Stuck in an awkwardness vortex? Here’s how to embrace the cringe

Science Journalist and Author
February 14, 2018

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.