Why is it awkward to listen to a recording of your own voice? What makes us cringe? For the last few years, Melissa Dahl, co-founder of NYMag.com's popular social science site Science of Us, has been digging for answers. The culmination of her research is 'cringe theory'—a psychological explanation of why we find awkward moments so painful. A central part of that theory is what psychologist Philippe Rochat at Emory University calls the irreconcilable gap. Dahl explains: "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." Are you not as suave as you thought? Did your voice just pop? Did you just sit on a whoopee cushion—or worse still, was there no whoopee cushion? It shatters our sense of certainty about who we are, and what others think of us. These experiences may seem devastating, but Dahl says we can train ourselves to think of an awkward moment as a piece of useful information that can help us better understand ourselves, and see the funny side of our bruised egos. Here, she explains how she challenged herself to get on stage and live out one of her social nightmares, and how she came out the other end more confident and connected to other people than before. Melissa Dahl's new book is Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.
Melissa Dahl: 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 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 that really helped unlock this for me was the idea—it’s almost like a 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 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.” 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’m looking for books about farting.” Or he’s had people go up to tables at a restaurant—like at a nice restaurant—and say, “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 “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 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. It’s a comedy show, and so it’s done 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.