I was in the middle of a meeting last week talking with some great consultants from a firm about millennials. As we chatted about millennials’ perceptions and ways of interacting with the world, we landed on a tangent as I divulged my most peculiar observation of late. I quickly looked around the café we were sitting in to make sure no one else was listening, leaned in closely, lowered my voice and asked the gentlemen before me with uncertainty, “is it just me, or is everything suddenly awkward?”
Granted, I’m often a bit late to these pop culture phenomena, which is a bit ironic seeing as how this is a population I write about and work with frequently. In fact, some might call my obliviousness to the notion of awkward, as being awkard in and of itself. Still, as I aimed to see how far behind the curve I really was in seeing this bizarre trend of calling everything “awkward,” I found many great blogs, including this one from fellow blogger Jen Kim, in addition to a whole cover story on the notion of awkward from Psychology Today found here.
Though it’s been around for awhile, I just don’t get it. Why do we call everything awkward? How is it that it’s become the catch—all term for anything and everything that is less than desirable? I constantly catch myself calling things awkward that are hardly so. As such, it seems as though we’ve forgotten what awkward really means and that there are other words that better capture the essence of our experience. What about “odd,” “uncomfortable,” or “unfortunate?” As a means of moving us past our fascination with and inaccurate labelling of things as "awkward," below is a preliminary list of scenarios that really aren’t that awkward at all, but are better described otherwise. Please, read on. Unless of course, now I’ve just made things awkward.
1) “So I was walking in the hall the other day and said ‘hi’ to the departmental chair, and he just stood there and stared at me. He didn’t even say ‘hi’ back. It was so awkward!”
Correction: The scenario in question is not in fact awkward. Perhaps the chair is shy, ill at ease, lacks manners, is arrogant and self—absorbed, or just didn’t hear you. Undesirable interaction, yes. Awkward, no.
2) “The other day I was on the bus when this guy went up to this elderly woman and started yelling at her to get up so a pregnant woman could sit down. Can we say awkward?”
Correction: Such an interaction may seem awkward, but mostly it’s uncomfortable. It may have been jarring, confusing, or even a bit scary and anxiety-producing. All likely better descriptors than “awkward.”
3) “Did you see that YouTube video? The one where that guy proposed to the girl at the UCLA basketball game and it was on the JumboTron, and she got up and ran out? How completely awkward!”
Correction: Witnessing someone display their feelings openly to another and making themselves vulnerable only to be disappointed or heartbroken is typically more sad and distressing to watch than awkward. No one likes to see someone kicked when they’re already down. As a result, we may wish the interaction never occurred so there was never the opportunity for the discomfort to occur. But alas, it’s not awkward, it’s embarrassing.
In the end, ask ourselves every time we are tempted to use the word “awkward” if it truly fits the bill, perhaps our vocabularies will be richer, or accounts all the more descriptive, and our interactions that much less awkward. Self—fulfilling prophecies, anyone?