The Awkward Age, Part 1
How come no one here likes Hanson?!!” I exclaim weakly. I’m reading aloud from a small spiral-bound notebook—dark neon purple with multicolored swirls and stars—purchased for $6.99 at a Claire’s in 1997. It is my seventh-grade journal, and I’m reading it now, twenty years later, to three people I only met this morning. “I’ve been getting pictures of them off the Internet almost all day today and they’re so cute! How could anyone not like them?” I stop and look up from the journal. “I feel like I should note that every time I write ‘to,’ it’s the number and not the word,” I say to my audience. All four of us are seated in armchairs near the bar at Littlefield, a performance venue in Brooklyn. Before today, I’ve only been here at night, and it’s a little disorienting to see it in the muted light of a sunny January afternoon, though this is by far the least surreal aspect of what’s happening right now. The three strangers listening to me read are Stephen Chupaska, a bespectacled man with floppy brown hair and a skinny scarf, both of which he has a habit of tossing back with a flourish; Christina Galante, a woman with a wry smile and animated eyes who is taking notes on a laptop as I speak; and John Dorcic, an affable, extroverted guy with a neatly groomed goatee. They are producers for the New York City branch of Mortified, a live show in which performers read from their teenage diaries. Onstage. In front of hundreds of people. I think I’ve had a version of that nightmare before, but in it I was only physically naked, not emotionally so. This is my “audition” for a spot in the show later this year, and I feel like I’m maybe blowing it. The word “audition” is in quotes because I’ve been instructed by Dave Nadelberg, the creator of Mortified, not to call it that. It isn’t one, not really, because anyone brave enough to volunteer to be in this show is welcome to participate, provided they have enough material they created during their teenage years for a ten-minute piece. But I’m skeptical about my chances. I’ve spent the last two hours sitting in on a “curating session,” to use Nadelberg’s preferred term, and I’m in awe of the people I’ve seen already today. True, a lot of it’s been silly. One guy ended every journal entry with a detailed description of everything he wore and everything he ate that day, plus a signature daily sign-off: “PEACE, one love.” But most of what I’ve heard today has suggested the beginnings of some real artistic talent. Earlier this morning, a woman read poetry she wrote in high school, which Galante, the show’s lead producer, rejected because it was too good. I do not expect to encounter that problem. At my “ ‘2,’ not ‘to’ ” explanation, the three producers nod politely, then indicate that I should keep going. I take a shaky breath and continue reading the March 7, 1998, entry, cringing harder with every word. “What am I gonna do? I have to call long distance if I want to talk about Hanson!” I pause again. It’s an unseasonably warm day, but somehow I don’t think that’s why I’m sweating. “This is so ridiculous,” I say. “None of this seems usable. Is any of this usable? I just—I don’t want to waste your time, and I really respect the show and what you guys do—” Galante cuts me off. “We won’t know if it’s usable unless you keep going,” she says, raising her eyebrows at me over her laptop. Later all three of them will swear I’m the most tense, tight-lipped participant they’ve ever had. I start reading an entry and then decide it’s too stupid to keep going, so I flip ahead and try another, only to abandon that one just as quickly. I stammer, I blush, I start sweating so much I have to remove the olive-green jacket I’m wearing, though it’s too late—there are telltale wet spots under the arms, two large circles now colored a slightly darker olive green. You idiot, I think. Wearing dark colors to hide nervous underarm sweat was something you came up with in middle school. The kid who wrote this diary is smarter than you. But in my own defense, it makes sense that I’m more hesitant than a typical Mortified performer. I’m not a performer. It’s not like I’m auditioning because I’m dying to read my middle-school journal in front of hundreds of strangers; even just these three are a little much for me. I’m only doing this for research.
By the time I audition for Mortified, I’ve been officially studying awkwardness for the better part of two years; unofficially, for the better part of three decades. (They do say to write what you know.)Most of us went through an awkward stage, and I am no exception. I had a somewhat unique experience growing up in that my family moved every two years or so, which meant the second I got the hang of cool at one school, we’d leave for another town, and usually another state. Awkward moments inevitably ensued every time I had to play the new kid, and I quickly learned that what is acceptable at one school will be roundly mocked at another. You could love Hanson in Nashville in 1998, but in Chicago you’d better learn to like the Backstreet Boys. You could wear Clueless-style kneesocks in southern Louisiana in the early 2000s, but in northern California you’d be side-eyed for clinging to a passé trend. Every young person is hyperaware of social rules, but learning different ones over and over as I grew up made me even more sensitive to moments that deviate from the norm. And perhaps more prone to causing them. Anybody who writes for a living ends up writing what they know, whether they mean to or not, but the truism tends to be especially accurate when your subject is psychology, a field I’ve reported on for the last ten years. “The best thing about this job,” an old boss used to say to me, “is that we don’t just get to ask interesting questions. We get to find the answers too.” She and I shared a predilection for oddball queries about the human experience: Why do so many of us hate the sound of our own voices? Why does remembering something stupid I said or did years ago still make me blush today? And what could possibly be the point of feeling embarrassed on behalf of people I’ll never meet—like the cast and crew of La La Land when they accepted the Best Picture Academy Award (which actually belonged to Moonlight)? In these cases, my former manager’s words turn out to be only half true. They are interesting questions, but I couldn’t find a satisfying answer to explain why each of these things made me cringe; nothing like a Unified Theory of Awkwardness appeared to exist in the scientific literature. And so I set out to create my own. But here’s a journalism tip for you: Don’t just trust your own instincts. Consult the experts. In this case, I’ve taken care to interview the people who know the subject best. Some scientists and philosophers, for example, have devoted their daily lives to the study of emotions like happiness, or envy, or guilt, or boredom. For my research I needed to talk to the people who spend their days investigating what it means—indeed, how it feels—to cringe, to experience the physical, visceral tightening in your gut and the flush in your cheeks and the sweat on your palms and the panic in your heart when you’ve totally, utterly embarrassed yourself. Which means, obviously, that I consulted middle schoolers. A handful of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds from northern California and central Minnesota were nice enough to answer what, as I spoke with them, increasingly felt to me like cringeworthy questions from a weird adult. One of the things I asked them was to define what “awkward” meant to them. Here are a few of my favorites, taken from conversations, e?mails, or texts:
Awkwardness is when no one is talking.
It’s when you don’t know what to do.
Awkwardness is a feeling of being uncomfortable. Where you are often left speechless or unable to speak. You are going to want to get out of that place as quick as you can. Their definitions highlighted their uncertainty when navigating ambiguous situations, and the discomfort that results when someone deviates from the norm. And they’re right, of course; no one knows awkward like a middle schooler. But I’m not sure that entirely captures the feeling. We expect a lot out of “awkward” these days; the word has become a catchall term for any situation that makes us uneasy, whether trivial or serious. Not long ago I was at a small gathering at a friend’s apartment when one woman started telling the rest of us that her fiancé’s brother had recently come out—but only to her. No one else in the family knew he was gay, including her fiancé. “It’s just so awkward,” she kept saying. “I just feel so awkward around them now.” But things can also be “adorably awkward,” a phrase BuzzFeed has used to headline stories describing puppies, first-kiss stories, and childhood photos of Miley Cyrus. Sex can be awkward. Work can be too, but you knew that if you’ve had either a job or a television in the last decade or so. Recently I came across a board game called Awkward Moment at Work, which offers a welcome reverse from reality in that the most socially inept employee wins. But I’ve been struck lately by how often the feeling is asked to shoulder considerably more weight. Some disability rights advocates have argued in a long-running ad campaign called “End the Awkward” that able-bodied people feel so uncomfortable around the disabled that many of them choose to simply avoid the disabled whenever possible. In late 2016 the New York Times published a short video titled “Why We’re Awkward,” which turns out to be because of racial bias. The comedian W. Kamau Bell has for years encouraged Americans to have more “awkward conversations,” which for him are typically discussions of consequential but sensitive subjects like racism or sexism. Bell’s technique is gentler than many typical examples of online “call-out culture,” a term for the practice of publicly shaming people on social media for their offensive language or behavior, and yet those advocating for these kinds of intense and sometimes callous confrontations often use the same word that Bell does, encouraging one another to #MakeIt Awkward. Have you ever repeated a word so often that it loses its meaning? I wonder sometimes whether we’ve done that to “awkward.” How can this one word be used to describe the way you feel when a relative says something sexist at Thanksgiving . . . and when negotiating a raise at work . . . and when you accidentally “like” an old photo when you’re sixteen weeks deep into an acquaintance’s Instagram feed? Part of my challenge in studying the emotion was properly defining it. To me, awkwardness is self-consciousness tinged with uncertainty, in moments both trivial and serious. In its Middle English usage, “awkward” meant something like “wrong-ward” or “turned in the wrong direction,” which in my college years was frequently represented by the Awkward Turtle: You placed one hand on top of the other and circled your thumbs around, and the whole thing was meant to look like an upside-down turtle who has bumbled his way into an uncomfortable yet inescapable situation. Any mildly uncomfortable event was deemed awkward and an occasion for the Awkward Turtle. Late to class? Awk-warrrd! Run into an ex at the bar? Awk-warrrd! In retrospect, talk about cringeworthy. The turtle hand sign was a silly, jokey way to lighten the tension of a mildly tense interaction, something you could do when words failed you. The legacy of this understanding is that awkwardness is mostly characterized as silly and insignificant, and so it can seem inadequate to apply the word to matters of greater consequence. But I think it’s a feeling that’s worth taking much more seriously than we often do. It’s an alert system, letting you know when something’s gone wrong. The alarm sounds in those moments when you don’t know what to say to a friend whose father has just died; or when you are desperately trying to avoid offending someone when talking about race or class; or when you find yourself in smaller but still emotionally fraught instances—say, when you’re trying to work up the nerve to see whether a work friend could possibly become a real friend by asking her to drinks. All of these are 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. If awkwardness sounds the alarm, cringing is what happens when it goes off. It’s the intense visceral reaction produced by an awkward moment, an unpleasant kind of self-recognition where you suddenly see yourself through someone else’s eyes. It’s a forced moment of self-awareness, and it usually makes you cognizant of the disappointing fact that you aren’t measuring up to your own self-concept. The alarm sounds, and the cringe tells you to abort, abort, abort, and so usually you do. You say nothing to your grieving friend. You don’t even try to challenge your own thoughts or beliefs about issues of social consequence. You go home instead of going to happy hour. That’s the meaning that we’ve assigned to cringing, anyway, but is it true, necessarily? It’s so hard to look at yourself from someone else’s point of view when it means taking in the ways you’re not measuring up to your own self-concept. But if you can stand it, seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes can help you move a little closer toward becoming the person you wish you were. “If we are not regularly deeply embarrassed by who we are,” the philosopher Alain de Botton has written, “the journey to self-knowledge hasn’t begun.” Try to see the world every once in a while through the eyes of an upside-down turtle.
Back at my Mortified audition, Dorcic seems unable to stop himself from laughing at how flustered I’ve become. I spent the morning in journalist mode; I’ve always loved the job for the way it gives me a reason—and, as a happy side effect, the confidence—to ask strangers nosy questions. But the minute the producers made me start reading my diary in front of them, all my poise deserted me. “Look at you!” Dorcic says. “You came in here this cool, confident journalist, and now . . .” He shakes his head and laughs again, though he’s nice about it.
Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Dahl. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.