Awkwardness is like pornography — you know it when you see it — but it can be harder to pin down all the various components that turn a conversation from pleasant to uncomfortable. You’d probably notice if someone kept interrupting you, for example, or laughed at inappropriate times, but you may not necessarily pick up on some of the other, more subtle reasons for your discomfort: that someone is leaning just a little too far away, maybe, or that they’re nodding just a little more than normal.
But the Conversational Skills Rating Scale,
first developed in 1987 by Brian Spitzberg, a professor of communication
at San Diego State University, catalogues all those moving parts,
breaking down a conversation into all the factors that can make it go
right or wrong. The 25-question scale was built to measure of what Spitzberg calls “conversational competence,” a hybrid skill that encompasses “both appropriateness and effectiveness” in social situations, he explains: “You can be effective but inappropriate — you can have a boss scream at you and get you to do what they want — but that doesn’t seem like a very competent approach to communication.” On the other hand, “you can be appropriate but not effective — you can be at a really nice party and not do anything offensive, but not actually achieve anything” in terms of meaningful social contact. “And then of course you can be inappropriate and ineffective, which is the worst of all possible worlds.”
Most often, Spitzberg explains, competence is a sweet spot surrounded by two extremes. “Too little eye contact is a problem, but too much eye contact is a problem. Too many interruptions or too few interruptions can be problems,” he says. “So we tried to built a response scale that wasn’t about ‘Did you do this?’ but more a question of, ‘Did you do this appropriately?’”
Directions: There are two ways to apply the scale, Spitzberg says — you can use it as a self-evaluation tool, or you can use it to measure someone else. Maybe think back on the last conversation you had: Do you want to know the depths of your own awkwardness? Or would you rather turn a judgmental gaze toward the person you were talking to?
For each one, rate yourself (or whomever you’re scoring) on a scale from one to five, based on how well they did: For example, if someone talks neither too fast nor too slow, give them a five — not a three, even though that’s the middle. Spitzberg says competence is likely anything above 100 — a score between 75 to 100, he says, is “substantial room for improvement,” while anything below is painfully, alarmingly awkward.
A word of caution: If that ends up being you — well, we’ve all had an off day. But the score you end up with is more an analysis of this one conversation, and maybe a handy guide for the future, and less an absolute truth: “Competence is fundamentally a social perception,” Spitzberg says. “It’s subjective.” Awkwardness is in the eye of the beholder, and right now, the beholder is you.
How Awkward Are You?
Speaking speed (Talking too fast? Too slow?)
Speaking fluency (Were there too many pauses or filler words, like “um” or “uh”? Too few?)
Confidence (Sounding too tense on one hand, or too aggressively cocky on the other)
Articulation (Don’t mumble, but don’t overdo it, either)
Vocal variety (Monotonous? Overly dramatic?)
Posture (This one’s context-dependent — were you too ramrod-straight for the situation? Too slouchy?)
Leaning toward partner (Some personal space is nice, but too much can seem like disinterest)
Shaking or nervous twitches (Are they too distracting?)
Unmotivated movements (Ditto — tapping feet, fingers, hair-twirling, etc.)
Facial expressiveness (Not a blank stare, not some crazy cartoon face)
Nodding of head in response to partner statements (Not too still or too bobble-headed)
Use of gestures to emphasize what is being said (The goal is somewhere between keeping your hands stiff at your sides and gesticulating wildly)
Use of humor and/or stories (They have a place, but sometimes they can take over the conversation.)
Smiling and/or laughing (Some is good! Unless it’s not a happy or funny conversation, in which case, bad.)
Use of eye contact (There’s a point where it turns uncomfortable.)
Asking questions (The sweet spot between showing interest and turning a chat into an interrogation)
Speaking about partner (Did you give them some time to talk about themselves? Too much time?)
Speaking about self (The other side of the coin: Were you too self-absorbed? Or did you forget to mention yourself at all?)
Encouragements or agreements (Did you encourage your partner to talk, without seeming sycophantic?)
Personal-opinion expression (Not too aggressive, but not too much of a doormat, either)
Initiation of new topics (Was the conversation stuck on one thing for too long?)
Maintenance of topics and follow-up comments (Once the conversation turned to a new subject, could it be sustained for a reasonable amount of time?)
Interruption of speaking turns (Interrupting too much is awkward; on the other hand, so is waiting too long after a full stop.)
Use of time (Did one person dominate the conversation?)
VERY EXTENSIVE room for improvement (use of behavior was consistently noticeable in its absence, excess, or disruptiveness)
EXTENSIVE room for improvement (use of behavior was often noticeable in its absence, excess, or disruptiveness)
MODERATE room for improvement (use of behavior was occasionally noticeable in its absence, excess, or disruptiveness)
MINIMAL room for improvement (use of behavior was generally skillful, with few absences, excesses, or disruptions)
NO ROOM for improvement (use of behavior was excellent, and revealed no noticeable room for improvement)