Most of the time it’s like we kind of have social scripts to follow.
You come in here, you say hello,
and then if something goes out of the ordinary
it shakes us up and makes us feel uncertain.
And there is a long stretch of scientific literature on this dating back to the 1960s.
There’s this classic study where they shocked people with these little electric shocks and
they asked people if they preferred shocks when they knew they were coming
or if they preferred shocks that just came out of nowhere,
and people would rather know when the little painful shock was coming.
Which seemed interesting to me
because you would think that the expectation might make it worse,
but we like predictability, I guess.
I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s interesting that sometimes we call awkwardness
为什么尴尬带来痛苦 折磨 却又带来乐趣
painful or excruciating—it adds an interesting layer to that.
So a big part of my “cringe theory”—that’s kind of what I’m calling it—is
that there is a difference—
we don’t like to pay attention to it very much,
or I don’t—but there is a difference often
between the way that you see yourself and the way that you think
you are presenting yourself to the world,
and the way that the rest of the world is perceiving you.
And something there really helped unlock this for me was
the idea it’s almost like clichéd thing—that people hate the sound
of their own voices or people don’t like
looking at recordings of themselves.
In particular, the thing about people hating the sound
of their own voices is a great example of this
because your voice really does sound different to you
than the way everyone else is hearing you.
So when we hear somebody talk you’re kind
of hearing somebody else through the air,
but when I’m hearing myself talk I’m hearing myself through the air
and through the bones of my own skull,
which actually transmit the sounds differently and
makes my voice sound lower than it actually is.
So it’s a really common complaint people are like—
they listen to their own voices and they’re like,
“Oh my gosh it’s so much higher than I thought it was!”
That’s always what I think about when I hear my own voice played back.
And I think that this is a central part
of my theory about what makes us cringe is when
the ‘you’ you think you’re presenting to the world
clashes with the ‘you’ the world is actually seeing,
and that makes us uncomfortable
because we like to think that we’re coming off in a certain way and it’s
哦 不 你就是这样看我的？我在你眼里是这样的？
just like, “Oh no, that’s what you think of me? That’s how you see me?”
And I think that’s never going to go away.
There’s always going to be—there’s this psychologist Philippe Rochat at Emory University
who has a name for this, he calls this the “irreconcilable gap”.
And so he really thinks this, it’s even in the name—it’s never going to go away,
there’s always going to be this gap between the way
you perceive yourself and the way others perceive you.
And I think that’s at the heart of what we call
awkward moments or awkwardness—kind
of that uncomfortable feeling that you’re cringing at yourself or at somebody else.
It takes a while but you can start to
train yourself to think of that as a useful piece of information.
If you try to negotiate a raise or negotiate a promotion at work or something,
it makes us uncomfortable when your boss is like,
“Oh actually I see you in this light.”
You know it’s not something we want to hear or if you say something and
someone takes it as an insult,
and you didn’t mean it that way but the other person took it that way and
that makes you feel awkward or makes
you feel self-conscious or cringe at yourself,
you could just tell yourself that the other
person’s perception of you doesn’t matter,
it’s not true, you know you, and that’s it.
But I’ve started to think that it’s useful sometimes to take the other person’s point of view into mind.
They’re not always right;
it would be insane to suggest that other people know you better
than you know yourself,
but one way I’ve figured out of how to deal with this emotion
a little better is to start thinking of it
as useful information like,
“maybe this is a way to start tiptoeing towards becoming this person
that I see myself as, this person that I wish I was.”
The nerdy definition of humor is an upended expectation,
and that’s what so many of these awkward embarrassing moments are—
you thought something was going to go this way, you thought you were coming across this way,
and oops no, this other thing happened, this
other person sees you in a totally different light.
And I think if you could start to think
of these moments as a little bit funny it helps, too,
and maybe to eventually turn it
into a story you can tell somebody else.
I have two thoughts about awkward-embracers.
I mean I came across a lot of them and kind
of made myself do some awkwardness-embracing for the book too.
But the one that comes to mind is there’s this guy,
Stefan Hofmann, he’s a therapist
in Boston and he runs the social anxiety
clinic and people who have social anxiety feel awkwardness to the extreme,
they’re very self-conscious and
it really prevents them from living and
from a lot of opportunities and a lot of happiness.
And so his whole therapy is designed
around making people experience awkwardness, like
having people dream up:
‘What would be the most embarrassing thing I can think of to
do?’ And then he’s like, “Great, okay—now go do that.”
And so he’s had people do things like
go into a bookstore and ask a clerk,
“Excuse me, I am looking for books about farting.”
Or he’s had people go up to tables
at a restaurant—like at a nice restaurant—and say,
你好 我正排练伴娘致辞 我演给你看好不？
“Excuse me, I am working on my maid of honor speech. May I practice it for you?”
Just these horrible, horrible things.
And the point is to kind of put them
through their worst social nightmares and then have
them come out the other side and be like
哇 我熬过来了 虽然别人用很奇怪的目光看我 但我一根汗毛也没少啊
“Oh, I survived. People looked at me weird but I survived.”
And a lot of times it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was.
I think because his whole thing
is framing this with humor too—he really wants people
to take themselves less seriously, which is, again,
just a lesson I’m constantly having to learn, not to take myself so seriously.
And then the other monthly ritual in putting yourself
in an awkward situation is this thing
I came across called Mortified, which is this stage show.
It’s all across the country, all across the world, where people get up onstage and
read from their teenage journals.
When I first came across this, I was like,
“Why?! Why would anyone do that?!”
And then I did it.
A lot of things in the book I almost did just as a stunt like,
oh I’ll do this now and it will be funny.
And almost every time I was surprised by how much I got out of it.
Like getting up onstage and reading from my middle school journal,
it’s—in a weird way you would think
that getting up there and reading some of the most embarrassing
会让你变成一个孤独的 隔膜的 愚蠢的个体
things you’ve ever thought would end up making you feel really alone and really isolated and really stupid,
but it ended up making me feel really weirdly connected to everyone
else who has been in the show and everybody in the audience.
I think every time it’s a comedy show
and it’s like it’s done pull out of compassion but it’s also really funny.
And when you get to a line where you read something
that you wrote as a really angsty 12 year old and
it makes everyone laugh it feels really good,
because a lot of times people laugh because they recognize themselves in you.
And so if they’re recognizing themselves
in you then you’re not alone—your embarrassing things,
they don’t have to isolate you.
I ended up getting, out of this whole awkwardness
deep study, this common humanity vibe I was not expecting.