Author Melissa Dahl

As the editor of "New York" magazine’s blog Science of Us, Melissa Dahl spends her days exploring some of the most intriguing scientific notions, research and revelations in the news. In her first book, "Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness" (out Feb. 13), she guides readers on a funny and enlightening tour through one of her favorite topics. The Sacramento State alumna talks about the upside of awkwardness, battling “cringe attacks,” and why nothing—not even Valentine’s Day—is as cringeworthy as it might seem.

Portrait by Celeste Sloman

What inspired Cringeworthy?

This feeling of self-consciousness in everything I say or do has always driven me crazy. So I was initially trying to figure out, “How can I protect myself from feeling so self-conscious and cringey all the time?” [The book] has gone through so many bad drafts. I still have two extremely embarrassing, too-cringeworthy-to-talk-about chapters floating around somewhere, where I was trying to look through the science and say, “I’m just going to construct this beautiful wall made of scientific papers between me and awkwardness. I’m never going to feel that way again.” But it just wasn’t working. Then I thought, “Well, maybe I can just do an investigation of this feeling that I think a lot of people talk about and maybe don’t completely have their arms around.”

Speaking of which, you write that you “wanted to explore awkwardness as an emotion rather than a trait.” What do you mean by that distinction?

We typically think of awkwardness as, “Oh, I’m so awkward” or “That person is so awkward.” It certainly can be a personality trait. I was more interested in the feeling. If someone says something awkward, maybe they don’t necessarily even know that they’ve triggered that feeling for everyone else in the room, whereas it spreads and the rest of us can feel it. It became more interesting to me to understand it as an emotion rather than a trait. When I was writing this book, people said to me, “You don’t strike me as a particularly awkward person.” I was like, “OK, I’ll take the compliment! But I feel this way all the time. What’s the difference?”

It’s kind of like the difference between being Michael Scott from The Office and reacting to Michael Scott from The Office.

Yes! Exactly. That’s one of the examples I use in the book. It’s not like Michael Scott is weighed down by this feeling. I don’t think he goes around feeling super self-conscious or cringing at everything he says that makes other people feel this way. That’s the distinction to me.

You also note in the book that “awkwardness has surged into the zeitgeist. We now have so many new ways to see what we look like to others.” What are some of those ways, and how are they affecting people for better or worse?

Social media is the obvious one. If you’ve ever walked by someone who’s taking a really elaborately performed selfie, or someone who’s having [another person] take a really elaborately Instagrammed shot of them or something, it’s sort of awkward to watch. I think it’s because of that distinction between how you’re trying to present yourself in the world and how other people are seeing you. For me, when I looked into this, I saw this clash that seemed to evoke this cringey feeling. When you think you’re putting yourself out there to look like this, but someone else says, “No, I actually see you like this,” then you see these two views collide and you’re kind of like, “Agh!”

You get into the types and taxonomies of cringing, particularly the idea of “compassionate cringing” versus “contemptuous cringing.” What are the differences?

I went to see this show Tinder Live that was described by The New York Times as being this kind of paragon of cringe comedy [where] a comedian goes on Tinder and brings up people’s profiles. Her phone is connected to a projector, and she and this panel of comedians make fun of these hapless guys. It is really funny, but it’s an example of what I call contemptuous cringing, which is a version of empathy where you can understand what someone else is feeling, but you’re not letting it in. You’re understanding what someone else is going through, but you’re also rejecting it. You’re saying “Thank God I’m not there with you. You’re an idiot.”

To me, compassionate cringing is what I became really interested in. I came to understand that through a [show] called Mortified, where people get onstage and read from their teenage diaries. It’s like a version of the same emotion, but it’s like, “I can see what you’re going through, and I’ve been there too.” That just became so much more interesting to me.

You also evangelize for “the gospel of self-indifference.” What is that?

It’s just a cheekier way of talking about humility. One of the things I came across as I was digging into the psychological literature about self-consciousness is that we don’t always know that no one else is paying as much attention to us as we think they are. This can actually be a really freeing idea. There’s not a lot of point in thinking back to everything I said at a party and being like, “Oh my God, why did I say that? Why did I do that? That was stupid.” It’s a kinder way of reminding myself, “Hey, just get over yourself.”

What’s your backstory? Are you from Sacramento originally?

My family moved around a lot when I was a kid, and we landed in Sacramento when I was 15. I went to Capital Christian High School and Sac State. I loved Sacramento. I had moved around so much that when it came time to make my decision [about where to go to college], I said, “I’m going to stay here.” I’ve actually lived there longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my life—for seven years. So Sacramento feels like home. Seeing Lady Bird was like seeing my high school era on screen.

“Everybody is trying their best, everybody is screwing up, and everybody is ridiculous. There is something so moving to me about that.”

In the chapter titled “Awkward Silences at the Office,” your college newspaper—The State Hornet at Sacramento State—appears as “the first office environment I was ever a part of.” Can you tell us a little bit about that time?

I was there for a good two years, I think. All of those guys became my best friends. I mention this in the book, but I noticed that we let people hang out with us as long as they were good, you know? It wasn’t like an editor-writer divide, it was like, “You’re cool if you don’t create a lot of extra work for me.” It was an interesting first look at office friendships and office politics: It was a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds playing office.

Your book comes out around Valentine’s Day, which can be the most awkward holiday of the year. Have you ever experienced that Valentine’s awkwardness?

I feel like I’ve been insufferably lucky in that regard. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an extremely awkward Valentine’s Day. Which now I feel very awkward admitting.

Fair enough, although there’s an anecdote in the book where a date elbows you in the head while you’re watching a movie together.

Oh, that’s true. That was my high school boyfriend. We were watching Meet the Parents on his parents’ couch. He tried to put his arm around me, and elbowed me in the head instead. It was very cute.

What are some tactics for people in new relationships—or anyone else reckoning with romantic awkwardness?

The theory of self-indifference could help. It seems like you’re saying things that are hopelessly weird, but chances are the other person is reviewing the things they’re saying in their head too. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Another thing I would say is that maybe you don’t say something stupid, but your date elbows you in the head. Maybe that’s a time to indulge in some of that compassionate cringing and say, “Oh, I’ve been there before.”

What is your favorite takeaway from researching and writing Cringeworthy?

If you write a book, you have to choose a topic you care a lot about. And what really helped me with [writing Cringeworthy] was that it just made me laugh. So much of it highlighted human ridiculousness. It added this way of looking at life and humanity that was really endearing to me. Everybody is trying their best, everybody is screwing up, and everybody is so ridiculous. All of us are embarrassing ourselves every day. There is something so moving to me about that. S

Melissa Dahl and S.T. VanAirsdale worked together at The State Hornet while classmates at Sacramento State in the spring of 2004, and VanAirsdale currently serves as the faculty adviser for the student paper. Cringeworthy is available Feb. 13 at amazon.com and other retailers. Learn more at cringeworthybook.com.

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