That Awkward Feeling

by Francesco Buscemi

July 10, 2020

You may have felt it while waiting your turn in the cafeteria and your colleague is too far away to chat. It may be what your teenage son is afraid to feel if he respects your request to wear a mask when he meets his pals after the lockdown. It is what you and your best friends may have felt when you finally met and didn’t know whether to hug, kiss or bump elbows. You may have laughed nervously and mumbled “It’s awkward”, or you may have felt emotionally paralysed or over-worried about the reactions of other people to your goofy moves. What people are experiencing during the global pandemic also entails feelings of uncertainty. Awkwardness is one of the prevailing feelings and it can involve different emotional states.

What is awkwardness, though, and what are its main features? What does its emotional experience reveal about a culture or a society? While the consequences of the pandemic are still a matter of life or death in numerous regions of the world, the biggest challenge for many people in several European countries now seems to be navigating social interactions.

Awkwardness is, like boredom, a privileged emotion and we should all be aware of it. Yet the experience of feeling uncomfortable in the new framework of social life points to something bigger: the fear of uncertainty is perhaps the overarching emotion of the times. Being afraid of death or illness, of losing a job or being confronted with the social inequalities that the pandemic only intensifies: many are the circumstances that elicit dread for the future. These emotions still pervade the predominant narrative on the risks of the epidemic, but they are not exclusive. A similar pattern of fear of not being in control infuses our everyday feelings even in more trivial matters. Awkwardness is one manifestation of this. Taking a moment to consider the emotional stakes in the oddity of new social interactions is worthwhile, because it helps us identify norms that usually remain unspoken.

If “awkward” is the catchphrase used in Anglophone communities, other idioms often employ terms that refer to different emotional states in order to express similar feelings. Germans would probably use seltsam or komisch, when the individuals involved have a previous connection that allows voicing the sense of discomfort; between strangers, unangenehm could perhaps better evoke the unpleasantness of these experiences. French could turn to bizarre, an all-too-common adjective that highlights the exceptionality of a certain situation, or gênant, making reference to the distress caused by the situation. Italians often use imbarazzante or strano, associating the experience they are describing with embarrassment or the estrangement between reality and norms. Other examples from other languages could reveal how difficult it is to grasp a universal definition for the different shades of this emotional state, but all of us could easily make a catalogue of the weird situations we have recently found ourselves in.

What people describe as awkward in this second phase of the Covid19 pandemic can tell us something about their expectations and how emotions are vectors of these expectations. Should two colleagues share a meal without small talk? Is it weird to ask a plumber to wear a mask or use hand sanitizer while fixing the leak in our apartment? What if you are the plumber and your clients won’t wear a mask while you are in their home? What do you do when the waiter who is taking your order is not wearing a mask? All these questions used to have very easy answers, mostly depending on the cultural context or the individual desire to be perceived as what we generally call a nice person. Safety protocols during the pandemic require different embodied arrangements that have not yet been adopted by most people, though. The new scenario of social interactions puts us literally out of our comfort zone, giving a sense of bewilderment mixed with surprise that is often described as an awkward feeling. Sometimes, the uncertainty about how other people will react to our behaviour in these circumstances will generate different emotional states: do my precautions with my colleagues mean that I don’t trust them? Am I too proud to let the plumber or my client think I am a hypochondriac? Feeling exposed in social interactions means feeling vulnerable if we do not perform our role according to a standard script. Self-awareness is another feature of emotional states based on awkwardness. Since we cannot manage our bodily practices with our inner automatic pilot, we find ourselves extremely attentive to our moves and question our intentionality and even our ability to face social interactions at all.

This is why awkwardness is often associated with the bodily experience of embarrassment, although they cannot be conflated. The latter is in fact often triggered by the violation of social norms in a context where individuals are concerned to control their image, as Erving Goffman tried to demonstrate in his classic study of 1956. As such, our own sense of embarrassment seems to be the product of educational practices that have historically shaped our interactions, assigning strict arrangements for behaviour in urban societies. For this reason, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists find it particularly useful to associate embarrassment with specific social or cultural backgrounds. The emotional experience of being embarrassed may appear universal, but the uncomfortable feeling of being exposed in front of a group for breaking social norms obviously depends on context: how does this group react to mistakes in social conduct? What are these social norms? Are they linked to religious, moral or political values in such a way as to undermine the public dignity of the person breaking them? What are the sanctions against those who break them? The answers to these questions explain why embarrassment is so often associated with shame.

Awkwardness, on the other hand, seems to stem from a different set of experiences. The philosopher Adam Kotsko has tried to demonstrate how discourses on social discomfort have grown in recent decades. Even before this pandemic shook the basis of our societal norms, he thinks, we lived in an age where people felt they were confronted with awkwardness all day: women getting creepy answers from men apparently not versed in gender equality; people of colour who are expected to tolerate the cringing of some of their colleagues when questions of diversity are raised. Can the pre-pandemic social experience of awkwardness explain the emotional reactions to the new etiquette of the pandemic, and to what extent? Does framing reality as “awkward” prevent us from seeing the real dangers for the post-COVID19 future? Or isn’t the feeling of awkwardness itself an expression of the dangers that may ensue from emotional states that we can’t control?
As historians of emotions, these are questions we should try to answer in the near future.

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