Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness

Stumble across the internet long enough and you’ll find yourself in the country of cringe. A land nestled under a gaudy circus tent where people line up at the entrance with peanuts in hand. But most of the shells end up on the ground because their mouths are left unhinged. The show can be too painful to watch. Still, the audience can’t look away. Because cringing is an addiction.

What is it to cringe?

Cringing is snapping your head back while keeping one eye open; a clenching of teeth and furrowing of brows, curling up in a ball that won’t stop spinning; uncomfortable as a cat under a waterfall; knowing the air blast is coming but incapable of moving away from the window, a hypnotizing disaster that begins at the stomach and ends with the head wanting to be anywhere else; a speech giver reaching his climax and begging for an applause; a reflex that contorts the body and releases as a gasp. To cringe is to feel like closing the browser.

I sought out Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness seeking to understand not what cringing is, but why we cringe at other people online. Dahl’s book introduces cringing and its related topics—awkwardness and empathy—through her own life’s narrative. Laying her own awkwardness bare like a high-school yearbook makes her overall theme clear as sunshine: each of us is an embarrassment and we can find humanity through shared awkwardness.

Of course, not every awkward situation is a cringe. Vocally choosing not to earn an “I voted” sticker breaks through the walls of middle-class convention. That doesn’t mean it warrants a cringe (unless you hang out in some committed circles). But watching someone shove their sticker in everyone’s face like they’re attempting to replace tonsils with civic duty—and doing so genuinely—is awkward.

Unfortunately for me, Dahl’s book primarily focuses on the awkward experiences we carry with us like herpes, and how we can channel those three-AM worries to build upon ourselves. There are plenty of helpful studies—of which can be easily found in whatever journalistic database you prefer—and I appreciated the interviews with various researchers dedicated to the age of awkward. (Move over Anthropocene)

I wish she had focused more on contemptuous cringing: this is the kind of material that inspires a laugh at someone rather than with them. It is an uncomfortable topic, but in my own experience is more pervasive and interesting than self-cringing, and a steady binge for internet addicts.

Still, Cringeworthy is a fine book for anyone who’s interested in understanding what makes cringe, cringe.