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Stuck in an awkwardness vortex? Here’s how to embrace the cringe
Why is it awkward to listen to a recording of your own voice? What makes us cringe? A deep study of awkwardness has the answers.
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.
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.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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