Melissa Dahl’s new book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, is an engaging, compelling and unique contribution to our understanding of a universal human experience that most of us would dearly love to avoid.
Feelings of awkwardness are ubiquitous. When we are not feeling mortified by our own embarrassing behaviors, we are cringing as we watch other people say exactly the wrong thing. We don’t even have to be in the midst of a cringeworthy episode to experience acute awkwardness; sometimes our memories of a particularly embarrassing experience come rushing back to us, for no obvious reason, while we are just going about our day-to-day lives.
What are these experiences of awkwardness all about? Why do they happen? When are we most at risk of stumbling into situations that make us cringe? In Cringeworthy, Melissa Dahl, who for years has been writing about the most intriguing findings from psychological science at New York magazine, takes us along on her quest to understand those unwanted experiences of awkwardness, and figure out what we can do about them.
Awkwardness happens, Dahl explains, during “moments in which you risk revealing too much of yourself, whether it’s your ignorance or your earnestness or your simple lack of basic social graces.” Feelings of embarrassment are at the heart of awkwardness, but they are not all of it. Uncertainty adds to the pain. Dahl knows what you are saying to yourself when awkwardness strikes: “Oh god, I have no idea what to say or do now.”
For such an uncomfortable topic, Cringeworthy offers a surprisingly reassuring message. Feelings of awkwardness can ultimately be a force for good, teaching us empathy and motivating us to become the person we want to be. When instead of running away from our cringeworthy experiences, we share them with other people in a compassionate context, we can create or deepen meaningful bonds with other people.
Dahl struggled with awkwardness her whole life and wanted to find ways to banish it. In her research for the book, though, she stepped right into it, immersing herself in one cringeworthy situation after another. In the opening chapter, she is reading from the pages of her seventh-grade diary in front of a group of strangers. Over the course of the book, we are right there with her as she chats up strangers on the subway, goes out to dinner and movies on her own, uses a friendship version of Tinder to arrange friend-dates with strangers, participates in a workshop on racism, and signs up for improv comedy lessons. Much to her surprise, she loved some of the experiences, especially the improv. Only one of her adventures turned out to be too much for her. She paid for a session of cuddling with a stranger, and showed up for it, but just couldn’t go through with it.
Interwoven with the stories of Dahl’s first-hand experiences are discussions of scientific research. When I first saw the title of the book, I wondered about that component – I didn’t think there was an established social science of awkwardness. And in fact, I don’t think there are any scholars who identify as awkwardness researchers. Plenty of them, though, are doing fascinating work relevant to the psychology of cringeworthy experiences.
For example, people feel awkward because they care about what other people think of them, so Erving Goffman’s classic writings on impression-management, such as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, are relevant. So is the research on “meta-perception,” the question of whether we really know how other people are viewing us.
Awkwardness is an emotional experience, so research on self-conscious emotions is telling. People cringe when they think everyone is watching them and judging them, but are other people really noticing us and judging us as harshly as we fear? There’s some great research on that. Why don’t our awkward experiences stay in the past instead of popping up in our minds when we least expect them? Research on memory offers some answers. How can we get some relief from our most painful experiences of embarrassing ourselves? Scholars who have studied self-compassion have some comforting answers.
In Cringeworthy, all the cringeworthy things that people did were well-intentioned. They may have said the wrong thing, but they didn’t mean to make the other person feel badly. That made me wonder whether Dahl’s theory of awkwardness would be relevant to the awkwardness that arises when someone says something that is deliberately hurtful.
That’s just one example of how the book stayed with me even after I had finished reading it. Another is that I kept thinking of more and more research that seemed relevant. For example, Daniel Wegner showed that when people try not to think about something (such as a white bear), they ironically end up thinking about it even more than if they had been told that they should try to think about it. That’s what happens in awkward situations – people admonish themselves not to say certain things, and then they blurt out just those thoughts they were trying to suppress.
I also realized that my colleagues and I had demonstrated some of the ways that social anxiety can contribute to the awkwardness of social interactions, though I don’t think we ever used the word ‘awkward’ in any of our publications. For example, we found that when socially anxious people expected to be evaluated by an interviewer, they told stories about themselves that were shorter, blander, and less revealing than those told by people who were not so anxious. We also found that socially anxious people are especially bad at knowing whether to believe another person.
Cringeworthy is a page-turner. I couldn’t wait to see what Dahl was going to try next, who she was going to interview, and what new insights she was going to uncover from her visits to the laboratories of clever researchers. As a narrator, Melissa Dahl is like a cherished friend – endearing, vulnerable, funny, generous and wise. I thought I would cringe all the way through the book, but most of the time, I was smiling instead.
I’ve read dozens of social science books based on the same template as Dahl’s: the author talks to experts, draws from the relevant research, and immerses herself in the topic of her book by trying various approaches herself. Cringeworthy stands out from the others. It is a story of genuine discovery. Melissa Dahl embarked on her project in hopes of finding a way to wall herself off from her awkward experiences.
Instead, she learned that a wide array of research findings was pointing to something else entirely, that the way to conquer awkwardness was not to avoid it but to walk right up to it. That she did, again and again. It worked. At the end of her journey into the study and practice of awkwardness, she got to the point where hardly anything fazed her. With Cringeworthy as your guide, maybe you can get there, too.
Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness
Hardcover, 286 pages