transcript of “We’re All Awkward Creatures”

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “We’re All Awkward Creatures.”

Alison: I have to confess, I really love awkwardness. That might sound like a weird thing to say, but I find awkward situations — including my own — really funny and entertaining, and in some way kind of heartwarming. My favorite letters at the Ask a Manager website are the ones that involve awkwardness. I once published a letter from a woman who had accidentally hugged her CEO on the elevator one morning. He was leaning past her to hold the door open and she thought he was going in for a hug, so she just went with it and embraced him. There was another letter from a person who found out that her mom had been emailing her boss to remind him that the daughter’s birthday was coming up soon.

I love those stories and really so much of Ask a Manager is about: here’s this uncomfortable, potentially awkward situation. How do I handle it? And that is probably what has kept me happily doing the column for eleven years at this point. Awkward situations are just really interesting and entertaining and they’re so universal. We all do things that make us cringe. Even the most confident among us have those moments that still make our faces turn red when we think about them weeks later. It happens to everyone and it definitely happens at work. Today we have a special guest here to talk about awkwardness. Melissa Dahl is the author of the amazing book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, and I think she loves awkwardness as much as I do. Melissa, welcome to the show.

Melissa: Hi, thanks Alison. Thanks for having me.

Alison: I’m so excited to have you here. You and I have talked about awkwardness before, and I just absolutely love Cringeworthy. Can we talk a bit about the book itself and then we’ll just talk all things awkward?

Melissa: Yeah, that sounds great. What do you want to know?

Alison: Well, I mean this is basically the greatest idea for a book ever. For people who don’t know it, will you just describe it and what made you want to write it?

Melissa: Yeah. Talk about awkward, actually, I feel like — I don’t know if you are this way with your book — but sometimes when people ask me to describe my book, it’s like all words leave me and I’m like, “I don’t remember.” But I will do my best.

I am a writer for New York Magazine, for The Cut, and I cover psychology primarily for The Cut. And I’ve written about psychology for more than ten years. And one of the things I’ve always really liked about the job is, I’ll have some kind of question about human nature, why do we do the things we do? And I get to call up somebody who has been studying this for the last decade of their life or so who can explain it to me in a thoughtful way. But I couldn’t find anything that explained the feeling of cringing, the feeling of awkwardness, that tension that permeates the room when someone makes a joke and it doesn’t go over well, or the thing where someone assumes someone else is expecting and they’re not. I was just curious what could explain the psychology behind that feeling. So this book is my attempt to do that.

Alison: And let’s actually define awkwardness. How do you define it?

Melissa: I define it as… it’s like the self-conscious aspect of embarrassment. But I think what’s different about it and what sets it apart — because it is different; an awkward situation is not necessarily an embarrassing situation — so I think it’s the self-conscious aspect of embarrassment, but with this stronger undercurrent of uncertainty. There’s this element of, what do I say next? What do I do next? The social norms are not here to guide me. That’s how I defined it.

Alison: For the book you came up with an overall theory of awkwardness, which you have called cringe theory. Will you talk about what cringe theory is?

Melissa: Yeah. So I really have come to believe that cringing causes us to ask some pretty surprisingly profound questions about ourselves if you pay attention to it. I think it makes us ask ourselves, who are you? How do other people perceive you? And who do you want to be? I think that the moments that make us cringe are these moments when we realize that the you that you carry in your own head, this perception of yourself, is maybe not necessarily the way the world is seeing you. It’s the moment we realize there’s a disconnect between the person you’re trying to present to the world and what you actually look like to the people around you.

Alison: So the idea is, awkwardness is what happens when this polished version of ourselves that we hope we’re showing to the world slips, and we’re exposed — and we worry that people are seeing maybe who we really are, but the parts that we prefer to hide.

Melissa: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Yeah, I’ll just leave it there. Exactly.

Alison: You talk in the book about the spotlight effect — that we assume that other people are paying more attention to us than they really are. And this is, I would imagine, probably at its peak when we’re teenagers, but it stays with us, right?

Melissa: It does, yeah. Actually interestingly, they do say that self-consciousness fades later in adulthood, but certainly it’s more of a human nature thing. It’s not just a teenage thing. The spotlight effect is this idea that we think more people are paying attention to us than actually are. And there’s this classic experiment where they tested this: they had somebody show up to an experiment late, they told them the wrong time on purpose, and before they went in the room they gave them this really silly t-shirt with Barry Manilow’s face on it. So the person is already late, and they show up and they’re wearing this really silly t-shirt, it’s this embarrassing moment. And then afterwards the experimenters interviewed all these folks and one of the things they asked them was, “How many people do you think remembered your shirt?” And basically, maybe they thought ten people would remember, but really only five people remembered. The moral of it is, it’s interesting — a lot of times when people write and talk about the spotlight effect, the message that gets across is, “Oh, no one’s paying attention to you, do whatever you want.” It’s not quite that, it’s just not as many people as we think are paying attention to our ridiculous mistakes.

Alison: Yeah. I feel like I see that in a lot of letters at Ask a Manager — that people are just really seized with worry that everyone saw this relatively small silly thing that they did. But you’re right, the message can’t be, “Oh, don’t worry, no one is ever paying attention,” because certainly quite often people are, we just really overestimate how often that’s the case.

Melissa: We do. Humans are kind of egocentric by nature., and all of us have that tendency to one degree or another. But it’s so interesting to me, the link between awkwardness and feeling uncomfortable in social situations and egocentrism — because it’s like you’re worried what people think about you, but of course no one is thinking about you as much as you are. And I think that particularly can be true at work. You think, “Oh my gosh, I made such an idiot out of myself in that meeting.” But no one’s remembering what you said. They’re remembering what they said and whether it went well or not.

Alison: Yes. Unless it was really egregious, I think that’s usually the case.

Melissa: Yeah, right, yeah. You can’t just make a blanket statement and say no one ever remembers (laughs)

Alison: (Laughs) Yeah. But people definitely think it’s happening more than it is.

Melissa: Yeah.

Alison: One thing that is great about the book is that not only do you really delve into the science of awkwardness, but you also intentionally went out and put yourself in really awkward situations so that you could write about them. You did improv so that you could write about it for the book — which just makes you my hero — and you even set up a session with a professional cuddler so that you could write about it. I was laughing out loud when I read that part of the book. Will you tell us about the professional cuddler? Because I just cringe thinking about it.

Melissa: Oh my gosh. So that part of the book… I was almost done writing the book and as you say, I had put myself into all these weird situations. And just as an aside, that was a later injection into the book. That’s kind of something people ask about a lot: “You did all these things.” But the first draft of the book wasn’t like that at all. The first draft was more sharing other people’s stories. And I pulled it all together and looked at what I had and I was like, “Oh, this just feels kind of cruel to be writing about this uncomfortable feeling from a distance, just to tell other people’s embarrassing stories.” It weirdly didn’t feel fair and also, it didn’t feel as emotional reading it, having some distance between that discomfort. So I decided to dive right in. But anyway, the cuddler part — I realized the reason I wrote the book was in part because this has driven me nuts for most of my life. I’m just really sensitive to moments of awkwardness, but by the end of writing this book and taking improv classes and doing all these crazy things, it’s like I just didn’t feel it anymore. I would just do things that people would be kind of amazed at. You know, you talk a lot about having uncomfortable conversations at work or the kind of wisdom of being direct at work. And that was something I was always afraid of doing, but by the end of writing this book, I kind of would dive right in. Sorry, I’m digressing away from the cuddler, but basically that was sort of trying to get the feeling back in a way. Like, what will work? Will anything make me feel awkward again? And that was the thing that broke me. It was so weird. Oh my God. It was just like… oh my God, it was so weird. And now I’m embarrassed that I wrote about it in a book! It’s like, oh my God, what?

Alison: I know! It was the greatest moment in the book. I loved it. So for people listening who are like, “What on earth is a professional cuddler?” — what on earth is a professional cuddler?

Melissa: Well, basically they say they are all about the power of touch as kind of a soothing, healing mechanism thing. Some people go to them who are maybe feeling lonely, or who’ve maybe gone through a breakup, or something like that. It’s just kind of using the power of human touch, is what they say. But I came across some story where some journalist had had done it and she talks a lot about how awkward it was. I was like, “Oh great, that’s great for my purposes.” But yeah, it was just seriously weird. I just froze up and couldn’t even go through with it. I had to run out of there. I was too uncomfortable.

Alison: That was my favorite part — that you literally ran out and you did it before any cuddling had happened. Right?

Melissa: Yes! No, we did not even touch each other. I was just like, “I’m sorry I have to go. I think it’s too weird.”

Alison: So how is it supposed to work? You go, and is it like an office or is it their home?

Melissa: Well, I think it’s their home, or they can come to you. And I guess it’s supposed to just be, you just hug for a while or something. I don’t know, because I only lasted ten minutes before I had to get out of there because I thought it was too uncomfortable. But I don’t want to dismiss — I think that it can be an important thing for for people who are lonely or something. So I don’t want to dismiss the profession of professional cuddling, but it wasn’t for me.

Alison: It wasn’t for you. That makes sense.

I want to go back to something you were saying before — that as you started to do these things, you became sort of immune to feeling awkwardness. Has that worn off or are you still there?

Melissa: It’s funny, it wears off when I’m not thinking… it’s like the power of the book. When I’m immersed in it and when I’m doing lots of interviews for the book and when I’m thinking a lot about what I truly believe to be the magic of awkwardness, which is uncomfortable self-awareness but that can be really useful — when I’m immersed in that, when I’m thinking a lot about it, I’m not afraid of it anymore. But there was a period where I wasn’t doing a lot of press for the book and the feeling came right back. So I think it works temporarily, so anyone listening to this probably should read my book again and again to get the effect.

Alison: That makes sense. Definitely. (Laughs) It almost seems like if you have steeped yourself in the messages of the book, which are: this is so normal, everyone experiences it, there’s actually something really useful and healthy about it. When you’re really steeped in that message that is going to really raise your immunity to feeling awkward. But yeah, I could see how when that’s not right in the forefront of your mind, it would come right back.

Melissa: Yeah, because it’s unpleasant, you know, it’s tense, it’s not fun. But yeah, when I’m remembering the message of the book, which is just: the moments that make you cringe can show you who you are and who you expect yourself to be. Then I get some use out of the feeling.

Alison: You know, as funny as I find awkward situations, especially the ones that you put yourself into in the book, I think the book’s overarching theme is a really beautiful one and I want to read a short paragraph from the introduction that I think sums up the whole message of the book. You can tell me if you dispute that after I read it. Here it is.

Melissa wrote: “The things that make you cringe are usually the things worth sharing, because they can help others feel less alone. It’s an understandable reaction to flee the situation that makes you cringe, but what if you could teach yourself to tolerate it? You could maybe learn to use the empathy as a portal to compassion: for other people and for yourself. Looked at in a certain light, cringing becomes a worthwhile feeling. An emotion worth exploring, not avoiding. Little humiliations can bring people together if we let them. The ridiculous in me honors the ridiculous in you.”

I love that. I love that way of looking at it and I think it’s part of why I love awkwardness — because it’s not about making fun of anyone, it’s about seeing our common humanity.

Melissa: Yeah, I agree. I wasn’t expecting to get this kind of common humanity vibe out of something as silly as awkwardness, but I truly did. It’s something we all experience. It’s something that can bring us together if you look at it in the right light.

Alison: Now you have a whole chapter in the book about awkwardness at work, which of course I loved. And you opened that chapter by talking about an Ask a Manager letter where someone had been working from home because of a snow storm and they were on a conference call with their coworkers and suddenly their roommate who was also at home due to the weather started having sex with his girlfriend in the next room. Loud sex. And the people on the work conference call could hear it. And then after my letter writer got back to the office, some coworkers were even avoiding them because they figured that they’d been openly watching porn on the call and felt really uncomfortable. It doesn’t get much more awkward than that. So I love that you opened the work chapter with that.

Melissa: Yeah, I think especially — there’s so much awkwardness in remote working situations. That letter was so good. It was so bad because it was like, what were you supposed to tell that person, the letter writer? Usually the answer is to be direct, but in this situation would that have made it worse maybe?

Alison: Right, yeah. Because you have to be direct and introduce sex into the conversation, which we’re so trained to not do at work. Yeah. My advice to the person ultimately was, I think: if they were assuming that you were watching porn, it’s better to speak up and correct that than to let them go on thinking that. And actually the person set in an update later, took the advice, did tell people what was going on. And everyone had a good laugh about it, admitted that yes indeed they had thought the person was watching porn openly on a work conference call, felt much better once they knew it was really going on, and then it just turned into an office joke.

Melissa: Yeah, that was such a good one, but it’s so funny how many people who write in to Ask a Manager are dealing with some kind of fear of awkwardness. It’s such a running theme, and I think that’s why I love your site so much.

Alison: It’s why I love doing it. I think work is especially prone to awkwardness in some ways, and part of it goes back to what you were saying about awkwardness being what happens when the face that you want to show to the world slips. Because work is generally a place where we’re really trying to have a professional persona on, so there’s a lot of room for it to slip — there’s further to fall than there might be in a non-work situation, if that makes sense.

Melissa: Right. And it’s like, there are rules that govern how you behave, but in some situations there aren’t. And so there are these gray areas, but then it’s a place that I think the workplace is particularly prone to awkwardness.

Alison: And I think you’re right, there’s all these unwritten rules about how to conduct yourself and people don’t always know exactly what they are or exactly what the nuance of those rules are. And it’s so easy to run afoul of them — if you even know what they are in the first place, which not everyone does — and you’re thrown together with people who you might not be the most comfortable social fit with, which is another element that ups the chances of awkward encounters. I don’t know. Work is really awkward in so many different ways.

Melissa: Yeah. It’s a weird place and it does really matter in this situation what people think of you and and what people’s opinion of you is. You can tell yourself in other situations, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what other people think of me.” But it does matter at work in a lot of situations. So yeah, the stakes are really high.

Alison: Yeah. You can’t just decide, “Oh well, maybe my coworkers did think I was openly listening to or watching porn on the conference call. So be it.” I mean, you have to address it, but then how? No one teaches you how to address something like that.

Melissa: What do you think? Because it’s one thing to just say, “Just have the awkward conversation.” But do you think that there are ways people can learn how to get better at it or can can learn how to address uncomfortable things? Or do you think it’s just a matter of just doing it?

Alison: This is just the perfect setup for me to pitch my book, which is all about how to have uncomfortable conversations at work, but I think a lot of it is finding a way to be really matter of fact. One of the things that feel so uncomfortable about the prospect of these conversations is they feel so emotionally fraught. And the more you can talk about it, whatever it is, in a very matter of fact way, using the same tone that you would use to say, “Hey, I can’t get this printer cartridge to work.” The closer you can get to that, probably the less awkward it’s going to be. Not always. Some things are just going to be awkward and there’s no way around that, and all you can do is just plunge in and get through it. But you can minimize a lot of awkwardness I think by being matter of fact, and people will take their cues from you. If you approach a conversation and you seem really tense and really worried, you’ve been up for two nights dreading this conversation and it shows, people are going to feel really awkward because you’re signalling to them that this is worthy of a lot of stress and tension. But if you’re pretty calm about it, it will usually go better. Not always. But I also think there’s real value in accepting, “You know what? Sometimes it’s just going to be awkward and that’s not a reason to not have the conversation.” That’s a reason to maybe feel weird about it, and you might feel a little anxious about it, but it’s not a reason to not do it. And I think so often people interpret that feeling of awkwardness as being a flag that they shouldn’t even be in that conversation. And sometimes that’s true, but not always.

Melissa: Yeah. To me it’s a signal that this is something we probably need to pay more attention to, not less attention to, often. Not always, but often.

Alison: Yes. Times when I think that wouldn’t be true would be like if you were overstepping your boundaries and having an awkward conversation with someone about their reproductive plans and you’re not their doctor. But in a lot of cases I think you’re right — the fact that you are having these emotions about it means there’s something there that you’ve got to dig into and sort out.

Melissa: Exactly, exactly. And it’s kind of like a painful self-consciousness or self-awareness, I think, the feeling of awkwardness. But to me, I really think it’s so important to dig into it and listen to it. And what is it trying to tell you?

Alison: Yeah. I always feel like one of the best things that people can do for their quality of life — at work, but also just in life in general — is to just make a conscious decision to embrace the awkward. Because we all have horribly awkward moments that we then cringe over later on, and I don’t think that’s going to stop. But there is real joy and real liberation in just embracing how awkward we all are and finding it funny. And it can be hard to do that, but I think when you find your way there, it’s such a relief.

Melissa: Yeah, that’s another thing I write about in the book. I really believe that too. I feel like a lesson I’m having to learn over and over again in life is to just lighten up and not take things as seriously, including myself. But that really is part of the key to dealing with self-consciousness and awkward moments, is just to somehow lighten up and try to take some joy in the absurdity of being human. Yeah, that was something I kind of ended up learning through writing the book for sure.

Alison: I love that. Well, that is the show. Thank you for coming on and talking with us.

Melissa: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Alison: Melissa’s book is called Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness and you can order it on Amazon or wherever books are sold. And you can read more of her work at New York Magazine where she writes the Science of Us column for The Cut.

It was such a pleasure to have you.

Melissa: Thank you so much, thank you for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.