The upside of awkwardness: writer Melissa Dahl explains why we cringe, and why it can be a good thing

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.

First things first: what made you interested in writing a book about awkwardness?

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.

Author Melissa Dahl.
Photo by Celeste Sloman

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 professional. So maybe I can think of it as, “Okay, this is my place where I am more of a friend and family member, but those people care about me and about this thing that I’ve made too. That’s part of me.” It’s not such a bad thing to be fully formed humans in the work sphere and in the friend sphere. Maybe those were always kind of artificial boundaries anyway.

In the course of research, you read a lot of papers. What surprised you? What was most useful? You mention one paper on “anxiety reappraisal,” which is about how we can tell ourselves that anxiety is actually excitement. Anything else?

Anxiety reappraisal is one that has stuck with me. I really love the spotlight effect too, which is the idea that nobody is really paying much attention to you. Of course, you have to be balanced about it. With things like entering a party late or entering a meeting late, it’s not that people aren’t noticing you doing embarrassing things, but not as many as you think. It’s not “do whatever you want” — of course sometimes people are looking at you — but not to the extent that most of us think. That’s freeing.

We’ve been mostly talking about awkwardness in small encounters, but you have chapters in your book talking about the awkwardness we feel about big topics like race and disability. What can awkwardness in those situations illuminate for us?

Normally, when we say “awkward,” we do mean those little moments of saying something stupid, but I was so interested to see it applied to these gigantic matters. I once clicked on a video series about why we’re awkward and it was a video series about racial bias, which is not what I was expecting. Then, I found this campaign in the UK called End the Awkward, which is all about how non-disabled people lose their minds over how to interact with a disabled person.

As I was developing cringe theory, this usage started to make sense. If awkward is about the gap between how you think you are and how someone else is seeing you, these excruciating moments where we want to run away become a little signal of an opportunity for us to be better. In these cases, it’s useful information when your inner idealized person is not being perceived well. It’s worth considering that other person’s perspective and put yourself in their shoes and think, “I don’t know everything, I meant to say it this way and they took it this way and maybe they’re right.” In these moments when we feel so uncomfortable, we can get a little closer to the person we want to be.

And I think sometimes a conversation will end up being awkward. It’s unavoidable and it’s fine! We’ll live.

I talked to Alison Green, from Ask a Manager, and she says, either you have to have the awkward conversation or live with the feeling that’s bothering you and there are different degrees of living with that thing.

Over the course of the book, I started experiencing awkwardness to a lesser degree. My friends would talk about their boss and I’m just like, just talk to them! And they say, no, I can’t do that. But a little awkwardness is not going to be uncomfortable and is not going to kill us. “Just step back and lighten up” is a lesson I’ve learned over and over again.

You read your seventh grade diary out loud to audition for the show Mortified and also go to Tinder Live, where people, well, use the app live and roast people’s profiles. The experiences of secondhand embarrassment were really different for you you loved Mortified but felt uncomfortable at Tinder Live. Why the different reactions?

The two shows take place in the same venue, so that was surreal — the conditions are the same, swap one thing out. And it became a really interesting way to investigate the idea of secondhand embarrassment and vicarious awkwardness. I once wrote about this study on secondhand embarrassment where they found that people who experience this also tend to be empathetic, and I just felt unbearably smug thinking, I’m such a good person and that’s why I have this strong reaction.

And these two shows accidentally showed me the differences. We talk about empathy as if it’s a synonym for kindness and compassion, and it can be, but psychologists like Philippe Rochat say it’s an automatic human reaction: I’m understanding what you’re feeling because we are social animals and that’s how we learn to get along. His thought is that you can either process through contempt or through compassion. It’s uncomfortable if you’re feeling empathy for someone who is embarrassing themselves. You can shut them out and be like, “I am not that idiot on Tinder on this big projection screen” or you can say, “that’s me, too. I’m feeling this way because I have been a version of that idiot.”

It might be too much to ask that we always do this for each other, but it became interesting to me to, as often as I can, try to process embarrassment through compassion. And Mortified is such an exercise in that. It’s hilarious and it’s a mix of self-recognition and tenderness because you can see yourself in every person up there. I didn’t make a website devoted to Leo DiCaprio in 1998, but I can definitely connect that to my absurd love for Hanson at that age.

I was not expecting to spend two years researching awkwardness and come out the other end with this real “common humanity” vibe but that show and this idea of compassionate cringing is what that led to. It’s a really nice feeling. It can help reframe the idea of awkwardness as something that everyone has experienced, so maybe I can choose not to drown in it and I can learn from it. It makes the feeling a little less isolating and is a nice way of connecting with other folks through our mutual human absurdity.


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