" — Marc, 29

4. Talk about a funny video you saw recently.

"'Did you see that epic prank video? The one with the koala bear and the jar of peanut butter?' Then, he whipped out his iPhone and played it for me. I hadn't seen it! Bam, discussion." — Alicia, 22

5. Ask them to share their weirdest crush.

"A date asked me once, 'Who is your secret weird crush?' And don't even lie to yourselves, we all have one! (Mine was Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter because he got super hot in that nerdy kind of way.)" — Shawna, 22

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6. Ask them to tell you about their worst date ever.

"'What's the worst date you've ever been on?' It frees you up, levels the playing field. Hopefully, it's a funny story and they just won't say this one!" — Taylor, 34

7. Play with puns.

"My Tinder tagline is 'Lettuce Turnip The Beet,'which I felt was appropriate since I'm a vegetarian who likes loud music. I always get interesting responses to it from pun-lovers — but all-time favorite was from a guy who's first message to me was 'Your tagline gives me a chard on.' Naturally, I replied 'Thanks a latte!' He responded, 'Seriously, I'd put a three carrot ring on your finger.'I told him I'd give him a pizza my heart. We continued back and forth for another 20 minutes or so and started to ask questions using strictly food and beverage puns. Best punversation I've ever had." — Myrtle, 27

8. Ask them about their guilty pleasure.

"I love to ask people, 'What's your guilty pleasure?' Mine is binge-watching Real Housewives, by the way!" — Lupe, 28

9. Ask them to describe themselves in emojis.

"My friend asks his Tinder matches to describe themselves in five emojis which always turns into incredible conversations. A girl he went out with Monday used a gun, cig, cheeseburger, fries, and pizza." — Michelle, 27

10. Make it a game.

"Let's just cut to the part where ... and then go ahead to paint a crazy picture of romance for the night. It's the continuing story game, but you can be funny and flirty." — Dina, 29

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What works and what doesn’t when you want to break an awkward silence

The reason why these fun little conversational tricks work is that they're open-ended (meaning they aren't just 'yes' or 'no' questions), they come across as lighthearted and disarming instead of being overly serious or invasive, but they leave the door open for however deep of an answer you're willing to give, and, because they're just quirky enough, they give the person asking the question a pretty good chance of being able to latch onto some detail, theme, or another aspect of how you respond. That way, they'll likely have a chance to relate to how you answered the question, and conversation could start flowing from that point until the end of the evening.

Plus, these kinds of questions are just personal enough and just disarming enough without leaving you feeling too vulnerable, especially if you can tell the person asking you the question seems genuinely interested and the tone isn't one of ridicule, but being disarming and you know they're playing along, too.

It's not about embarrassment, and it also isn't so formal that you feel like you're doing a cold read of your resume. It's a way for both of you to open up in ways that allow for a range of emotions, levels of intimacy, and simply having a good time with one another.

By asking slightly more unconventional questions that can be left open to interpretation and would only leave the stiffest, most humorless person answering in terse, monosyllabic responses, neither one of you necessarily feels the need to show off, but you can talk about the things that interest you and connect with each other on that, while keeping the conversation fluid by taking some element of that discussion if it seems like a lull is coming on, and make sure things continue to go smoothly between you two.

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When an awkward silence is OK

Something good conversationalists know is that not all silences have to be awkward. Leaning into silence, figuratively and literally, can be very alluring.

Literally speaking, body language is powerful. When you can master the power behind eye contact and all its potential, not only can you communicate how you might be feeling about the person across the table from you, but you can pick up on how they're feeling, too. Just imagine what you can communicate with the rest of your body and learn from theirs, too.

If they're turned toward you, smiling often and naturally, gently touching you on the arm or knee, and only paying attention to you (not the phone, not the waiter, not the ridiculously loud and animated family six feet away from your table), these are all signs they're super into you.

Figuratively, try to learn how to enjoy periods of silence so you can take everything in with the rest of your senses, rather than letting your nerves get the best of you because you're worried about what the other person is thinking of you as a conversationalist or otherwise. If the person across from you just asked you a question you're not sure how to answer, take a few beats to think, take a sip of your drink, breathe, and gather your thoughts. (They might think the suspense is seductive!)

If you think you're taking too long, just ask, "Do you mind if I take a minute to think about that?" or "Hmm, I want to think on that one," and take the opportunity to ask the person something about them without making it seem like you're just trying to change the subject abruptly. If you try to fill the silence with idle chatter, it can come across as seeming insecure or may even be a turn-off for the other person.

As a general rule of thumb, if you're uncomfortable, you're more likely to make those around you feel uncomfortable, too, because you may not be hiding it as well as you believe, whether you seem distracted because you're pulling and tugging at an ill-fitting dress or you're incapable of cultivating comfortable silences with someone.

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When an awkward silence means there’s nothing to talk about

Sometimes, certain types or amounts of silence can tell you everything you need to know about whether it's worth the effort to try continuing to have a conversation with someone when it feels like hard labor (and the answer is: no). If you want to be polite about exiting the conversation, there are a couple of things you can do.

First, make sure to use your own method of transportation to get to the date or event so you don't have to rely on the other person.

Second, let them know upfront that you can only stay for drinks or a specific window of time, ensuring an easy way out that won't require any further explanation. (You can say you'll be meeting up with friends, you're attending an event, or you don't have to give any further details at all — it's not necessarily their business, so this is entirely up to you.)

Remember, this is just a chance for you to meet this person and get to know them well enough to decide out whether you want to spend a whole evening together at dinner, a party, or another event.

Best of all? If you end up really enjoying the date, it's best to leave it on a high note. While first impressions are important for many reasons, don't underestimate the power of last impressions. Your companion for the evening will associate spending time with you as a positive experience and you'll leave them wanting more.

Of course, if you simply say "Thank you so much for a nice evening. It was nice to meet you," while gathering your things to leave and without making any mention of future plans, that's a classy way of ending the evening in a respectful, kind, but direct way.

Worse comes to worst, excuse yourself to go to the restroom and when you return to the table, let the other person know your friend is having an emergency, or that you completely spaced out about a work presentation you need to get ready for the next day (if it's a Friday or Saturday, they'll really get the hint), so you need to run home. Or you forgot to feed your cat.

This borders on being just plain careless and rude, though, so maybe just thank them, smile, shake their hand or give them a quick hug with a pat on the back, and head for the door.

If nothing else, any one of the scenarios described above makes for a good story in and of itself, in addition to a memorable date that will help you continue to improve as a conversationalist — in which case, it's a win-win, no matter what!

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Alexandra Churchill is a writer who covers relationships.

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