Awkward! Why social media creates such cringeworthy moments

Ugh, is that really how my voice sounds? Melissa Dahl, author of "Cringeworthy," has a theory about why we all feel so derpy.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
5 min read

Remember that time you did that stupid thing? Absentmindedly said "love you" to your boss, sent a gossipy email to the person you were gossiping about, shook hands with your company's CEO not realizing you had a giant stain on your shirt? Now your embarrassing moment is the only detail people remember about you (or so you think). Might as well just pull the covers over your head and never leave the house.

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Yep, that baby's pulling a full-on cringe.


As excruciating as bad memories of humiliation may feel, you can learn to accept them, says Melissa Dahl, author of the new book "Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness."  It explores the psychological research behind awkwardness and how we deal with it, using plenty of examples from Dahl's own life. (Disclosure: Dahl and I worked together, not at all awkwardly, at MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital.)

Awkwardness is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in the age of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, since it often results from a conflict between the way we view ourselves and the way others see us. That tension's likely to arise more these days, as we carefully cultivate social media personas that make us look like we're always "Hamilton"-going, Fiji-cruise-taking, Thanksgiving-dinner-hosting extroverts. (No one gets to see the 99 percent of the time where we're wearing sweats and eating warmed-up pizza on the couch.)

Part of awkwardness is when you get these incompatible versions of yourself bumping into each other, Dahl explains. "So there's a lot more of this than there ever has been before."

Dahl recalls a time when she posted to Facebook, and three people close to her -- her mother, her favorite college professor, and a former co-worker -- began discussing her in the comments, as she watched (and yes, perhaps cringed).

"It was like, 'Auuugh, different versions of me colliding,'" she says with a laugh. "We have to get used to the fact that there are these different versions of ourselves that run into each other now, like my work self is going to run into my college self ... I don't really know the solution, but maybe just being a little more comfortable with the fact that we all contain multitudes."

One trend popular with college students is to have one Instagram account to show parents, and a "fake Insta," or "Finstagram," shared only with a select group of friends. Dahl admits she too has a second Instagram, focused mainly on running and other things she dubs "too dorky" to post publicly.

She says she can't wait to see the techniques kids raised on social media develop to deal with Instagram, Facebook and all the rest.


Melissa Dahl says she's felt awkward her whole life, perhaps because as a kid, her family moved often and she was always having to fit in to a new social circle.

Celeste Sloman

"Maybe they'll delete their own Instagram after like a month or so," she surmises. "Maybe they won't have their different selves hanging around -- or maybe they will."

Cringeworthy memories can be hard to escape.

Many of us try to force ourselves not to think about our excruciating moments, or to convince ourselves they weren't really that bad. Bad news: Dahl says neither of those tactics work, and what does help -- exploring the memory, even if it's the last thing you want to do -- sounds pretty painful.

"Think about the other sensory aspects of it, like, what else did you see, what else did you hear, were there any smells?" Dahl says. "Can you try and put yourself in the shoes of somebody else in the situation?"

Awkwardness, Dahl says, is often incorrectly treated as a personality trait, but her research led her to believe it's more of a feeling. What's the difference? A personality trait means only certain people would be awkward, but if it's a feeling, all of us occasionally will share in the pain. 

Dahl's research for the book included many hours spent analyzing famous cringe moments, from pretty much everything famously awkward boss Michael Scott did on "The Office" to the infamous "Boom Goes the Dynamite" video showing Ball State college student Brian Collins' disastrous 2005 sports broadcast. She's also spent a lot of time on the subreddit r/cringe, which exists solely to share awkward and embarrassing moments, and was pleasantly surprised by the compassion she found there.

"I thought (the cringe subreddit) would be a place where people make fun of other people, but it was just kind of everybody being, like, 'Oh my gosh, you know, I've done that, or I've been there,'" Dahl says.

It makes sense people would seek out these excruciating moments.


Michael Scott (Steve Carell) on "The Office" had no idea how much he made others cringe, but the rest of us aren't as blissfully self-unaware.


"Maybe it's the same kind of reason we watch horror movies," she says. "It's like experiencing the feeling, but at a remove. Maybe it helps you prepare for the next time you're in an embarrassing situation. It's like this little exercise in empathy."

Dahl often cringes over a 2014 post she wrote for New York magazine, where she co-founded the "Science of Us" site.

"The headline was, 'Why You Keep Mishearing That Taylor Swift Lyric,' and it didn't explain why, it was just this total clickbait," she says. "I kept walking around with that, and was like, OK, let's follow my own advice and start thinking about how everybody who writes online has some embarrassing posts in their past. I'm not unique."

Not everyone has a Taylor Swift story, but many people cringe at the sound of their own voice, or wince at photographs. Dahl notes that both voice recordings and photos differ from the way we normally hear our voices or see our faces, so there's a disconnect, and often some cringing, when we're forced to hear or see them.

"The way I'm hearing my own voice right now really is different from how you would be hearing me if we were in the same room," Dahl says. "Your skull bones kind of conduct sound at a lower frequency, so I'm hearing my voice as if it's lower than it really is, which is why it's really common when people hear their own voices recorded for them to be kind of like, 'Ohhh, I didn't think my voice sounded that high, I sound like a teenager.'"

One way to bridge the disconnect? Have a sense of humor.

"Turn (your cringey memory) into a story, and make it a funny story, and then it's yours, and it's a part of you that you can own again," she says. "I can own that piece of myself who wrote that embarrassing Taylor Swift post, and it's also something that I can use to connect with somebody else, or that I can use to make myself laugh. 'Lighten up!' I should get a tattoo that says that."

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