by Azra Hussain
Picture this: Your blood pressure is increasing at a mildly concerning rate, causing you to overheat and sweat. Your breathing gets shallow, making you pant, and the lack of sufficient air leaves you feeling nauseated and dizzy. Your body’s first instinct is to curl up into a foetal position, and fighting that reaction to act natural makes you shake. Blood flow decreases in your fingers, toes, and your face, leaving you with goose bumps and a numb face. Sounds terrible, right?
A long, long time ago, way before human societies were complicated enough to ask seemingly unimportant questions such as “How long should I hug this person?” or “Would it be bad if I brought up politics at this family reunion?” we developed primitive reactions to situations, which came off as unwelcome or threatening. For instance, a wild animal charging toward someone or a deadly snake waiting for you to come a little closer were circumstances which required immediate actions such as running away screaming. However, as our society and social dynamics evolved, we as a species have not had enough time to develop new reactions suitable for the modern world, and the result of this delay is awkwardness.
Not knowing what to do with your hands, going in for a hug when the other person offers a hand shake, forgetting your mother’s cousin’s husband’s sister’s daughter’s name, not having anything to say, or, alternatively, saying too much, getting caught staring at a stranger in the public restroom; all of these things are awkward.
Despite how unpleasant and uncomfortable it makes us feel, awkwardness and the situations that cause it are nowhere near as life-threatening as our primitive monkey brains think they are. Regardless of what your body tells you, overhearing a couple yelling at each other will not kill you. Living as a human being in this day and age is somewhat similar to running Windows 95 on a 2018 Lenovo Yoga Book. It just isn’t an ideal situation. However, since we do not get to choose the era we want to be born in, the least we can do is to understand what is going on inside our heads and why it is happening.
To really understand awkwardness we need to take a step back and look at the entire set of laws that guide and determine social behaviour. First of all comes the limitation of physics, biology, and chemistry. We cannot walk on water, fly, or dance on molten rock. Following science is the set of legal limitations – the laws based off of moral values and ethics. The law of the state determines what is wrong and punishable, and prevents people from committing crimes – murder, theft, assault, so on and so forth. What the state cannot govern, is in turn governed by social expectations.
Even though it is not illegal to yell at your kid in public, and chewing with your mouth does not contradict any law of physics, these things are frowned upon. Punished not by the police, but by social ostracism. Self-consciousness is the finest tool, managing to keep in check even the things that go under the radar of the society. Hugging someone for too long or forgetting somebody’s name isn’t a violation of etiquette or the constitution — it’s just awkward. Like touching a hot pan or cutting your finger with a sharp knife, awkwardness is an unpleasant feeling that exists to remind you to avoid doing certain things. Maybe next time, try going for a handshake instead of a hug.
People who demonstrate self-consciousness when needed is communicating cooperative intentions, which helps them get along well with others. It’s no coincidence that brains susceptible to feeling occasional awkwardness would become so common. They’re successful at cooperating and at social life. Feeling awkward shows that you understand and are keen on smooth social exchanges.
Even though too much or too little concern for social rules isn’t healthy, but researchers found that just the right amount is great. When a person shows remorse, embarrassment or awkward discomfort at appropriate times, others perceive them as being more trustworthy, and their actions as more forgivable. Such individuals also tend to be more objectively social when tested. Even when a person is completely oblivious to a faux pas they’ve committed, awkwardness still arises. People around them can feel uncomfortable. It’s called vicarious embarrassment and it’s a function of empathy – the ability to feel what others feel or will feel, when or if they realize what they’ve just done. The more easily sympathetically embarrassed someone is, the harder it is for them to sit through other people’s cringe-inducing moments, even fictional once like in cringe comedy. Researchers found that being more easily and pathetically embarrassed does not correlate to be more easily embarrassed yourself. Instead, it’s linked to being more empathetic, an important capacity for social creatures to have. Our seemingly counter-intuitive attraction to viewing cringing moments is perhaps then just a light form of morbid curiosity.
You may think that awkwardness is totally different from physical pain but your brain would disagree. Research indicates that social missteps activate, among other regions, the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula — areas of the brain that are also connected to the sensation of physical pain. Our brains process the breaking of social standards and the breaking of bones through similar neural pathways. Likewise the same sympathetic nervous system that mobilizes you to deal with physical threats, “fight or flight”, is activated by social challenges where awkwardness or embarrassment might be at stake, hence similar reactions.
Self-conscious anxiety can be tough to get out of our minds after we’ve done something awkward. Fixating on social blunders is easy and hard to overcome. Some of the blame may lie with the neurotransmitter oxytocin or “the love hormone” because it modulates social feelings, like trust and attachment. It may play a role in making positive and negative social interactions more salient in our memories; that is, stand out more, command more of our attention after the fact, make us think about them more. Negative social interactions and negative emotions have a greater impact on our mental states than positive ones. In fact, we have more words for negative emotions than positive ones and a richer vocabulary to describe them. Thus such memories and thoughts can be tough to just get over.
A great wet blanket for smothering the fire of self-conscious anxieties is perspective. Consider the famous advice of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” Everyone has a life just as complex as you, with thoughts and worries just as many in number as yours, and in reality most people don’t even have time enough to think about every awkward person they met. So just live your life the way you want to, and try to see things from a different perspective.