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Four seconds is all it takes for silence to get awkward

Well, this is awkward. A Dutch psychologist may have uncovered exactly what it is that makes those disruptions in conversation so horribly uncomfortable: They elicit deep-seated, primal fears of social acceptance and belonging.

"You could compare the dynamics of an interaction with dancing: Partners smoothly follow each others steps and know when to take over, in such a way that, in the end, one flowing dance appears," says Namkje Koudenburg, of the psychology department at the University of Groningen.

"In our research we found that this conversational flow is very pleasant; it informs us that things are all right: We belong to the group and agree with one another,” she continues. “As such, conversational flow serves social needs. That is, the need to belong, the need for self-esteem and the need for social validation."

The study consisted of two experiments, involving 162 total undergraduate students overall. In one experiment, participants watched one of two versions of a six-minute video clip, in which a group of three female students were talking about relationships. The participants were to imagine themselves being one of the three female students in the video, a woman named Linda. The three talked for four minutes, and then "Linda" said that teachers who have sex with students should be fired immediately. (Awkward.)

In one version of the video, the other members of the group smoothly steered the conversation to a topic that wasn't directly related to what Linda had said, and the conversation continued for two more minutes, never returning to the subject she had broached. But in the "disrupted flow" version of the video, Linda's words were followed with four seconds of silence, and then the conversation continued in a similar way to the first video. In a questionnaire, those who imagined themselves as Linda in the awkward-silence scenario reported feeling more rejection and more negative emotions, and fewer feelings of belonging or self-esteem, than those who watched the conversation that kept going without skipping a beat.

People who experienced the awkward silence reported feeling “distressed, afraid, hurt, and rejected,” according to the paper published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

"Even when people are not consciously aware that there is a silence, they immediately sense that there is something wrong," Koudenburg says. "Experiencing conversational flow is probably more than just detecting a silence. There may also be other ways in which a conversation is not as smooth as you would want it to be.”

Koudenburg doesn’t recommend rushing to fill the awkward silences when they occur.  Instead, she suggests trying to identify what brought it about – a disagreement? A controversial statement? – and remembering that everyone experiencing the disruption in conversation is feeling just as uncomfortable as you are.  

Because those awkward moments happen to everybody – there’s actually a Tumblr devoted to chronicling them. And if Natalie Portman weren’t a beautiful, famous, Oscar-nominated movie star, her dorky laugh at the Golden Globes last week might’ve shushed the crowd into an awkward silence. 

You can find The Body Odd on Twitter and Facebook, and follow Melissa Dahl @melissadahl. 

New York Times columnist Philip Galanes and TODAY contributor Harriette Cole give advice on how to handle awkward social situations, such as the pregnant belly rub.