Melissa Dahl (@melissadahl) is a senior editor covering health and psychology for New York’s The Cut. In 2014, she co-founded New York magazine’s popular social science site Science of Us. Her first book, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, is out now.

What We Discuss with Melissa Dahl:

  • Awkwardness does not have to make us feel alone — in fact, the things that make us cringe can serve to remind us of how connected we all truly are.
  • Our concept of ourselves is often constructed externally — by how we think other people view us.
  • How awkwardness can help us have tough conversations about race, politics, and gender.
  • How we can stop stop reliving embarrassing memories.
  • How to remap and reframe feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment and use them to our advantage.
  • And much more…

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We’ve all experienced episodes of awkwardness that leave us horrified by some faux pas we’ve committed in the company of others. Memories of such episodes may even linger over the span of a lifetime, causing us to cringe anew upon every recollection.

In her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, Science of Us co-founder Melissa Dahl investigates the peculiar experience of awkwardness, why it happens, and what opportunities it presents to us if we allow it. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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More About This Show

When you think about an embarrassing, awkward episode you’ve experienced, what is it about the episode that makes it embarrassing and awkward — and why is it memorable beyond the episode itself?

The Looking-Glass Self and the Irreconcilable Gap

Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness author Melissa Dahl refers to the early 20th century sociologist Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self — in which we understand ourselves through how we believe others perceive us. Embarrassment occurs when our sense of self is challenged because we don’t like what we see.

“Maybe one definition of things we call ‘awkward’ [or] ‘cringeworthy’ is when you realize that the you you think you’re presenting to the world is maybe not the you people are receiving,” says Melissa. “When there’s a gap between your self-perception and other-perception.”

Psychologist Philippe Rochat called this dissonance between who we think we are and how we are reflected through the perception of others as the irreconcilable gap.

The Transparency Illusion

Perhaps because the way we self-identify is reflected in how we believe others perceive us, it almost seems reasonable to assume these others also have access to what’s going on in our heads.

“We think our feelings are really transparent,” says Melissa, “because what’s going on internally with us, it feels so obvious. You just think people can read [what you’re thinking] all over your face.”

But until mind-reading technology is cooked up by some mad scientist in a basement somewhere, it’s a pretty safe bet our thoughts remain our own.

The Shakespearean Concept

Whether we realize it or not, we tend to act differently around different audiences and different people. For instance, as teenagers, we probably didn’t behave the same around our parents as we did around our friends. As adults, we probably don’t behave the same around our coworkers as we do our families.

But when we have a mismatch or unexpected mixture of personas, things can get awkward — and this happens all the more easily in the age of social media as we interact with these different groups in shared spaces.

Reframing Awkwardness and Remapping How We Respond to It

Is awkwardness an emotion or a personality trait?

“I think it can be both an emotion and a personality trait,” says Melissa. “I think we tend to talk about it more as if it’s a personality trait — like, ‘I’m so awkward,’ or, ‘That person’s so awkward.’ Sure, it can be that, but I became more interested in understanding it as a feeling.

“The cool thing is, there’s this pretty new research on the neuroscience of emotions and it says that the way you conceptualize a feeling actually influences the way that you feel the feeling. So if you’re someone like me who’s driven crazy by this feeling of awkwardness…this new area of research on emotions means that you can start to reframe what awkwardness means and what it means to feel awkward, which will change how you feel it.”

As How Emotions Are Made author Lisa Feldman Barrett says, emotions don’t have fingerprints. No facial pattern nor brain scan has a universal map of a particular emotion. And because feelings aren’t innate, they’re created by our brains — which means we can change how we react to them.

The more emotions we experience, the larger our emotional vocabulary becomes. The better we can pin something down, the better we can experience it — and this allows us to remap the way we respond to emotions. Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard conducted an experiment in which subjects succeeded in reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement.

“I don’t mean to be super corny,” says Melissa, “but it’s kind of a life-changing idea that you have more control over your feelings than you think.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about how Jordan uses this kind of reappraisal (aka “exercise in self-delusion for fun and profit”) before speaking engagements, how we can treat awkwardness as a signpost pointing us toward action, how awkwardness can help us have tough conversations, why we should be thankful for friends who aren’t afraid to tell us when we’ve got food stuck in our teeth, what the awkward vortex is and how we can escape from it, why it’s okay to talk to ourselves in the third-person, what the spotlight effect tells us about being too self-conscious, and lots more.


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