Thumbs down to ‘Awkward Turtle’— How to handle awkward situations in better ways

thumbs1‘Awkward Turtle’ is one of those urban slang expressions with which only the tragically unhip (you too?) are unfamiliar. It refers to a movement in which you place one hand over the other and rotate your thumbs, presumably imitating a turtle trying to get out of an awkward position.

It can be used in a group situation, when someone puts their foot in it, says the wrong thing, doesn’t realise something significant about a group member, and so on.

The person who realises the gaffe makes the sign, possibly adding the words ‘awkward turtle’, and the situation is defused. Or you realise that you have created the situation, and show your awareness by doing the same. Everyone laughs — whew, that was awkward! — and the tension is dissipated.

Let’s hope that the use of this phrase doesn’t spread. Like emoticons and other ‘useful’ signs, it limits and diminishes the communication it claims to enable.

It’s as if we don’t trust ourselves with words. It’s as if we need to hide behind a one-size-fits-all signal so we don’t have to engage with people.

And when we resort to this kind of strategy, we stop using our skills of assessing situations and circumstances and responding appropriately.

Every day brings its own crop of awkward situations. For example:

  • You smile and wave back at someone who was greeting someone standing behind you.

  • Someone joins your group just as you are talking about them.

  • You forget someone’s name.

  • Someone forgets your name.

  • Your mother calls your new romantic interest by your ex’s name.

  • You make a joke about coffins when one of the listeners has recently been bereaved.

  • You make a dismissive comment about drug users when one of your group has distressing personal experience of this.

  • You are critical of someone without realising that your friend has just started seeing them.

You could do a ho-ho awkward turtle number in these and similar situations, or someone could try to ‘rescue’ the situation by sharing the turtle gesture, but using a verbal equivalent is more sensitive and more aware, and will help to maintain a stronger connection with other people.

The first thing to remember is there is nothing wrong with awkwardness. Sometimes it is an inevitable consequence of interacting with each other.

Our feeling of discomfiture when something hits the wrong mark is a mixture of embarrassment and self-consciousness, sometimes out of all proportion to the perceived blunder.

What is truly awkward is when a comment is likely to cause hurt or distress because the speaker is ignorant of or has forgotten something significant about the other person or persons.

  • If you are the speaker, as soon as you are aware of the circumstances, say something like;

  • I’m sorry. I didn’t realise.

  • I’m sorry. That was tactless.

  • I’m sorry. That was an absolute oversight.

  • That was very thoughtless of me. Sorry.

  • Please forget I said that.

Don’t draw attention to yourself with any ‘trust me’ or ‘me and my big mouth’ stuff.

If you are in a group when an ‘awkward’ situation occurs, do what you can to help the situation (something other than exchanging turtle gestures with everyone else). Step in and say something like:

  • Katy, you might not know that Henry lost his father recently.

  • Henry, you might not realise that Katy and Kim are an item now.

  • Kim, just to be clear, this is Henry. Tim is his brother.

  • Slip of the tongue, Mum/Dad/Nan/Mischievous sibling! As you know, this is Katy.

Many of the situations we term ‘awkward’ aren’t really that at all — they are the little trip-ups and misunderstandings which are part of life.

Any one or a mixture of a smile, an eyebrow flash, a ‘sorry’ (spoken or mouthed) will deal with the misplaced wave or the unfortunately overheard comment. (We’re not too keen on ‘whoops!’ — a bit cutesy and look-at-me.)

Clashes of opinion aren’t necessarily awkward either — they can form the basis of lively conversation. So what if you have been railing against requests to sponsor activities to someone who has recently raised a lot of money for charity on JustGiving? So what if you have been speaking about the ethicality of cheap fashion to someone who shops exclusively in (now this is a whoops! moment)? The potential awkwardness is the point at which the different opinion is revealed.

If you are the listener in this kind of situation, you could break in at an appropriate moment and say something like:

  • Before we go on, I should tell you that I am an active supporter of / am married to/ am good friends with/ work for/ am an alcoholic/ have six children.

  • Alternatively, when it’s your turn to speak, try something like

  • I see what you’re saying. My view is rather different.

  • I have to disagree.

  • You’ve got a point, but as a…. I do see this differently.

Turtles are lovely creatures who cannot express pain or discomfort in words. It’s a shame to use an ungainly position as a ‘fun’ way to draw attention to an awkward situation. Much better to use the grace and elegance of words.

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