As I hurry down the hall to French, I notice someone in my path. Do I go left? Do I go right? Do I keep walking straight? I do a little juke-step, then take a gamble and stay straight. The second hand stops as momentum carries me toward my unwitting dance partner, who has mimicked my every steps like a reflection in the mirror. He demonstrates Newton’s first law—the one about a body in motion—by ricocheting off a few lockers before collapsing and sending his computer clattering down the hallway. Just another freshman on the wrong end of inertia.
At least on this occasion there is a definitive conclusion to the event. I pick him up and apologize. We both have a laugh and then go about our business. But most “awkward encounters” just linger like the plot in a French movie, waiting and yearning for a resolution that never comes.
Accidental touching is perhaps the most common. Like when you are standing in the lunch line just behind that beautiful senior girl. You reach for a water bottle at the same time, brushing your hand against hers. It’s no big deal, really, but you both pull back like you’ve touched a hot stove. She pretends not to notice, and you stand there wondering why you are blushing.
Natural secretions and flatulence only add to the fun. One of your friends is listening intently to your funny story before bursting into laughter at your amazing punch line. Her sinuses send forth a large bubble, which pops and leaves a sticky residue on her upper lip. You look away as she frantically dives for a tissue, a napkin, a piece of notebook paper or a table to hide under. You mumble an excuse and then hustle off to nowhere in particular, trying to sort out just what the heck you are going to say the next time you bump into each other.
In most cases, awkward encounters are equally embarrassing for both parties. But some folks play an awkward game. Sometimes referred to as “crop dusters,” these villains load up on baked beans and other methane-laden foods before silently seeding a crowded room. As the dust settles, all the characters on stage are enveloped in the foul plot––and everyone pretends not to notice while silently taking stock of whether his or her conversation partner is the culprit.
But there is an antidote. When an awkward situation rolls around again, as it surely will, I urge you to acknowledge the moment. Place your left palm on the back of your right hand and twiddle both thumbs, creating the Awkward Turtle––the universal sign of awkwardness. The recipient of the sign is to nod in agreement and nothing further need be said.