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.
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.’”