Awkwardness is a cultural phenomenon. Jump over to Google and begin to search for “awkward” and you’ll soon find lists, photos and videos of awkward everything—awkward family photos, awkward celebrity moments, awkward missed high-fives, awkward moments in history, and pretty much anything else that could possibly be considered awkward.
Even my kids know what it is to be awkward. It is not unusual for them to blurt out in one of those moments, “AW-kward!” They don’t know a whole lot about how life and relationships work, but they do know that it’s uncomfortable when things have gone wrong. Awkwardness comes about, after all, when social situations do not go quite as we intended; it is that feeling of discomfort or embarrassment that arises when social desires and expectations are missed.
So where did this cultural obsession with awkwardness come from? Why are we suddenly so concerned with it? Adam Kotsko makes a compelling argument that much of it stems from our entertainment. It is no doubt enhanced by our dedication to social media through which our awkwardness can go viral. He says, “Awkwardness is everywhere, inescapable. Awkwardness dominates entertainment to such an extent that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember laughing at anything other than cringe-inducing scenes of social discomfort.” Shows like The Office, especially the original British series, delight in it; shows and movies starring Sacha Baron Cohen revel in it; Curb Your Enthusiasm has been to awkwardness what Seinfeld was to irony. Comedies, especially those R-rated comedies targeted at teens and the immature, champion it.
As our awareness of awkwardness has grown, so too has our concern it so that, as Kotsko says, “We are masters at diagnosing it, if not avoiding it.” Now that we have a cultural awareness of its presence, power and difficulty, we find ourselves wallowing in it.
Our middle-class whites are absolutely hopeless when it comes to dealing with those of other cultures, wondering whether and how to note the difference, what kinds of questions to ask and not to ask—chafing at the supposed constraints of ‘political correctness’ yet feeling very acutely the pressure to differentiate themselves from their low-class and presumably racist Caucasian confreres. And when we all come home at night exhausted from a long day of awkwardness, what do we do but watch yet another cavalcade of awkwardness.
Awkwardness is like watching a car accident. You don’t really want to see it, but you also can’t look away. “The participants in an awkward situation might flee the scene, but in the moment of awkwardness, they are strangely exposed, forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness and indeed even drawing innocent bystanders into their impromptu circle. The experience of awkwardness, then, is an intrinsically social one.” There is joy in the horror of awkwardness, perverse appeal in its agony.