It’s hard to fault anyone for thinking that awkwardness is to be avoided. The familiar, sinking feeling of knowing you’ve embarrassed yourself does not rank high on the hierarchy of desirable emotions.
Still, says journalist Melissa Dahl, there is something to be gained in embracing awkwardness—and the much-hated feeling can bring us together. Dahl, a senior editor at New York Magazine’s The Cut, is the author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, out today from Portfolio Books. She’s spent two years studying awkwardness, which means immersing herself in the psychological research, but also putting herself to the test by talking to strangers on the subway and reading her seventh-grade diary in front of a crowd.
The Verge spoke to Dahl about how awkwardness is different from embarrassment and anxiety, what the research tells us about whether anyone is paying attention, different types of secondhand embarrassment, and what happens if we stop fearing those awkward moments. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The Verge: First things first. What made you interested in writing a book about awkwardness?
Dahl: It’s a feeling that’s driven me insane for most of my life, but I started thinking about it more when I did this exceedingly silly story for Science of Us. A study came out by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago and a lot of people were reporting on it, saying, “if you talk to strangers on the subway in the morning before work, you’ll be happier.” I read that and I was just like, that cannot be true!
So I spent a week trying it and there was something really exhilarating about purposefully putting myself in this excruciatingly awkward situation. In the end, it did make me a little happier, and a little more attuned to moments where you can connect with people in ways I didn’t expect. That’s when I started to think, “oh, there’s something interesting here.” Plus, the subject just cracked me up. There’s an inherent hilarity here.
Almost everyone knows what it means to feel “awkward,” but when you think about it, it can be hard to define. How is awkwardness different from embarrassment, self-consciousness, anxiety, or even fear?
I had to think deeply about how to define awkwardness when I was invited to speak at this amazing tiny little psychology conference called the Symposium of Neglected Emotions. A lot of these feelings … overlap — there’s social anxiety and embarrassment in awkwardness — but I think awkwardness is self-consciousness with this undercurrent of uncertainty. You’re really aware of how you’re coming off to the world and then there’s an ambiguity about what to do next.
Embarrassment is a huge part of it, too. But embarrassment is like when you get pantsed in high school. I don’t think we’d call that awkward.
There’s not that much research on awkwardness, specifically, and the title of your book is “a theory of awkwardness.” So what is Melissa’s grand unified theory of awkwardness?
I’ve been calling it “cringe theory,” and I think the idea came through a story I did on why we cringe at the sound of our own voices. The topic has been written about all over. It’s about how I’m hearing through the bones of my own skull, which is different from what you’re hearing. But what interested me was why does that make us cringe?
And then I got obsessed with this idea that maybe we feel awkward when the “you” you think you’re presenting to the world clashes with the way the world is actually seeing you. We like to think those two “yous” are one and the same, and sometimes they are, but sometimes they’re not. For example, if I’m feeling secondhand embarrassment for someone else, I think you could say it’s because they’re presenting themselves one way and don’t know they’re coming off another way. The psychologist Philippe Rochat at Emory called it “the irreconcilable gap” between who you think you are and who the world is seeing.
So, your theory is that awkwardness is what happens when the “front” we put on collapses. You also talk about how we put on different fronts for different people and one thing that’s hard now is that these differences are coming together — like when you’re Facebook friends with your grandmother, old professors, and colleagues. How do we build a role that can stand different audiences?
I don’t know if there is an easy answer, but maybe we can try to do it in the most honest way possible, and keep in our heads that we contain multitudes. It’s just going to feel weird sometimes.
For me, I’ve been running into this when promoting my book, especially on Facebook where it’s mostly friends and family and not…