Melissa Dahl is obsessed with the weirdness of human behavior. Currently the editor of health and science content at the Cut, she edits and writes a wide range of smart, surprising, and funny stories on what humans do and why. She is also the author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, out Feb. 13.
Cringeworthy is a scientific (but personable) exploration of a specific human quirk in the vein of Mary Roach or Malcolm Gladwell, offering a number of sharp insights into what we mean when we call ourselves “awkward,” and what we mean when we call other people “awkward” (and yes, it’s far more complimentary when we use it on ourselves). It’s also exceptionally kind — Dahl writes about her subjects with compassion and understanding, leaving the reader a little less embarrassed about her own awkwardness, and a little more likely to be patient with others’.
I chatted with Dahl about some of the most fascinating findings from her book.
Philippe Rochat, a developmental psychologist at Emory University whom Dahl interviewed for her book, thinks human beings develop self-consciousness as early as 18 months — the age at which children typically start recognizing themselves in the mirror. To test their recognition, researchers placed Post-it notes on children’s foreheads. Most children younger than 18 months won’t really notice or care about the note, while children 18 months and older will try to remove it.
For Rochat, a child’s attempt to remove the note indicates an awareness that the way they look in their heads does not match the image they see in the mirror. In other words, it’s normal — and essentially human — to feel self-conscious. “The way you see yourself isn’t necessarily the way the world sees you, a hard lesson we apparently start learning at a very young age,” writes Dahl.
Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett says emotions aren’t predictable; according to her research, no part of the brain is consistently responsible for creating any particular emotion. Our feelings are literally all over the place. And they’re not innate, either — our brain assigns emotions in order to make sense of physical sensations like sweating or an elevated heartbeat. The good news is that this suggests we have the power to reframe our emotions in order to feel better about them.
For instance: Dahl cites a 2014 study by Alison Wood Brooks, in which Brooks advocates for something called “anxiety reappraisal.” When you experience the physical signs of nervousness or anxiety (like you might before a date, or a big social gathering, for instance), try saying to yourself, “I am excited.”
It sounds silly, but our brains respond to direction — Brooks found that people who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed better on assigned tasks than those who tried to make themselves calm down.
Hating the sound of your voice in your Instagram stories is practically cliché; very few people are totally on board with the way they sound when they first hear themselves recorded. Most of the time, we’re surprised to find our voices are higher than they sound to us. Turns out, there’s a reason for that.
“When you're listening to yourself, there is a physiological explanation for why your voice sounds different,” says Dahl. “When I'm hearing myself right now, I'm hearing my voice through the bones of my own skull, and bone conduction makes sounds lower than they actually are, so when you hear your voice recorded, it's common for people to say their voice sounds much higher.”
The bad news is that recordings of your voice are probably closer to how other people hear you than how you hear yourself. The good news is that everyone feels this way.
Here’s some research that might come as a relief: In her book, Dahl cites the work of Thomas Gilovich, a social psychologist at Cornell University, whose research suggests that fewer people notice your awkward moments or faux pas than you assume.
In one 2000 study, Gilovich had subjects turn up late to a classroom wearing a goofy Barry Manilow T-shirt. The subjects assumed half the people in the room would remember the T-shirt afterward, but in reality, only about a quarter did. Gilovich calls this discrepancy “the spotlight effect,” or our tendency to overestimate how closely other people notice what we do.
While it’s true that some people will probably notice the stain on your shirt or the weird way you pronounced that word on the conference call, most people probably won’t. Rest easy; you’re not as memorable as you think.
In examining research done on athletes, Dahl finds evidence to suggest that focusing on how you’re going to do something makes you more likely to fail than focusing on your end goal.
For instance, in studies done on equally proficient soccer players, those players who are instructed to focus on their mechanics (like their footwork, or how they hold themselves) don’t do as well as those who are told to focus on the outcome (like, say, scoring). Sian Beilock, one of the pioneer psychologists in this field, told Dahl she thinks it’s very possible this rule applies to social situations, too. (Think of all the many awkward handshake videos you’ve seen.)
When you’re entering a social situation you find awkward, says Dahl, “it's probably best to just have the goal in mind — maybe decide you want to learn one new thing about everyone at the party, or maybe you decide you're going to compliment one person at the party.”
Dahl also highlights another important finding of Gilovich’s, which is that people tend to regret inaction more than they regret action.
You know you’ve seen this argument on Pinterest — hokey though it may be, it’s based in real scientific research. If there’s something you know you want or need to do (like talking to a friend who let you down, or asking out the person you flirt with every day at the coffee shop), but you suspect it’ll be uncomfortable, it’s probably something worth doing. It might be a little awkward, but you’ll probably be happier you did it than you would if you’d never done it.
You know when you’re watching a series of “epic fail” videos and you feel compelled to cover your face? Or the way you get red and hot when someone else trips near you? There’s a reason experiencing someone else’s awkward moment can actually feel painful.
For a 2015 paper, a pair of German researchers studied fMRI images of subjects who were asked to read embarrassing scenarios or look at photos of people embarrassing themselves. (In one, a person’s fly is open, unbeknownst to him; in another, a person walks around inexplicably wearing a shirt that says “I am sexy.”) The researchers found that when the subjects were exposed to other people’s awkwardness, the region of their brains associated with processing pain lit up.
It might feel bad, but secondhand embarrassment is actually a sign of empathy. “I've always been that person where if something embarrassing is happening on TV I have to get up and leave the room,” says Dahl. “But talking to these researchers made me think about it a little differently. We tend to think of empathy as a synonym for kindness or compassion, and it can be, but it’s more of an automatic process that healthy brains do so we're able to function in the social world.”
One of the most surprising and optimistic arguments Dahl makes is that awkwardness can be utilized for social good. She highlights the work of comedian, author, and radio host W. Kamau Bell, who has often talked about the importance of having awkward, challenging conversations — particularly among privileged groups hoping to educate themselves about the issues more marginalized groups face.
Dahl writes about her participation in a seminar called “Undoing Racism,” hosted by the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond (PISAB), in which a group of mostly white people have awkward, meaningful discussions about racism, and their role in it.
“It can be uncomfortable and really, really painful when something is pointed out in you that you didn't mean, or when you didn't think of yourself as the type of person that would say something to hurt somebody,” says Dahl. But that’s what makes these conversations all the more important. “I think there is a lot of value in learning to become comfortable in so-called awkward conversations.”
Katie Heaney is a freelance journalist and the author of her upcoming memoir, Would You Rather. She lives in Brooklyn.