My generation has many obsessions. Phones, memes, and pizza are obvious examples, but a lesser-known yet omnipresent paragon lurks in almost every conversation and interaction that I have with someone my own age: awkwardness. Awkwardness is everywhere these days. The fear of an awkward situation will literally debilitate people into solitary confinement of their own free will. There is a mountain of apps that’s basic premise is to do away with that first awkward hello out in the real world. Heaven forbid we engage in some kind of awkward interaction these days, and yet the kicker is that we all do on a constant basis! Humanity is not programmed for seamless interaction. We are all awkward here, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.
Where does awkwardness stem from? Associate professor of psychology Joshua W. Clegg says that there is little that is consistent with every awkward occurrence beyond the fact that someone feels uncomfortable. A couple of common themes in his research of awkward situations are times when social norms have been violated, such as speaking over someone; when negative judgments of someone are made known to that person; or when you are made to participate in social ice breakers, forcing you to realize that you are a being in a social world. According to Professor Bethany Teachman of the University of Virginia, awkward situations occur basically whenever real life does not match up to our expectations in a given interaction. Which, if you consider the unpredictable nature of human beings and the world at large, happens quite often. So why has the sensation of feeling awkward, which by its definition should be a regular part of everyone’s life, come to be reviled as such a negative occurrence?
Perhaps the answer to that question lies in the usage rates of the word itself, even when it doesn’t actually apply. Awkward has become an umbrella term for all things even mildly uncomfortable. You said hello to someone and they didn’t say it back? Ouch, awkward. You mentioned plans to go out in front of someone who wasn’t invited? Oh, that’s awkward. And don’t even get me started on saying goodbye to someone who ends up walking in the same direction as you. But are all these situations really that awkward? The first scenario is plenty common and could be explained by a number of factors. They may not have heard you, or maybe they’re very shy, or maybe you didn’t hear them when they responded. At the very worst, I’d call that uncomfortable, and it really isn’t even all that bad when you think about it. Getting caught discussing plans in front of someone that you don’t want to attend isn’t awkward either—it’s just a little rude or unfortunate. A simple solution to that problem would be to consider why you don’t like that person or don’t want them to be there, and see if there’s a way to resolve the situation. Besides, just because you got caught discussing something that you don’t want them to know about doesn’t mean that they’ll care all that much either way. And that last situation? Okay, it’s a little awkward, but that feeling lasts for about five seconds max, and then you have more time to spend with a person that you were just absorbed in great conversation with. It’s a blessing in disguise!
There is no denying that the application of the word awkward has spiked in recent years, and we’ve already gleaned that it isn’t always used accurately, but why has it become so popular? I would argue that social media’s influence is not to be overlooked. In an age where every waking moment—and some non-waking ones, as well—is subject to documentation in one form or another, there are bound to be the occasional situation that prickles the hair on your neck a touch. Interacting with strangers can be unpredictable and even heated, and nothing stokes those fires more than a rolling camera. On the flipside, celebrities and persons of note have more avenues than ever to sell their lives as fairytale wonderlands. You’re not going to catch Jennifer Lawrence posting a video of that moment in a convenience store where the clerk hands you your change but you can never seem to put it away fast enough before they call for the next person in line. Inevitably, you end up with your arms too full, precariously balancing a bottle of sparkling water against your chest with one hand and a snack-sized bag of Cheetos puffs in the pinky finger of your other while you try to stuff crumpled dollar bills back into your wallet. Come on, we’ve all been there. But now whenever something comes up and it makes us cringe, we are so quick to cry “awkward!” Maybe it’s the universality of those uncomfortable feelings that appeal to us so and that’s why we use that word at every chance we get, but it doesn’t shake the fact that tacked to its presence is a palpable negativity. With the title of awkward hitched to its wagon, a situation that was once merely uncomfortable becomes almost visually negative. Calling out the discomfort only seems to feed into it even more, and so we begin an endless cycle that’s sure to leave even the Dos Equis guy with a bad taste in his mouth.
Was it this way with generations past? Could it possibly have been? I never once heard my mom say the word awkward growing up, so I would imagine that it was not. Our parents never had cell phones to immediately attend their eyes when the slightest whiff of discomfort crept into the air. They had to suffer through that small hiccup of social anxiety, a feeling that always fades if given the chance. We are so afraid of that feeling, though, that no one even offers it an opportunity to breathe anymore! We suffocate it with all of our buffers, be they technological, physical, or verbal, so that we can continue to convince ourselves that we as humans can somehow exist in a world that is untouched by those quirky little moments of upset. But ask yourselves this: if we never feel uneasy, how can we ever know when to grow? At its core, awkwardness has a purpose. Just as pain tells us when to move our finger away from the flame, awkwardness tells us that there is something in this interaction to pay attention to. If you mention overdue rent payments in front of your roommate’s mother and the air stills even just a bit, you can probably deduce that she doesn’t want you to do that anymore. Discomfort in social interaction is as much a cue to how we should act as the positive sanctions of laughter and praise. All those well-adjusted aficionados with the gift of gab pouring out their eyeballs probably got there from good old-fashioned trial-and-error. Instead of shying away from that silence that lasts just a second too long, they turned into the wave and rode it as high as it can go. How else do you learn to interact with people who are different from yourself and your friends?
Our world is facing a fascinating and enormous challenge today: connection. With more and more resources than ever before that can connect you to a person across the world in a second, we now must overcome the cultural and social hurdles that separate us still. This will cause imminent discomfort, I promise you. Interacting with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you requires patience and then more patience, but if you give it time you can uncover some of the most beautiful moments that you will ever experience. It will be awkward, but that too shall pass. The worst part about our collective fear of the big, gaping space of awkward is that past its borders are often such green pastures. If we were to only push past these boundaries, we’d find so much more fulfillment and joy in our lives each day. Being awkward is not something to fear, it’s something that dictates to us that we have left our comfort zone. I’m sure that I don’t have to be the first person to tell you that the place outside your comfort zone is where you are able to grow. If you’re feeling awkward, embrace it, because it probably means that you’re doing something right.
Is every awkward situation worth it? Absolutely not, and they don’t all deserve your attention. Some of the awkward situations in life should be avoided, especially if it’s something that needs to be handled by individuals other than yourself. Still, for every awkward situation, there are tools that can be used to mitigate its effects. First, recognize how commonplace they are. Awkward situations happen to everyone, independent of your wealth, your social standing, or your stellar personality. Second, be realistic about what these situations mean to you and how you’ll allow them to affect you. More often than not, these situations aren’t going to change your life, and if you’re worried about how they’re going to make you look in someone else’s eyes, realize that most people will forget about that stupid thing you did one night at a party or something you said while you were on your first date. After all, awkward statements can often be endearing. Most people look back on their first dates, something that is almost universally uncomfortable, with fondness. They appreciate the obvious nerves because they indicate the level of feeling that someone has. It’s like young love all over again, and who doesn’t like that?
There are plenty of situations throughout our lives that will result in feelings of discomfort, but it’s human to go through that. We shouldn’t ever feel bad about the way that situations affect us because we can only control so much. Learn to embrace the ambiguity and unpredictability of life because it isn’t going anywhere, and neither are you.