One night last week, I stumbled home after a long day at work. I’d had meetings, done some interviews for stories, conversed with colleagues, and met with my editors. I’d barely had a moment for a break, save for a quick desk lunch at noon of some leftovers from the night before: quinoa, kale, and chicken.
Those details might seem mundane, but it’s all to say that I was astonished—horrified—when I glanced in the mirror after coming home, then inched closer to find... a piece of red quinoa lodged right in my front teeth. I’d had lunch around noon and that quinoa had settled in quite cozily in there, waving cheerily from my mug and me for the subsequent six-and-a-half hours I’d spent at work interacting with other humans—people who I was sure now thought I not only had a terrible sense of oral hygiene but also (and I realize the jump in logic here) thought I was a complete, laughable idiot.
But to Melissa Dahl, senior editor at New York Magazine’s psychology vertical Science of Us, the cringeworthiness of the moment was to be celebrated as a sign of my approachability and empathy. Dahl’s upcoming book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, breaks down the psychological research of why we feel awkward in certain situations, and whether we can get over that burning, uncomfortable sensation of having done something extraordinarily embarrassing or just simply goofing up. (Disclaimer: I worked with Dahl between 2015 and 2016 as a freelancer for Science of Us.)
For Dahl, awkwardness is something she’s been “obsessed” with ever since she was a child. “I’ve been thinking about this my entire life,” she said. She’s someone who describes herself as overly self-conscious, perhaps as a result of moving across the country every two years and never feeling quite at home, literally and figuratively, in every new place. For an adult, that’s tough; for a kid going through the throes of puberty and loving Hanson and trying to find like-minded people who shared her crush and musical tastes, it brought on wave after wave of cringeworthy moments that made her feel as if she was somehow not quite “getting it.”
The feeling lingered into her adulthood as a science journalist focusing on psychology, and Dahl found as she researched the nagging sense of being awkward that what she thought was uniquely singular about her was actually sort of universal. “We all think, ‘Everyone is looking at me, I’m the only one feeling this way,’” Dahl said. “But the truth is everyone feels this way.”
That’s right: Everyone, even that perfectly put together cool girl on the train is secretly, probably capable of doing or saying something cringeworthy.
Why am I so awkward?
The idea of being “awkward” may be a modern invention, Dahl surmised. It’s not just that we have the ability to post what we are thinking and saying and doing at any point in our day on any medium, but the fact that we’re able to edit it and carefully craft the moment into something that earns us a heart on Instagram or Twitter or—if you’re especially likely—Facebook. No one has to know that selfie took 12 tries to get the perfect combination of lighting and landscape, combined with filter and caption and tagging, it’s a process.
But social media could just as easily make us also feel as if we’re not somehow “fitting in” to some idea of what is accepted and normal and cool. “Part of my cringe theory is that the self you think you’re presenting to the world is not how you think you’re presenting it,” she said. “When your self perception and social media perception clashes, that’s when you cringe.” That extends to those moments when you post something you think is witty and garners two likes, or you see those Timehop photos of your youthful self with your friends at a party in college and are horrified at your choice of clothing or hairstyle (and maybe even friends).
Dahl also said that how we think about our cringeworthy moments is potentially misguided. You sputter what you think is a funny thing to end some awkward silence only to be met by cold stares, or you walk out of a bathroom trailing some tissue paper on your shoe. The heat of embarrassment, the feeling of I’m an idiot! and wanting to melt into the wall or erase everyone’s memories of the incident might not just be a specific character trait that you’ve been blessed with.
Dahl said that we might be thinking about cringeworthiness completely wrong, actually; maybe it’s time to think of it as an emotion, something inherently natural.
“What is an emotion, really, but a reaction to our surroundings and experiences?” she pointed out. “It’s our way of conceptualizing, ‘This is happening, this is making my body feel this way.’”
She might be on to something here. Emotions are defined as “a conscious mental reaction subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” A conscious reaction (anyone who’s felt the air suck out of a room after an awkward moment will attest to that)? Strong feelings (embarrassment ranging from laughable to considering self-exile)? Physiological and behavioral changes (face flushing, sweating from places you didn’t think could perspire, stammering, making more terrible jokes or bolting from a room to try to overcome said embarrassment)?
Check, check, and check.
But emotions aren’t so easily defined in psychology literature. The first real attempt to define emotions was made by Robert Plutchik, a psychologist who devoted his life to psychotherapy and analyzing the emotional drivers of human behavior. Plutchik surmised that there were eight basic emotions. These eight might remind someone of the 2015 Pixar film Inside Out: anger, fear, sadness, joy, disgust—along with three others that didn’t make the cut for the movie: trust, anticipation, and surprise.
Plutchik’s theory was that these emotions were at the core of our humanity, and that we’d evolved to have these very basic emotions to instigate biological and behavioral responses that allowed us to survive. Fear caused running away from a predator and subsequent survival; joy at the sight of a baby encouraged nurturing behavior for the infant; disgust at piles of garbage prevented the spread of disease and decay. Plutchik developed a wheel of emotions—a sort of color-wheel-meets-psychology-theory—that suggested combinations of these emotions, and combinations of those emotions resulted in complex behavior that further defined our humanity and consciousness.
To Dahl, though, that’s precisely the problem: We’ve spent so much time trying to define the undefinable. Emotions are felt and often are difficult to convey in words, and feeling cringeworthy is something sort of involves both a Long Island Iced Tea conglomeration of Plutchik’s basic eight, but also none of them at all.
Which makes Dahl’s proposal of awkwardness as an emotion that much more exciting and novel. “It’s contagious and emotions are contagious,” Dahl said. “It’s kind of a neglected emotion. It’s an emotion we all feel from time to time.”
As my quinoa-in-teeth story showed, I’m prone to awkwardness—and yet, I wanted to understand this inexplicable, undefinable emotion better. So Dahl invited me to go to improv with her one brutally cold Thursday evening. To be clear: Improv isn’t something I would sign up for willingly—it requires being the center of attention, exposing yourself, and being funny, qualities that I find stressful and frightening and not me.
Which made it the perfect setting for me to test—and embrace—my awkwardness.
The three steps to embracing awkwardness
“Heart!” the cheery teacher squealed, pointing at the woman standing across from me, both of us miming holding a cocktail glass. We were on the 10th floor of a building in Manhattan’s Herald Square at Magnet Theater’s free two-hour improv comedy class, where 14 other strangers, Dahl, and I were assembled in a dim room boasting patio chairs, a clock that would be at home in any middle school in America, and not much else. The game: The improv coach would point at a pair with a word, each pretending to be at a cocktail party. That word would inspire conversation between the pair.
Ours was “heart.”
The woman across from me pivoted quickly, her eyes boring into mine, and, affecting a Valley Girl twang, purred, “Did you know that grizzly bears get heart attacks?”
Stunned—not only because as a science editor I did not know this fact (I later Googled it to find a series of videos that yes, make me cringe and wince and contort my face) but also because the word “heart” did not at all inspire me to think about grizzly bear attacks—I momentarily lost my mimed cocktail glass, which would have shattered by now had it been real. I couldn’t think of anything clever to add, so, racing to fill the awkward silence that had just incurred, I stammered, “Uh, huh... oh, hmmm, really?”
I was sweaty, clammy, flustered, and flushed, convinced the rest of the class was internally rolling their eyes at me and thought I was a loser—which was perfect because that moment, and the remainder of the class, offered several lessons in what awkwardness could teach us.
Later, Dahl and I discuss my feeling of awkwardness about my scenes. I tell her that I blew it, particularly in a subsequent scene where my partner had bequeathed me the name “Julie,” but I had referred to myself by my real name, Tanya. I noticed the mistake as soon as I said it, clapped my hands to my mouth, and was frozen for a bit, noticing the room seemed to heat up about 70 degrees.
“I didn’t even notice that!” Dahl said. “Honestly, I remember thinking when you were up there, ‘Oh wow, she’s doing a great job!’” My armpits and body temperature would say otherwise. It’s the first lesson of not only embracing but celebrating my awkwardness, though: You’re probably the only one that notices whatever thing you just did that makes you feel cringey.
“Someone can tell you that, that no one is paying attention to you, but it might not make a dent,” Dahl said. “Intellectually, I know that not everyone is paying attention to every little stupid thing I do, but doing something silly like improv is a better way to learn that.” Indeed, Dahl said, she remembered more about herself and her performance. And while this was simply a fun little exercise and not a more serious one like accidentally walking into a restroom only to realize that it’s not of the gender you identify yourself as, it still is true: No one but yourself probably remembers it as badly as you do, and even if they remember it, they will probably forgive you.
The second lesson Dahl offered for embracing the awkward in you is the idea that silence isn’t bad. That’s a hard one to swallow for a lot of people—me in front of a room of strangers being told of grizzly bear heart attacks, or a couple on a first date, or the weird holiday party dynamics that bring two people together to chat. But Dahl said that silence can be golden, and that it can lead to the other person wanting to fill in with commentary, relieving you of the need to chat. It’s an old journalist trick, really: Let the person on the line keep talking, and don’t jump in with a follow-up quite when they end, but let a gap of silence linger, so they feel compelled to fill it and maybe even say something interesting. Silence can be painful for the awkward, but silence might also be a welcome respite and again, probably something the other party isn’t noticing or feeling anyways.
Which leads to one of the last lessons that Dahl’s book offers about not only getting over awkwardness but also embracing it: Feeling awkward can be contagious, in that when someone does something embarrassing we cringe and feel their pain. Think of it as the horrified faces of the crowd around Elaine as she gets down on the dance floor in the famous Seinfeld scene—we’re all feeling pain at Elaine’s painfully strange moves, and we’re all George Costanza as he says, “Sweet fancy Moses!” That collective pain we feel at Elaine’s bizarre dancefloor skills is a sign of our humanity and empathy.
“We think of empathy as a synonym of kindness and compassion,” she said, “and it can lead to those things, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the same as those things. I think if you’re cringing at somebody else who posted something stupid on Twitter or posted an embarrassing Instagram photo, you can kind of go into this contempt form of cringing and think ‘Thank God I’m not that person!’” But Dahl said that moving from the snark and looking at the cringing reflex as something more akin to understanding how it feels to post something stupid or say something dumb is actually not just kinder but also a way to realize that these little slip-ups don’t make for a person who doesn’t know better, just a human.
When Dahl first pitched Cringeworthy, she envisioned it as a book about overcoming awkwardness, but she soon discovered that it wasn’t the right approach to the topic. Dahl goes to improv like me, but extends her awkward situation experimentation much more: She talks to an alt-right supporter immediately after the Charlottesville incident last year about racism, she gets advice from a disability rights advocate about how to address little people, she literally gets called ‘stupid’ by a researcher.
Dahl, however, said she started to find “joy” in these situations, and that that’s when the light bulb went off for her: Awkwardness wasn’t a character flaw, it was good. “This weird little emotion, these moments, they’re good,” she emphasized. “When someone is walking down towards me in the street and we do that thing where they move one way and I move that way, that used to stress me out—why couldn't I follow social norms? But now when that happens, that just cracks me up, and [I’ve realized] we’re all just putting on a show of ‘I totally know what I’m doing.’ Now I see these moments of awkwardness and I think, ‘Aha, we’re all idiots!’”
That might be the most valuable lesson that Dahl offers in her book: We’re all prone to cringeworthy moments, some more than others. The truth is that so much of our life is performative that what we think of as awkward is simply us trying to navigate the world. But the rules are flexible, and as Dahl pointed out, there’s a certain joy in realizing that we’re all a little klutzy, a little tongue-tied, a little embarrassing sometimes—and that’s perfectly OK. It proves we’re humans and not pre-programmed robots, and most of the time, no one even notices. Just ask the quinoa lodged in my teeth.