Have you heard this word before? Are you the one saying it or the one it's being said to? Do you even know what it means? What does it mean? When did it get so popular? Why do girls always seem to say this whenever anything randomly happens?
Like, when you parallel park your car and hit the curb, why is that awkward? Why did Sophia say that to me last week? I have no idea.
I google searched the terms "awkward" and "psychology" to maybe find a connection between the two, but the first result was one of my new favorite Web sites,awkwardfamilyphotos.com, with doozies like these:
You must check out the site for yourself to understand and experience the full gamut of awkwardness, whatever it might be. For me, I get a weird uncomfortable feeling that's suspended somewhere between confusion and disbelief, usually followed by mild-to-severe laughter. A "What the?" look if you may.
I don't even know if this is a positive or negative feeling.
For the most part, being socially awkward is a stigma. The media stereotype depicts it as someone who lacks self-confidences, reads a lot of manga and probably lives in a basement and/or is obsessed with staplers.
There are countless Web sites that offer guidance on how to deal with awkward behaviors. Recently, a Globe and Mailarticle cited a study that suggested that reading fiction can cure social awkwardness.
Researchers in Toronto found that readers of narrative fiction were more empathetic and had higher social acumen than those who read non-fiction. Follow-up research also suggested that people who read a New Yorker short story performed better on social reasoning tests than those who read an essay from the magazine.
"Those benefits, researchers say, may be because fiction acts as a type of simulator. Reading about make-believe people having make-believe adventures or whirlwind romances may actually help people navigate those trials in real life."
I started to wonder, is being awkward necessarily a bad thing? According to today's media, absolutely not. In fact, awkward (people) comedies are this past decade's fundamental source of humor. Think of the title characters in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin", "Zoolander"... basically any Ben Stiller movie.
The current poster boy for awkward moments is George Michael Bluth from my favorite expired show "Arrested Development." George Michael, played by the gifted Michael Cera, embodies the angsty, yet awkwardly adorable teenager who just so happens to fall in love with his cousin. (Don't worry, it's not incestuous, really)
Check out this clip for a sample:
Since his release from "Arrested Development", Cera has grown considerably in celebrity appeal. He starred in hits such as "Superbad", "Juno", "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" and "Youth in Revolt", as well as flops like "Year One", which I'll count as two movies, because it was truly awful, really. He was also half of the comedy duo that was "Clark & Michael", a CBS sponsored web series in which he played a struggling television show writer in Los Angeles.
What is interesting about all of Cera's roles, however, is that he's got a bit of Tom Cruise syndrome. No, he's not a Scientologist (yet!)-- but he does seem to exhibit a one-note type of character in all of his films. Cera always plays awkward and adorkable George Michael Bluth, just as Cruise always plays charismatic and charming Tom Cruise man. I'm not trying to criticize anyone's acting skills, but rather, suggest that Cera's lack of "confidence" is precisely his cinematic charm.
Since the '80s, we have always loved the untraditional underdog-- remember Duckie from "Pretty in Pink" or Patrick Dempsey in "Loverboy" or "Can't Buy Me Love"?
Michael Cera is this generation's lovable misfit, but with an awkward twist. In the films from two decades ago, the nerds usually lusted after girls that were far beyond their reach. They would have to bribe girls to go out with them or succumb to being the dreaded "friend" and learn to live with it. Sure, sometimes true love would prevail in the end, after the girl "realized" just how "special" the nerd was after some brave or heroic declaration of love. Deeply formulaic, and deeply unrealistic.
Cera, on the other hand, gets girls for free. He bumbles around and acts nervous, but there is no wooing necessary. The girl already harbors a crush on him, and all he needs to do is just stand there and be awkward! No roses, no nice dinners, nothing.
In real life too, it seems, the awkward factor has a some appeal. Perks include: you're never boring, you're never annoying, you're listened to, because people are typically curious about what you're going to say, and you can usually get away with anything because, "you know, you're just, like weird." Awkward is interesting in a good way: kind of like a harmless alien from Mars.
But why are we attracted to awkward behavior?
Awkwardness is simultaneously non-threatening and entertaining. The awkward guy will never hurt or try to cheat you. He's not smooth, he doesn't play games, he's even sincere. Awkward people are also generally unaware of their behavior, which makes the whole thing more amusing. They operate in a different universe than everyone else, with a different set of rules and logic. The awkward are foreign exchange students that look just like us.
Another thing to consider is that most of us exhibit moments of awkward behavior. Of course, we try really hard to mask it, to fit in, to be conformists. Still, when we see someone else behaving in a way that we sometimes do ourselves, we feel connected, safe, and a little relieved, because it turns out we're not the only freaks in town.
Sometimes, awkward moments don't have happy endings. Occasionally, when I meet new folks, I blurt out completely random or inappropriate things, thinking they are funny and adorable. In response, I usually get that slight head shake and a blank expression. Usually, an "ummm okay," will escape their vocal box, and they will undoubtedly dart their eyes back and forth searching for a way to terminate the conversation. Meanwhile, I rack my brain for more clever zingers to say, completely oblivious to what's really happening.
Then, once in a while, we meet people who just click with us. You know what I'm talking about. We laugh about the same things. We have the same reactions to certain things. We can predict each other's thoughts without uttering a word. We are awkward around each other, but we find it absolutely and perfectly normal.
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Jen Kim is a former Psychology Today intern and a graduate of Northwestern University.