I recently had a student send me an email to set up an appointment. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the message, except it was mistakenly signed at the bottom with the phrase “all my love” as the signature. Before I even saw this message, the same student emailed me back one minute later in a panic. His note in the second email read:
OMG I’m mortified!!! I meant to sign “All the best,” NOT “all my love!” Please disregard that!
His embarrassment was palpable; enough to make anyone cringe. Remarkably, moments like this happen often within the academic environment. I also once had a student in my class whose laptop was inside his backpack when it started to make noise. Rather than calmly removing the laptop to turn off the noise, the student instead proceeded to stand up, grab his backpack, feverishly open the classroom door, and toss the backpack outside as if he never wanted to see the wretched thing again. He coolly sat back down in his seat as if nothing had happened. Awkward….
Of course, socially awkward situations can happen in any interaction. However, even instructors who haven’t been teaching for long can see that there is something about the classroom environment that especially causes both students and teachers to enact social blunders more often than usual. In fact, this phenomenon is exemplified by an abundance of internet memes on the topic:
Unfortunately, social blunders can impact students in negative ways, especially shy students. In fact, research indicates that socially anxious people are more likely to overestimate the negative outcome of awkward moments. Put simply, some people may become consumed with feelings of embarrassment (Moscovitch, Rodebaugh, & Hesch, 2011) and this may pose implications for the classroom climate.
Though awkwardness is an understudied topic, instructors can examine what causes feelings of embarrassment and awkwardness by drawing upon Goffman’s (1967) concept of the “face.” Goffman claims that one’s face represents a person’s social identity. It is the observable version of a person we see in her or his actions. One can imagine that these awkward situations may have the strong potential to be face-threatening. In fact, the common phrase “saving face” refers to the idea of helping or making someone appear positively in the eyes of others to reduce face-threatening outcomes. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see how the concept of saving someone’s face can be related to helping someone navigate a potentially awkward situation.
As such, instructors can utilize methods to help their students save face to assist when an awkward moment may be at hand. In this vein, Brown and Levinson’s (1987) Politeness Theory offers some advice. This theory demonstrates that language can be used to save another person’s face during face-threatening actions: this is the idea that our word choices matter when we are responding to awkward situations. Goldsmith (2008) outlines five potential politeness strategies that can ameliorate a face-threatening situation depending on the circumstance. Recall the earlier example in which the mortified student signed his email with “all my love.” These five response typologies outline potential handlings of the situation:
- Bald on Record: This response type explicitly acknowledges and calls out the awkward behavior or moment. It is potentially polite because it creates transparency and allows all communicators to be aware of the situation. This transparency may allow for additional opportunities to talk about the awkward moment so that individuals can best recover in their own way. For example, “That sure was awkward when you signed your name with the phrase ‘all of my love.’”
- Positive Face Redress: This type of response is similar because it also explicitly acknowledges the awkward moment. However, it considers the emotional tone of the message to create a positive communication climate at the same time. The goal of this response is to create a sense of common ground, cooperation, recognition of needs, approval, and acceptance. For example “That sure was awkward when you signed your name with the phrase ‘all of my love,’ but I accidentally did that once too! I was certainly embarrassed, but don’t worry, there is nothing to be embarrassed about, it happens all the time.”
- Negative Face Redress: This response is also similar because it is explicit and addresses the emotional tone. Yet, it considers a different emotion: rather than working to create a positive climate, this response avoids creating a negative one. Consider the phrase “don’t worry, there is nothing to be embarrassed about.” Though this may seem positive, it can also create a negative undertone for two reasons. First, it gives an order in the statement “don’t worry.” This can be perceived negatively because it commands the other how she or he should think or feel and takes away a sense of freewill. Second, the statement “there is nothing to be embarrassed about” assumes that embarrassment may be felt, which can also create negativity by assuming the feelings of another. As such, Negative Face Redress admits the awkward moment, but simply tries to avoid creating additional negative feelings by not presuming, coercing, or impinging on the other’s rights. For example, “That sure was awkward, but you can feel free to handle it in whatever way you are comfortable.”
- Off Record: This type of response is different because it does not explicitly acknowledge that an awkward event took place. Instead, it beats around the bush. It may mention something similar, but never officially state that this particular moment was uncomfortable. Though it is unclear, it may help to protect the other person’s sense of face by allowing room to maneuver the dialogue. For example: “I have heard of students signing their names with ‘all my love’ by accident before, but that has never happened to me! I guess there is a first time for everything!”
- Withhold Altogether: The last type of response basically withholds from commenting on the awkwardness. Effectively, it sweeps the awkward moment under the rug and moves on. To do this, a teacher might simply ignore the embarrassing situation and just reply to some other aspect of the message. For example: “Sounds good, I’ll see you in my office at 10:30am.”
These five politeness strategies can be used for an assortment of awkward situations to help avoid face-threatening outcomes. However, no single response listed above is necessarily better than any of the others. Using these strategies effectively will depend on the context, the particular student, and the relationship. Additionally, strategies can also be combined. Let’s consider how I ended up actually responding to the student’s original email:
LOL! No worries, that is a hilarious mistake though!! But I have seen all kinds of openings and closings from students – so don’t feel too badly : )! In other news, you are on my calendar for 10:30am on Monday. All my love, (Yes, I am completely teasing you now!!)
In my actual response, I used a combination of strategies from Positive Face Redress and Off Record. I took a great amount of care to acknowledge that it was a funny error and to also let him know that he was in good company. I signed the email myself the same way that he did to show that it was okay and not that big of a blunder. Essentially, I worked to build a positive interaction climate, created a common ground, and gave acceptance. However, I never explicitly stated that it was awkward. Though this response may not have been perfect for every context, it seemed to work for this particular student as his response afterward read:
Haha thanks for being cool about it!
No matter how much preparation and training teachers receive, we can never be fully prepared for the numerous awkward moments which will surface throughout our careers. However, it is important for instructors to help manage their student’s sense of face to help them to negotiate a positive social identity. Through appropriately applying politeness strategies to best accommodate a particular awkward context, students may be able to move past the social blunder more smoothly.
Brown, P., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 22 – “Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use” available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/53659180/Politeness-Some-Universals-in-Language-Usage-1.
Moscovitch, D. A., Rodebaugh, T. L., & Hesch, B. D. (2012). “How awkward! Social anxiety and the perceived consequences of social blunders.” Behaviour research and therapy, 50(2), 142-149. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260374/.
Goffman, E. (2005). Interaction ritual: Essays in face to face behavior. Aldine Transaction. Publisher’s information page: http://www.transactionpub.com/title/Interaction-Ritual-978-0-202-30777-0.html.
Goldsmith, D. J. (2008). “Politeness theory: How we use language to save face.” In L. A. Baxter & D. O. Braithwaite (Eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 255-267). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. Publisher’s information page: http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/engaging-theories-in-interpersonal-communication/SAGE.xml.