How many times did you come across social actions that embarrassed either you or the people next to you? Let’s give a few examples: Going for a hug and receiving a handshake instead; Saying goodbye to someone before the bus arrives at its station, but realizing that you have to wait another minute before it comes to a full stop so you stare at each other not knowing what to say; Forgetting someone’s name; and many other situations which we consider awkward.
So what is it about this uncomfortable feeling that exists in our society that give it so much importance? On a day-to-day basis we struggle not to fall into the pit of awkwardness. I tend to think that this knowledge about what to do or not do in public is a positive thing; in other words: Feeling awkwardness is good for society.
We have to start by thinking about social behavior, about what we, as humans, do in everyday life. With the following graph I will explain how we mold our actions and how our actions are molded by several characteristics.
Let’s look at it from the bottom up. Firstly we have the Laws of Science that are pretty self-explanatory: we, as humans, can’t fly, achieve light speed or breathe underwater. We grow hair, not feathers, are warm blooded, eat and sleep. In other words we have learned either through our instincts or through our parents that we can’t mess with physics or biology, so we act accordingly.
Another factor that shapes our behavior lies within the laws and rules of your society. We know that stealing, assault or murder are deemed illegal and, as such, present grave risks for people that undertake such actions. The risks are of course fines or prison sentences and many times outweigh the benefits. So people generally follow these conducts in society:
Now we are left with etiquette or with what some consider to be manners. These are the unwritten rules of society that mark a person as being polite or impolite. They are customs/mores/traditions that guide us towards living together without conflict. It is not illegal, for example, to chew with your mouth open, to pick your nose in public or to turn your back on somebody when they are talking, but it is considered disgraceful. The risks that are present here are not like the ones mentioned before; instead a disrespectful person hazards being shunned out by society and being labeled as being rude, annoying or gross.
At the very top of this social behavior pyramid we have awkwardness, or self-consciousness. A process that finalizes our social mold. It smooths down social dynamics in places where laws and manners do not reach. There are no rules that state how long a hug should last and nobody could point you to a custom that states a duration clearly. The process of hugging can have so many variables that only the people involved can guess when to let go. When you hug your friend for longer than they expected it certainly is not illegal or impolite, but it is awkward.
This feeling that we generally associate with something bad or undesirable is one of the factors involved in having better cooperation between individuals in a society. It is a feeling that our brains have evolved into having so that we can get nudged into avoiding certain actions and live together peacefully. As humans we learn not to put our hand in fire; As citizens we understand that it is illegal to kill somebody; As members of society we know that it’s impolite to caught in another person’s direction; and as empathetic beings we now know what to avoid doing in public thanks to awkwardness.
Vsauce, The Science of Awkwardness, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o268qbb_0BM
Matthew Feinberg, Robb Willer, and Dacher Keltner, Flustered and Faithful: Embarrassment as a Signal of Prosociality, http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~keltner/publications/FeinbergWillerKeltner2012.pdf
Reddit, Cringe, http://www.reddit.com/r/cringe
Maia Szalavitz, Why Your Embarrassment Causes Me So Much Pain, http://healthland.time.com/2011/05/05/why-your-embarassment-causes-me-so-much-pain/
Kirsten Weir, Oh no you didn’t!, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/embarrassment.aspx
Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D. Wager, Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain, http://www.pnas.org/content/108/15/6270.full?tab=author-info
Michael Torrice, Socially Awkward? Check Your Genes, http://news.sciencemag.org/social-sciences/2009/11/socially-awkward-check-your-genes