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.
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.
- Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
- As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
- Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.
Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.
These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.
How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe
(DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.
Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.
One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.
The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.
Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"
This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.
Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.
Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.
What the future may hold
(NASA via Getty Images)
Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.
Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.
But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.
Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.
Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.
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