The awkwardness vortex

An exclusive chapter from a new book by Melissa Dahl, 'Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations'.

The businessman says to the business-woman 'Sorry, just quickly'. They’re in a beige, bland conference room, and he’s in the middle of conducting an interview; she, meanwhile, has just arrived from headquarters and is there to observe and take notes. The man is of average height; the woman is a little person. This becomes important.

“How should I refer to you?” he asks her. “Do I . . .” He trails off. “Ah—Fran,” she supplies.

“AFRAN?” the interviewer repeats.  “Is  that  an  acronym, or . . . ?”

“No,” says Fran. “That’s my name.” I hit “pause.” Fran and the unnamed interviewer are actors in a short film that I have watched in horror on YouTube at least a dozen times. In just under four minutes, it makes me cringe almost as much as I do when watching the worst Larry David moments from Curb Your Enthusiasm, to the point where I keep having to stop the clip to collect myself. After a few seconds, the cringe dissipates. I hit “play.”

“Oh, okay,” the man is saying. “Well. Welcome! Fantastic.

Take a seat!”

“Thank you,” Fran responds, smiling warmly and extending her right hand.

“Oh! Sorry, yes,” the nameless man says, and he then hooks both of his hands underneath Fran’s armpits, hoists her off the ground, and plops her down in the chair behind her. From her new, seated position, Fran freezes for several long moments, with wide eyes and incredulous eyebrows.

“A handshake would’ve been fine,” she finally says.

“No!” he replies, waving her off. “It’s no problem, really.”

It’s not real life, but it’s based on a series of real-life stories from disabled people who’ve had to weather the awkwardness created by the nondisabled. It’s part of the “End the Awkward” campaign, launched in 2014 by Scope, a British disability charity. It was inspired, public relations manager Danielle Wootton tells me, by the group’s own research on attitudes toward disability in the UK. “One of the most interesting insights was the fact that a lot of the attitudes nondisabled people were expressing was . . . awkwardness around disability,” rather than outright discrimination, she says. Scope also works to combat structural problems the disability community in the UK faces, such as accessibility, employment, and housing. But this seemed like a subject worth taking on too, an opportunity to address a largely unspoken problem in a light, comedic tone.

According to Scope’s own research, about two thirds of Britons surveyed said that they felt awkward or uncomfortable around disabled people. Young people ages eighteen to thirty-four were twice as likely as their older peers to feel this way, and one fifth of this age group said that they’d purposely avoided interacting with a disabled person because it made them so uncomfortable. Often, Wootten says, “nondisabled people end up panicking, or being awkward, because they’re scared of being offensive.” Many nondisabled people “don’t want to acknowledge that this is an issue,” she continues. “It’s not very nice to hear that you’re making disabled people feel socially isolated with your social awkwardness.”

I must admit that I’ve wandered into this kind of awkwardness myself, and recently, when talking to a woman on whom I was developing a giant friend crush. Not long ago, I was on the phone with a writer named Emily Ladau describing the Scope ad I mentioned at the start of this chapter. Ladau is an activist and public speaker whose work on disability rights has been featured in places like the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and the New York Times, though I confess I am most impressed by her 2002 appearance on Sesame Street, when she was just ten. She also keeps an entertaining blog, Words I Wheel By, which centers on what her life is like as a woman who uses a wheelchair, on which she wrote a post recommending the “End the Awkward” campaign. Ladau is witty and charming, and I had so much fun interviewing her that I basically ended the conversation with something extremely chill and laid back, such as, “Can we please hang out?!”

But as I tried to tell her about the ad, I faltered. I know the term “little person,” of course, but detectable panic crept into my voice when I tried to describe the guy. I recorded the conversation, and listening back to it makes me cringe so hard at myself that while I was transcribing it, I had to turn the volume all the way down until the moment passed. “It’s, like, uh, a little person,” I say in the recording. “And, uh . . .” Uncomfortable pause as I dive deep within my own brain in a desperate search for the right words to use for the interviewer in comparison to Fran. “Normal”? No,   I knew it obviously couldn’t be that. “Tall”? Eventually I land on “the, uh, not-little person.” I was so nervous about saying the wrong thing.

This sort of thing happens to me, and perhaps also to you, in countless other contexts. It happens when I overthink what to say at a party and blurt out something weird; it also used to happen a lot in meetings earlier in my career. I would sometimes get so self- conscious when presenting that it was like part of me had split off from my physical body and was seated with the rest of the editors, most of whom were at least two decades older than me. Phantom Me was now watching Actual Me badly explain the details of my team’s next-day lineup, in a kind of self-inflicted irreconcilable gap. What is this kid trying to say? this split-off version of myself wondered with the rest of them. What is going on with her eyebrows? Is that the third time this week she’s worn that cardigan?

It sometimes feels like I could get a grip in these situations if only I could better control my words and my behavior, yet this instinct isn’t  often much help in real life. When I find myself in awkward situations, my nerves usually cause extreme self-consciousness, which makes me that much more nervous, which makes me that much more self-conscious, and round and round. If the way you see you is on one side of the irreconcilable gap, and the way everyone else sees you is on the other, then in between is where I often feel myself getting stuck, especially when that nervous/self-consciousness loop picks up. It’s a place I’ve started calling the awkwardness vortex.

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Research confirms the existence of the vicious circle of self-focus and awkwardness in everyday life. I could tell you about all the academic articles I’ve read about it, with titles like “Effects of Focus of Attention on Anxiety Levels and Social Performance of Individuals with Social Phobia” and “Anxious and Egocentric: How Specific Emotions Influence Perspective Taking,” or I could tell you about one TV scene that captures the idea of the vortex perfectly, and in fewer than fifteen seconds. In a season-three episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon tells her boss, Jack Donaghy, that she has developed a little routine for psyching herself up before attending parties where she doesn’t know anyone. “Stop sweating, you idiot,” she pleads with herself in front of a mirror. She’s dripping with sweat as she says this and is frantically mopping it away. “What is wrong with you, you stupid bitch?!” Weird that this doesn’t seem to help her much.

Liz Lemon’s sad preparty ritual got me thinking again about the “End the Awkward” campaign and of myself in those early-career meetings. Truthfully, my interest in studying awkwardness began as an attempt to permanently banish the feeling from my life—with science! By now I’ve lost count of how many old articles I’ve read in obscure psychology journals that dissect the social interactions most likely to be fraught with awkwardness, things like the ways people insert themselves into already-ongoing conversations or the tactics people tend to use to exit them. Many of these also include confusing diagrams or mathematical formulas, making them too complicated to be much help in countering the everyday embarrassment of being human. I began all of this by looking for answers, for instructions, for the sweet certainty of scientific conclusions that would protect me from the excruciating discomfort of social missteps.

In the 1970s, for example, a handful of social psychologists took on a question that will surely be of interest to anyone who has ever attended a networking event, cocktail party, or really any gathering of humans ever: What is the best way to end a conversation? After eavesdropping on dozens of exchanges between both friends and strangers, these intrepid academics came up with a few extremely specific formulas that denote precisely the best ways to do this. A team of behavioral scientists from Purdue University, for instance, observed that in the final forty-five seconds of a conversation, people tend to start using “reinforcement” phrases (like “yeah” or “uh-huh”) before using some kind of transitional word or phrase (usually something like “well,” or perhaps an inelegant “uh”); from there, some type of appreciative phrase was used in closing.

A similar study in 1978 also came up with a formula for gracefully exiting a conversation. After listening in on telephone calls between twenty pairs of friends and twenty pairs of strangers, Stuart Albert of the University of Pennsylvania and Suzanne Kessler of SUNY-Purchase dreamed up this formula:

Content Summary Statement → Justification → Positive Statement → Continuity → Well-wishing

In real life it might sound something like this:

Person A: “Well, we talked about all the things we wanted to cover [content summary statement], so let’s call it a day. I have another appointment anyway [justification].”

Person B: “Yes, I really enjoyed getting together [positive statement].”

Person A: “Let’s try to do it again next week [continuity].”

Person B: “Okay. Take care [well-wishing].”

In recent years, books and videos and articles promising to teach you how to avoid awkwardness have kept popping up, and they often contain outrageously specific instructions on navigating everyday life, usually citing studies like these as examples. Nothing like the addition of equations to make a social encounter less awkward. I first came across those above formulas, actually, on a Fast Company site called Co. Design under the headline “The Science of Politely Ending a Conversation.” A few weeks ago I came across a video promising to reveal how you can tell whether someone is going in for a hug or a handshake. The big secret: If they want a handshake, they’ll come toward you with one hand out-stretched. If they want a hug, they’ll come toward you with both arms outstretched.

To be fair, I’ve run plenty of similar articles as a health and science editor over the years. One I did a while ago asked people whether they could guess the exact moment that silence in conversation turns awkward—it’s four seconds, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. But what good could knowing that possibly do you in real life? Was I arguing that if a lull in conversation occurs, you should make damn sure the silence doesn’t last for four seconds—and, what, are people supposed to be counting the seconds as they tick by? That does not seem like a great strategy to make social interactions less awkward. Although, come to think of it, this could suffice as a fun fact to puncture an awkward silence, so maybe it is useful after all.

Another popular post we’ve done on New York online was headlined “How to Deal with the Eye-Contact Awkwardness of Walking down a Long Hallway or Street toward Someone You Barely Know.” The piece quotes Ronald Riggio, a psychologist at Claremont McKenna College who studies nonverbal communication and had this advice to offer: “Make eye contact at 30 ft., break eye contact, brief eye contact and eyebrow flash at 10 feet and then look straight ahead.”

I’ve read so many articles like this; I’ve written so many articles like this. But I have to imagine that paying such close attention to yourself and your behavior would backfire. It reminds me of another aspect of the neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett’s critiques on microexpressions, one I didn’t much touch on in chapter 3. The idea of microexpressions is alluring to self-conscious people like me: Memorize these seven expressions, and then rest assured that you’re coming across the way you intend. Make sure not to knit your brows together unless you want to show that you’re angry, don’t wrinkle your nose unless you want to broadcast disgust, and so on. Barrett’s issue with microexpressions is that she’s not convinced they really do map so closely onto emotions, but even if they did, wouldn’t concentrating so hard on what your face is doing distract you from the conversation you’re trying to have? And now I shall raise only the left side of my mouth, thus creating a smirk. It seems to me that you’d be in danger of creating a social version of paralysis by analysis.

It’s a version of what psychologists call explicit monitoring theory, the idea that if you are especially skilled at some action— golf is a go-to example—too much self-focus will cause you to screw up. Rich Masters, who studies human performance at the University of Hong Kong, devised a questionnaire to determine which athletes were more likely to choke under pressure; those who were tended to agree with statements like these:

 “I am self-conscious about the way I look when I’m moving.”

  “I sometimes have the feeling that I am watching myself move.”

 • “If I see my reflection in a shop window, I will examine my movements.”

  “I am concerned about what other people think about me when I am moving.”

I feel so known.

Sian Beilock—formerly a psychologist at the University of Chicago, now the president of Barnard College—is one of the most prominent experts in explicit monitoring theory, and she was game to speculate a little about a potential social application. She agrees that this is a plausible explanation of awkward moments, though she cautions that this is just a hunch and has not been tested. Her research on human performance has suggested that paying close attention to every little thing you’re doing is a great way for novices to learn. If you’ve never played golf before, then you have to start by focusing on exactly the right way to hold the club or exactly the right way to position your feet. But studies by Beilock and many others have found that once you develop expertise, too much self-focus can cause you to fumble. In extreme cases it can even give experts a case of the yips, the shorthand description for the way that, for instance, a baseball player—like Chuck Knoblauch of the New York Yankees—can suddenly become unable to successfully throw the ball to first.

It’s not a bad metaphor for social life. Maybe it is possible, as those videos and online articles and self-help books suggest, to think deeply about the intricacies of everyday interactions. Erving Goffman observes as much in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, writing that in order for someone to give “a talk that will sound genuinely informal, spontaneous, and relaxed, the speaker may have to design his script with painstaking care, testing one phrase after another, in order to follow the content, language, rhythm, and pace of everyday talk. Similarly, a Vogue model, by her clothing, stance, and facial expression, is able expressively to portray a cultivated understanding of the book posed in her hand; but those who trouble to express themselves so appropriately will have very little time left over for reading.” You can overthink your behavior before an awkward situation, but if you overthink while you’re in the middle of it, that’s a good way to give yourself the social yips. Sometimes I get so focused on making it look like I’m listening in a meeting that I forget to actually listen. Maybe you can relate to that, the times where you spent so much of a conversation worried about how you were coming off that you can barely remember anything that was said.

Beilock writes that this is because worrying about your performance is so psychologically taxing that your mind doesn’t have enough capacity to be fully engaged in the task at hand. “Worrying (and trying to suppress your worries) uses up working memory that could otherwise be used to maintain several pieces of information in mind at once,” she writes, meaning that you’re so focused on making a good first impression on a first date or a job interview that you aren’t able to devote adequate attention to making conversation. “Indeed, in many situations where people are faced with difficult thinking and reasoning tasks,” she continues, “worrying can harm performance by diverting brain-power.”

It’s kind of like when you think about breathing, and then for a few minutes you have to remind yourself to breathe, until it becomes an unconscious process again. Or, to make a second 30 Rock reference in one chapter: There’s a scene in a season-one episode called “Jack-Tor,” in which we see how Jack Donaghy falls apart while he’s filming an instructional video. “It’s weird,” he says. “What do I do with my arms? I’ve never thought about that before.” He takes a turn across the office, robotically moving each arm in synchrony with its corresponding leg. “Is it this?” he asks. “Or, if I may, this?” He tries again, this time bringing his arms up a little higher with each step. “Maybe I should just hold something.” The scene cuts to Jack smiling while holding a coffee mug in each hand. “Okay, yeah. This feels more natural. Is this right?”

Being human is exhausting and embarrassing.

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At times the 'End of Awkward' spots remind me of scenes from the British The Office. It’s something about the way the clips use silence, like audible white space that serves to highlight the cringeworthy lines. And, just like The Office, the campaign has an American knockoff.

Just Say Hi” is an ad campaign introduced in 2015 by the Cerebral Palsy Foundation that features actors like William H. Macy and CBS This Morning cohost Gayle King in ads “about the unnecessary hesitation some people feel around disabilities.” In his, Macy speaks directly to the camera in front of a soothing fireplace. “The Cerebral Palsy Foundation has asked me for a good way to start a conversation with a person who has disabilities. Um,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Hi!” The intent is so similar to “End the Awkward,” and it’s a worthy one: Nondisabled people, don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing to someone with a disability prevent you from saying anything at all. Also, don’t overthink this! Just say hi.

And yet Emily Ladau, the writer and disability rights activist, insightfully critiqued the message on her blog. She gets that the point is supposed to be that the nondisabled simply shouldn’t be- have any differently around the disabled, but for her, these PSAs miss the mark. As she points out in a blog post, “No one’s ever created a ‘Just Say Hi to Every Single Person You See’ campaign.”

The funny thing, she tells me, is that the ads technically worked. “My disabled friends told me that after those ads went live, a couple of them had people that came up to them and were like, ‘I’m just saying hello!’ or ‘I saw a campaign that I should just say hello!’” she said. “They were like, ‘Why are you talking to me? This is uncomfortable.’” It felt forced, unnatural. All most of us want while walking around in public is a little civil inattention, sociologists’ term for the way city dwellers acknowledge one another’s existence with quick eye contact and then politely go back to ignoring one another. I wasn’t there, of course, but it’s probably safe to assume that these people didn’t mean to make Ladau’s disabled friends uncomfortable. Maybe they just couldn’t see past their own point of view. Beyond the notion of the social yips, one interesting recent theory proposed by psychologist Adam Galinsky and his colleagues holds that nervousness can trap people inside their own perspective, making it less likely that they’ll be able to see the world from someone else’s point of view. “When you get anxious, it narrows your attention,” Galinsky told me when I interviewed him about his research for a brief New York blog post. “You feel like you’ve got to go back inside yourself and figure things out—Do they really like me? Am I really a good person?

There’s a nice example of this in the “End the Awkward” ad, the one I mentioned at the start of the chapter, with Fran observing the job interview. The interviewer, speaking to the candidate, says, “So, should you be invited to join the company, I think it’s important to try and take baby steps—” He cuts himself off. “Sorry, Fran. No offense.” Fran briefly pauses in her note taking but otherwise lets the moment pass.

“Because the job itself can stretch you—” He stops and says to Fran, “Again. Sorry.” “You don’t have to apologize for saying everyday words!” she says, flashing him and the job candidate a big, and only slightly irritated, smile. “Please, just try and relax,” she tells him. This advice reminds me of the blog post that first led me to Ladau, about “Just Say Hi.” “I’m not a celebrity,” she writes, “but I know a thing or two about disability, so here’s my PSA: just act normally around me.” (In hindsight, she tells me, she wishes she had used the word “naturally” over “normally.”) And yet recall Jack Donaghy and his two coffee mugs or Liz Lemon, sweaty and terrified in front of the mirror. Willing yourself to act naturally— Stop sweating, you stupid bitch!—is a good way to land yourself in the awkwardness vortex, which is something I believe I need to clarify with Ladau.

“If you were just meeting a new person for the first time, and maybe there was something particularly noticeable about their appearance—would you immediately blurt that out or say, ‘What happened to you? What’s wrong with you?’ ” she says. “Or, alternatively, would you just go up to a person who is not visibly disabled and talk in a sort of singsongy voice and go”—and here she uses the kind of tone you might use when addressing a toddler— “Hiiii, nice to meet you! I’m Emily!’ ”

“Wait,” I say. “Does that happen to you?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says. People see her wheelchair and assume she must have a cognitive disability too. “For me, ‘Just act naturally’ is ’Just act like you would with anyone who doesn’t have a disability’! If you’re a jerk to everyone, then, I guess, be a jerk to everyone. Otherwise, just be chill.”

In the next several chapters, we’ll get into some ways to prevent getting lost in the awkwardness vortex. But there is something fairly simple you can do when you feel like your nerves are narrowing your attention in on yourself. “I think it goes back to the advice in athletics,” Sian Beilock, the psychologist and Barnard College president, told me. If you take a group of soccer players who are all about equally skilled, and tell them to dribble their way through an obstacle course of traffic cones, they’ll all do about equally well. But if you tell half to focus on the mechanics (Keep loose and bend your knees) and the other half to focus on the outcome (Try to keep the ball close to the cones), the latter half will do better.

The same principle applies to awkward moments. “In situations where you’re well practiced,” Beilock said, “focus on the outcome,” not the mechanics. And come on: Barring anxiety disorders or similarly serious issues, she pointed out that most of us are already pretty well practiced at talking to other people; the mechanics are the same, whether you’re talking to your closest friends and family or your boss at your company holiday party or someone who is visibly different from you. Whatever the case, she said, “keeping in mind the goals you want to achieve can sort of lift you out of the details” so you can focus on the person in front of you. It’s up to you to decide what the goal is. Maybe, Beilock suggests, you decide you want to “learn one thing about this person,” and you want to learn that thing as deeply as you can. Even if you try and it feels awkward, you can at least rest assured that you will likely not cause as much weirdness as some of the things Ladau has experienced. “I remember I went down to DC for a job interview,” she tells me. “And I was at the hotel, eating breakfast right before the interview—trying to pump myself up, minding my own business.” As she was eating, a little girl came over with her mother, and the girl started to chat with Ladau. “And then, all of a sudden,” she says, “she asks her mother if she can pray for me.” “Oh, no,” I say, feeling queasy with secondhand embarrassment. “Yeah,” she says. “And it’s in front of the whole sitting area, where everyone is eating breakfast.” Everyone could see, and everyone could hear, as the girl—encouraged by her mother— started saying a prayer. It would have been one thing if Ladau had asked for this, or if they’d asked her permission. But she didn’t, and they didn’t, and now Ladau was in a strange spotlight she hadn’t asked to be in. “And I just kind of sat there and took it,” she says. “And then afterwards, I felt so ashamed, and like I really should’ve stopped her. But I was so uncomfortable in the moment that I just sort of lost all ability to communicate.”

There is a generous way to interpret this: that the girl and her mother no doubt believed that they were doing a good thing in praying for Ladau. To be clear, Ladau wasn’t upset at the kid, but she thinks the mother should’ve known better; shouldn’t a grown woman be able to imagine Ladau’s perspective and recognize that putting her in the spotlight like that might humiliate her?

Again, it helps to keep in mind Beilock’s advice, to keep out of the self-consciousness vortex by keeping your goal in mind. One “End the Awkward” clip features a woman at work who is about to greet a man who is missing his right hand. In the ad, the woman simply offers her left hand to shake instead of her right; perhaps you could say she decided that her desired outcome was to make the interaction go as smoothly as possible.

Ladau, by the way, does this for me when she hears me struggling toward the beginning of our conversation, when I fumble around and somehow decide the best of all possible options is the cringeworthy “not-little person.”

“If it helps,” she says, “I think the term you’re looking for is just ‘average height.’ ” It did help. Which, by the way, you’re allowed to ask for. If you can’t remember a person’s name, you can ask! If you need the word for someone’s disability or impairment and can’t find it in your own brain, you can ask! We are mutually obligated to help one another end the awkward, because the only way out of the vortex is through the help of other people. Who, as we’ll see in the next chapter, are often not as bothered by your awkwardness as you think.

- Melissa Dahl is editor of The Science of Us. Her new book Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations is published by Bantam Press. Keep an eye on @psychmag on Twitter for your chance to win a copy.

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