Cringing at the Aliens that Walk Among Us

Once upon a time children collected butterflies. Now they capture embarrassment in a bottle labeled “cringe.” The internet is littered with cringe-inducing media and the people who share cringe-content. The cringe subreddit is tracked by 813,000 subscribers, while Google trends show interest in “cringe” throughout 2018 has been consistently high, and searching “cringe compilation” on Google returns 7,830,000 results. It’s become such a popular pastime that cringe has its own meme economy.

The extent of cringey media is endless, and in some forums countless images collapse over themselves like zombies to be the cringiest of them all. Just commenting “cringe” has become a common retort: at once a reaction and an analysis.

There are even second-order cringe memes. One of the most popular in an image of Shrek holding a camera with the caption, “*Snap* Yep. This one’s going in my cringe compilation.” A great self-referencing cringe. Who knows how many PCs include folders with hundreds, if not thousands, of embarrassing snapshots. It’s a stinking swamp nobody wants to end up in. Although anybody whose life story is diffused online could be in trouble.

Which is why I want to understand what makes something that’s cringey, cringey? It’s clearly a discomfort, but why this visceral reaction? Where does this come from? And how should we view it?

First we have to draw some lines. Experiences that inspire us to cringe are as flavored as an ice cream counter. What’s important to note is that cringing is not just a reaction to other people. Our memories can hold us hostage in the middle-of-the-night, forcing us to cringe at our past selves over and over again while the sound of the alarm clock creeps upon us. Those memories stand out like splinters on a banister.

For the sake of narrowing I want to focus on cringey media encountered online: the act of seeking out the embarrassment of others for amusement. That would be text posts, images, audio, and especially YouTube compilations that soak up the time you could be spending doing anything else. I’m focusing on this one sphere because I’ve been glued to the cringe abyss as you may have been as well.

Let’s dig up the garden and see what roots we find.

“Cringe” is a variant of crenge or crenche: Old English for “yield, give way, fall (in battle); become bent,” which in turn is handed down from Proto-Germanic krank, which means to “bend, curl up.” These are words for warriors. It’s appropriate. Apex cringe-worthy material is a battle. Every part of you wants to pour ink on your eyes but you can’t help but soak in the chaos. At some point in the early nineties “Cringe-worthy” enters the ring.

What’s important to note is that cringe has been a verb since its birth. A word of action: the sound that echoes off the snare after it’s been slammed; the aftershock of experience, not the drumstick. When we call some media “cringey” we’re referring to our response rather than the media in and of itself. For the sake of a coherent ramble we need to travel beyond the horizon and discover the act that set the whole cringe-universe in motion.

That blue ribbon goes to awkwardness: patient zero.

Awkwardness is an oddball phenomenon. Even drawing attention to an awkward situation is awkward in itself; I’ve tried this and it almost always creates interstellar silence. By identifying what makes something awkward we move closer to labeling cringe. Elif Batuman, writing for the New Yorker, spits up a nice starter definition: “Awkwardness is the consciousness of a false position.” But what does that mean?

Day-to-day life is an embedded experience. All the world’s a stage and so-on and so-on. Context—the stage—dictates who it’s appropriate to be. We don our masks, play our parts, and sing the songs as rehearsed. With your mother it’s Ps and Qs and with your friends it’s sailor’s rules. No one who’s been socially conditioned wears a codpiece to their job at the bank; unless they’re eager for unemployment.

But sometimes there’s an error in the program. The self that’s been adopted for a particular stage fails to read the queues and goes off-script. A screw up: you weren’t supposed to talk about that, or do that. What happens next is sinking into the quicksand of embarrassment because there are no rules for what’s happened. So you’re stuck, and the audience cringes in recognition of your lost playbook—in the violation of normative rules.

In Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness Melissa Dahl writes, “Awkwardness is the feeling we get when someone’s presentation of themselves—either our own or someone else’s—is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over with a little white lie.”

We have to remember that reality is dictated by the norms that come together to create context. It’s not awkward to see a Dragon Ball Z larper at an Anime convention, but it is weird to see someone miming the kamehameha at a funeral home. Social environments are imbued with tacit assumptions dictating behaviors that are learned through experience. That means shattering a norm like it’s the Berlin Wall is awkward.

Now that we have a notion of awkwardness we take another step back. To share in someone’s awkwardness we have to be capable of empathy. And lucky for all cringe-seekers, the brain is hardwired for empathy, a module wired to handle the complex social relations we can’t escape from.

But let’s not confuse empathy with “compassion.” Though it certainly can be compassionate, empathy in its essence is not linked to an emotional response.

“Yet empathy and care for others are not synonyms, not necessarily,” writes Dahl. “Empathy isn’t inherently good, Krach and Paulus tell me later on in my visit with some exasperation, and it isn’t inherently bad either… Empathy itself, my new neuroscientist friends tell me, is simply something healthy brains do automatically, in order to help us better socialize with others. On its own, it’s just a cognitive process. What matters is what you do with it.”

Whenever we cringe at someone’s awkwardness we are being empathetic. But there are two avenues (for the sake of simplification) that empathy can take. And the way in which we cringe at some material will show us which avenue we’ve taken.

In the paper “Constructing the cyber-troll,” researchers Natalie Sest and Evita March lay out two variants of empathy. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognise and understand another’s emotions. Affective empathy is the ability to experience, internalise, and respond to the emotions of others.” In the former, the emotional resonance needed to see the world from another’s perspective is held back, while with the latter we see through the awkward person’s eyes.

These two empathetic responses lead us to the dualistic nature of cringe itself. And I want to present my own taxonomy of cringe that neatly divvies up the universe:

  1. Relatable Cringe
  2. Alien Cringe

Let’s start with relatable cringe.

Relatable cringe is when you empathize with another, compassionately—or as we mentioned, affective empathy. Anyone who’s experienced stage fright knows what it’s like and relates. Someone is invited to give a presentation in front of thousands of eager learners, but they stutter like an old car and are trapped in the spotlight. You can see yourself in their place. In the case cringing is a mark of solidarity. The reaction says “That could be me.”

What we’re experiencing is a relatable narrative: the universal experience of awkwardness. Part of being human is the awkwardness that’s knotted around being a social creature. And that intense empathy binds us. It’s a kind of common good. A story you can relate to a newfound friend at a bar and get a laugh.

While relatable cringe tends to fall within a small framework—stage fright, an unzipped fly during a presentation, a botched handshake—there are no limits to alien cringe, because there is an infinity of behaviors which can break a norm.

Alien cringe is the guy in full Naruto cosplay running through the high-school cafeteria with his arms stretched back for maximum aerodynamic roleplaying. From my perspective he seems to be from another planet. I can’t help but feel our evolutionary paths diverged so long ago we speak different languages. Alien cringe is the preposterousness, the inconceivable, the largely unsympathetic. The people you laugh at rather than laugh with. Here is the consequence of cognitive empathy.

When we only use cognitive empathy we’re taking the perspective of another person, but not in its entirety. Instead of relating to their world, we bring our world to their perspective: we’re substituting our understanding of acceptable behaviors with their own. There’s a German word (as there almost always is) for alien cringe: fremdschämen. It’s to feel embarrassed for someone else when they don’t realize they’ve embarrassed themselves. I feel fremdschämen almost daily.

One cringe-inducing image is a message a hapless gamer sent to an apparently female player through Xbox Live’s messenger service. I can’t help but tense up with confusion and embarrassment when reading the text: “Hi! Few things to start off with =] 1. Yes I added you because you’re a female gamer, ‘tis an awesome thing to see! 2. I’m Brian. 3. Don’t be intimidated but I’m not a stereotypical guy. If anything, I’ll be the one in the kitchen =D”

“What is this person thinking? How are they so clueless, so alien?”

As Dahl rites, this kind of cringing—as a reaction of cognitive empathy—can lead to contempt. To see these people as something less than human. It’s distasteful isn’t it? It’s turning someone into an outcast, putting them at the mercy of spitballs from the back of the classroom.

But I disagree with Dahl. Rather than fully delegitimizing their humanity I believe what’s happening is our projection of shame. Alien cringing is our contorted gasp in recognition that the norms have been violated and we want the awkward person to feel as we do: to snap out of their seemingly oddball behavior. At a glance it seems to me to be a headsnap reaction to maintain social harmony—maybe something as biologically innate as empathy.

At the same time I recognize that the people comfortable enough to be awkward in a way that inspires alien cringing just don’t give a damn. And in that way they’re free. I admire that fierce individuality unconstrained by dominant social spheres—especially my high-school contrarian past self.

Dahl says she tries to always err on the side of compassion, and catch herself when she slips into the rabble-rousing of contempt. It’s a nice thought to say we should always pencil in the bubble next to “compassion.” But doesn’t a scantron look ridiculous as your grandmother at a rave when it’s “Cs” all the way down? She’s suggesting we can play a meta-rationality but I’m not sure we can consciously choose.

A cringe is an instantaneous expression with little rationality behind it; an instinct like snapping your hand back from steam whirling out of a kettle. When a norm has been violated I can’t help but recoil. And in my reaction I am, to an extent, perpetuating the norm that’s been broken: trying to save it through my horror. The 40-year old doing a clumsy Fortnite dance on Tik Tok is abnormal.

Can we imagine a world in which every behavior is met with compassionate acceptance? At a glance, there are clearly behaviors we don’t want to condone, and then there are others that are misunderstood. Maybe we should extend our compassion more, but that doesn’t mean there is no line to be drawn. Identifying between the two is an almost impossible task for any single person, and will be judged in time by the society in which those behaviors occur.

Before the web awkward incidents were fleeting. They happen; they’re embarrassing; and then they’re gone. Yes, they linger along memory’s stream but they’re not on display for the world. Unfortunately, (or fortunately for voyeurs) the internet is a memorial. That love letter video you posted to YouTube for your 7-month anniversary exists forever—more or less. And people will watch it and cringe—forever—just like I did.

People are weird: weird on an unexpected gradient as I learn every day living online. And each of us is weird in our own ways. We can try and cultivate compassion, to consciously remember just how embarrassing every single one us is, and draw on affective empathy to build a wire from one mind to another. Perhaps we can learn to cringe together, to accept the strange worlds we each inhabit. I’m just not sure we’re there yet.

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