1/ The Awkward Age
“Awkwardness is self-consciousness tinged with uncertainty, in moments both trivial and serious.” (A direct quote) There are many awkward situations in life (obviously), and they all involve revealing something about oneself that others don’t necessarily need to know and/or what can have real or perceived social consequences.
Cringing [MK: about oneself] is awkwardness gone wrong. It’s the moment when one sees themselves though another person’s eyes and is not happy with the picture – the visible self-image is worse than the self-perception. Or it’s if one allows an unscripted, unpolished version of self escape.
Nonetheless, embarrassment is an essential part of personal growth and self-knowledge. We carry our teen selves throughout life because these were the formative years and the time for the first experiences of many things.
There’s a popular opinion that awkwardness is a personality trait of socially inept individuals. Watching others embarrass themselves makes one cringe, too [MK: it took me maybe 37 years of life to overcome this very emotion in this context], but there’s a cure. Long story short – not being afraid of embarrassing oneself makes it easier to tolerate the embarrassment of others.
2/ The Tribal Terror of Self-Awareness
Imagine being an adult and seeing yourself in the mirror for the first time. This will be a traumatic experience for sure. Just relying on others to get an image of oneself and then being able to compare notes (images) can be frightening. It’s the same emotion as embarrassment, and it’s closely linked to the attempt to prevent the loss of identity.
Further to this point: the difference between how one sees themselves and how the others do can be an irreconcilable gap. One doesn’t have to go far: playing back the recorded voice makes most of us cringe. Or looking at random photos of oneself. Or asking for a salary raise and not being privy to the information asymmetry between you and your boss.
MK: I’m jumping to a conclusion here, but isn’t this a clear case of the impostor syndrome? A person makes a certain assessment of themselves, while the others (peers, boss, family members, etc.) – due to different information or varying perceptions – may have totally different assessments.
Communication with other people can be hard because we try to present our version of ourselves to others, and this often involves a fair bit of performing. When one hurts themselves, they may laugh it off, which indicates that they value social pain higher than the physical pain. It’s a show people put on for one another.
It works both ways: we try to read and interpret others’ cues (the look on the face, the tone of voice) – how they relate to our projected selves.
It’s the information game consisting of two parts: a) the deliberate things we do – whether it’s the attire, the hairstyle, the way we write, and b) the signals we accidentally send about ourselves (tone of voice, body language, facial expressions). Navigating awkwardness requires “buying” the scenes others present us and approaching them with the “yes, and” rule. It’s as simple as “yes, you didn’t hit that lamppost that hard, and you’re shaking because you didn’t have a good night sleep, not because you’re just about to fall dead”.
Awkwardness is the feeling we get when someone’s presentation of themselves – either our own or someone else’s – is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over with a little white lie. (quote)
Relaxing can really occur around close friends and family (usually). We better drop the act in front of the trusted people.
This irreconcilable gap leads to discomfort because of the fear of social rejection and fear of isolation (that’s known to increase the risk of death by 26%, like obesity).
The “mirror hypothesis” states that people do get used to their reflections and then think of all their photos as “bad”. [MK: it took me years to stop tilting my head by 2-5% in every photo until I understood this effect.] Others, though, prefer the photos to your mirror image since they’re used to this way of looking at you. We never know how we’re coming off to others.
Reputation is a different story, though. It’s easier to “read” the perception of the group towards oneself rather than its individual members. This “reading” is based on our own self-perception, which tends to be pretty aligned with how the world in general is perceiving us. There are two notable exceptions to this observation:
Others don’t see well how we like or dislike doing favours.
Others don’t see well how much we fear rejection.
Others’ versions of us may be very incompatible with ours, and they may not always be true, but sometimes it’s worth shifting one’s perspective to understand what others see in us. [MK: as if such an honest conversation it easy to even solicit.]
Salary discussions are truly hard as they are believed (by the employees) to put them in the wrong spotlight (greedy, demanding) or simply being rejected.
A very notable [MK: is it a US-specific thing?] example is when people decide to move together. The couples that just drift into it without a meaningful conversation last shorter than the ones that rationalise doing so, even if the discussions are uncomfortable (at least in the beginning).
We work hard to control the version of ourselves that we present to the world, but typically we hide the work we’re doing. (quote) There are two sides to it: we put a lot of effort to project the right image (authentic and effortless) and try to hide the activities that truly reflect our tastes and behaviours. (Think of watching others making Insta-perfect photos.)
Our relationships become a potentially infinite cycle of concealing and revealing our authentic selves to each other. As we play different social roles and wear different hats, it gets infinitely harder to do it in front of intermixed groups. Awkwardness appears when these roles can’t all be played at once: someone (everyone?) is going to be disappointed.
Social media is all about putting people into such awkward positions when a single post can be looked at by relatives, friends, colleagues, ex-classmates, future employers, trolls, etc. One can create a single social media account kind of pleasing everyone and none, but this won’t protect them from their grandma posting kind comments under one’s professional posts. [MK: my 80-y/o father does it to my children a lot.]