Workplace awkwardness can come from co-workers with varying personal characteristics—from the super shy to those with a sailor's mouth.
But the behavior itself isn't the lone factor that creates awkwardness. The context in which it occurs and a group's reaction can contribute to an uncomfortable situation.
"There's a tendency to define awkwardness as though it's something inherent in a person, like people are born awkward somehow, but I think it's a matter of a social situation that just doesn't work," says Adam Kotsko, author of "Awkwardness" and assistant professor of humanities at Shimer College in Chicago.
The workplace, where professionalism and proper social etiquette should reign supreme, is a particularly inviting setting for awkward behavior.
"Everybody has to get along socially on a certain level," Kotsko says. "But then there's also the hierarchical work situation where some people are over others, especially in some white-collar circumstances, [and] people are competing with each other in some sense."
Those dueling expectations, he adds, can "cause people to bring in the personal where it's not appropriate."
Rather than gossip about the awkward behavior, here are some tactful and graceful ways to react:
Be understanding. While the behavior strikes you and your colleagues as odd, keep in mind that it may have been professionally and socially acceptable at the individual's previous job.
If the person is from another state or region, take into account that he or she may have grown up with different cultural norms, says Anna Maravelas, author of "How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress" and president of Thera Rising, a conflict resolution firm in St. Paul, Minn. "There's so many reasons why people behave the way they do," Maravelas says.
Avoid schoolyard taunting. Your first instinct may be to mock, letting the "awkward person [become] a cornerstone for gossip," Maravelas says. That type of reaction only inflames the situation, she notes, and spreads fear among other co-workers that they'll be the next target of ridicule for an odd habit they have.
Instead, Maravelas says co-workers should create a work enviornment in which everyone can acknowledge their mistakes and talk to each other about behaviors that make people uncomfortable.
Confronting Different Types of Awkwardness
The form of your co-worker's awkwardness may require a different strategy for addressing it. Here are a few tips if you find yourself in these situations:
The overly detailed romantic. The office has become the setting for a tell-all love story, as your co-worker eagerly reveals to you and others near your desk the romance or heartbreak he or she experienced over the past weekend.
To demonstrate that you're not a receptive audience, tune out the tales, says Susan Heathfield, management consultant and human resources expert for About.com. If it persists, gently and politely note that while you care for him or her as a person, you don't have time to hear "the ins and outs of their weekend love life," she says.
The brutally shy. Although you and your co-worker have had neighboring desks for close to a year, he or she remains as quiet as a plant. Your "hello" while passing in the hall triggers an awkward moment of silence and a glance down at the ground. And when he or she has to speak in meetings, the barely audible mumble makes for a cringe-inducing moment.
By encouraging collaboration, managers can create a work environment that helps a quiet co-worker come out of his or her shell, at least professionally. "Make certain that [he or she has] the kind of assignments that would be longer term where they could actually develop some sense of comfort and closeness with the group they're working with," Heathfield says.
As a peer, go out of your way to include the individual during meetings or group discussions. Socially, you can break the ice by inviting him or her out for lunch or for a doughnut in the break room.
The foul-mouthed. Launching a string of profanities or raunchy jokes, your co-worker's words not only leave an awkward air, but also a feeling of discomfort.
Such course talk could have legal ramifications, Heathfield notes. She suggests letting your manager handle the situation because inappropriate jokes can be deemed harassment. "Most companies don't want a lawsuit," she adds.