Remember that time you told your buddy how hot a girl was only to turn around and find her standing right behind you? Remember when you amputated the wrong leg on that guy and then hospitals made it a thing to have the patient use a marker to write on the leg that’s supposed to get the operation? Remember dancing in middle school? Remember when the word “awkward” became a thing itself, and all the cool people said it…right after they wore out “random” and needed another adjective to use as that thing you say when you want to be cool? We all have a working understanding – and some personal experiences – of what “awkward” is, but what exactly makes “awkward” feel so…well…awkward?
The genesis of this post was the following question posed by a reader: Why is the emotion “awkward” so difficult to process? The first thing I thought I would do in researching this post would be to find out exactly what “awkward” is and then try to categorize it with some sort of grouping or charting of emotions. This approach proved difficult, however. I’m not sure if it’s due to the qualitative and opinionated nature of emotions and psychology or if it’s due to a fundamental inability for psychologists to agree on anything, but evidently there are as many models, theories, charts, and lists of emotions as there are experts in the field.
I found this chart from ChangingMinds.org which I believe conveys my frustration wonderfully:
That’s fourteen different experts who can’t agree on the number of “basic” emotions (which range from two to eleven) or which specific emotions should make the list.
In addition, the word “awkward” doesn’t even show up on any of the lists. Well, that’s okay; we’re only talking about basic or primary emotions here. The emotion “awkward” certainly shows up on some other list of secondary emotions…right? How about a list of tertiary emotions? (FYI: Tertiary is the third level, they just don’t spell it as “thirdary” because that would make too much sense)
Okay, so I keep searching until I find what appears to be the most comprehensive chart of emotions that is readily accessible on the Internet, Parrots’ Classification of Emotions from 2001 courtesy of TheMotionMachine.com:
That’s over 100 detailed emotions with three tiered categories…still no appearance from our friend, “awkward.” Well…this is awkward.
Is “awkward” even an emotion? Is this all just an exercise in futility? I bet someone from Cornell could help us. Yeah, Cornell…ever heard of it?
A Breakthrough in Understanding Emotions
Most of the existing “science of emotions,” as it were, seemed to be a mapping exercise. A specific emotion would be termed, say “fear,” and then brain scan technology would identify electrical activity in the brain at certain locations, trying to determine which piece of the brain was responsible for which emotion. This Cornell study (which you can read here), however, shows that reality is a bit more nuanced and complex, which to me explains why there has always been such a difficulty reaching consensus on emotional labeling and categorization.
What was revealed is that emotions are likely coded for in neural patterns based on combinations of brain neurons firing or not firing, active or inactive, like a binary code system for a computer made up of a bunch of on/off switches or 1’s and 0’s. Say, for the sake of simplicity, your brain has ten neurons. Someone cuts you off on the freeway, and neurons 1, 4, and 7 turn “on” while the others stay in the “off” position. This would be the neural “code” for the emotion “anger.”
As we know, however, the brain has many more than ten neurons. In fact, most commonly accepted science places the number around one hundred billion neurons! Perhaps not all of them are dedicated to emotions, but even if we did only have the ten neurons in the simplistic example above, the number of possible combinations of “on” and “off” would be calculated as 2^10 (2 multiplied by itself ten times), which is a little over 1,000 combinations, meaning we would have over 1,000 possible emotions to label. Zoinks, Scoob! Jump that up to 30 neurons, and 2^30 now climbs to just over one billion possible emotions to label! And if we had millions of neurons involved…uh…very big number of emotions to label. It seems the discrete labeling approach isn’t going to cut it anymore.
The number of actual emotions isn’t all that important, but the concept we derive, based on the fact that the number is really huge, is rather important. When you look at emotions this way, it basically forces us to describe them as more of a spectrum. We could think of it like the visible light spectrum – which, as dedicated readers know by now, is a small sliver of the much larger electromagnetic spectrum – with an almost infinite number of specific wave frequencies (energies). Our emotional spectrum, then, would have billions of different “quantized” emotions you could experience, although many of them fall into familiar ranges of emotions that we could subjectively group together like “anger-like emotions” or “joy-like emotions” the same way colors of light fall into basic ranges like “red-like” or “blue-like.”
The reality that there are basically billions of different emotions along a massive spectrum is, I believe, the reason why so many people argued over how to categorize them. It’s impossible to label them all, and so many of them are so similar to other ones but with just very slight nuances, sort of like shades of a color that are indistinguishable by the naked eye. In this way, you probably have literally never had the exact same emotional feeling twice in your life, but you’ve had many that are similar enough that your brain lumps them together and thinks of them as the same thing.
I think this phenomenon might also explain why we consider feelings to be “subjective” and “qualitative.” With advanced technology, it may actually be possible to measure and label over a billion possible distinct emotional responses, but we can’t quantitatively measure that with our brain in the moment in which we are feeling them. Also, we are trying to describe them with words, and we don’t have enough words in the English language for them all.
I tend to believe anything in the world CAN be explained and quantified if we have access to all the data, but much of that is currently out of reach of the human race. You also run into the problem that it requires energy to measure something and capture information, so at some point the energy required to capture those last few bits of data may be too large that certain problems could become unsolvable. If you want a rabbit hole to fall into, Google things like “uncertainty principle” and shoot me a message when you’re done five years from now.
So That Helped, but Where Does “Awkward” Fit Into All of This?
While this spectrum concept helps to explain the perpetual arguing of theorists over which emotions are which and what to call them, it doesn’t tell us why no one includes “awkward” in any of those lists, even though it is certainly a distinct feeling we’ve all had, right? Is it possible that since we now know there are technically billions of tiny little emotion combinations that exist, that people just put as many on the chart as they felt necessary to discuss theory? I suppose, but we came up with the word “awkward,” and it has to mean something, yet most places I see it discussed at all in the context of emotions just sort of lump it in as a synonym for or a subset of “embarrassed.” It seems the key, then, is understanding the difference between “awkward” and “embarrassed” to really get to the bottom of this post topic.
Of all places and sources, I came across this explanation from some guy on a forum named Larry (full quote here). I don’t know Larry’s background or whether or not he knows what he’s talking about, but he seems very astute. Larry says a lot of things, but what really catches me is his idea that something usually feels awkward when you do it for the first time and can get less awkward with practice.
Two Types of Awkward
Now when I go back and check the dictionary definitions for “awkward,” they usually have two different types of definitions, one more physical and the other more social. The physical definition is something along the lines of “difficult to use or deal with” or “lacking grace.” This could be like trying to change a lightbulb behind a couch with ferns sticking in your face where you just can’t get the right angle to make it work. Your body doesn’t necessarily have the physical tools or movement patterns yet to handle the job. Applied then to the social context of “awkward,” perhaps that too is a lack of tools (social, mental, emotional instead of physical) to deal with a given social situation? As in your brain hasn’t yet mapped out exactly how it will react to such a situation and isn’t sure how to proceed? That seems to make sense.
Finally, Someone Who Studies “Awkward”
There is one more study yet to cover that helps fully flesh out the idea, or at least as far as I’m willing to work for in an already lengthy post! This was the only study I was able to find that actually researched “awkward” specifically; many previous studies seemed to only look at its often more popular cousin, “embarrassed.” Led by Joshua Clegg, you can find a summary in this Huffington Post article, which gives us a few important tidbits. The tidbit most germane to this conversation is that fact that “awkward situations can be boiled down to an incongruence between what’s happening and what you think should happen.” Aha! So an important part of something feeling awkward is expectations!
Before we knew that a situation could be awkward even if you were alone thanks to our random friend Larry. But that’s the situation itself, not necessarily an emotion you feel yet. So the adjective “awkward” seems to describe a situation in which the proper tools, be they physical tools or mental tools (neural patterns perhaps?) do not yet exist to tackle the problem. In order to FEEL awkward, though, you have to have expectations of something that differ from reality to a degree.
Back to our lightbulb example, if that seems perfectly normal to you for changing lightbulbs, or you’ve never done it before and have no expectations, then you may not actually feel awkward about it. The situation may be described by others as awkward, but from your vantage point, you don’t feel any of that. If, however, you expect changing a lightbulb to be much more straightforward, as most of us probably do, then you find the obstacles of the couch and the ferns to be making things very awkward for you.
Taking It up a Notch to Social Awkwardness
When we get into social awkwardness, the situation becomes more complex yet. Initially you have to run into an awkward social situation, and really any of them could be awkward because every situation is at least slightly different than any you’ve been in before, so your brain has yet to map out the exact response to this present situation. But again, whether or not you or anyone else FEELS awkward – turning it also into an emotion – depends on the expectations of the people involved. If a person expects something to go one way (based upon their beliefs or universal social norms and rules), and it goes another way, they start to feel awkward. If another person doesn’t have any expectations, however, or maybe is unaware of other people’s expectations and social norms, they may not feel awkward, and now you can throw out another popular teenager term and call them “clueless.”
Before we finish, there is yet another important concept to understand here in the context of social awkwardness, which is vicarious empathetic embarrassment. There may be one person responsible, or at least mostly, for an awkward situation, and they may or may not feel awkward about it depending upon their social tools, expectations, and awareness (or lack thereof). However, the other people around that person can start feeling awkward due to vicarious empathetic embarrassment. “Vicarious” essentially means living through someone else, and “empathy” is the the ability to feel what other people are feeling. If you are someone who is very empathetic, and someone else is creating an awkward situation and embarrassing themselves, whether they feel awkward and embarrassed or not, you might feel extremely awkward and embarrassed as a result of your empathy for other people!
How About an Example to Bring it All Together?
Let’s say that my friend and I work at a company that has security guards manning the elevator bays. One of the security guards tends to talk a little too long when you’re trying to get to lunch or a meeting and doesn’t seem very aware of the context of other people’s situation. Then one day as my friend and I are walking back into the building, this security guard says “Hi” and calls us by first name…only neither of us ever told him our name. And then on another day shortly thereafter, despite our diligent efforts to get back into the building quickly so as not to be hassled, he “traps” us near the door while telling us jokes about a popular celebrity wearing diapers. And this goes on for months, all the while my friend and I feel awkward as hell, and he seems to feel completely content with everything that’s transpiring.
Here’s my take with my new working theory. There is an awkward situation being created by the security guard, a unique situation that our brains haven’t yet experienced exactly in life. My friend and I start to feel awkward because we have expectations for the situation, some based on social norms as to what’s appropriate for people you barely know, and some based on our own personal expectations of wanting to get somewhere and not be late. We are also feeling vicarious empathetic awkwardness and embarrassment for the security guard because of the social rules he is breaking and how we perceive he ought to feel.
The security guard, though, doesn’t have such expectations since he is clueless as to most social norms, possibly because he lacks certain tools to decipher them, or possibly because he’s just ignorant and no one clued him in yet. So we have a new situation, a lack of tools to handle it, differing expectations on what should happen, an awkward situation, and awkward feelings for some (those with awareness and/or empathy) but possibly not for others (those lacking expectations or awareness…or lacking empathy if they are just an observer rather than a creator of the awkward action).
But Wait…What Was the Question Again?
That’s right…we have yet to fully answer the original question! If you recall, that question in its entirety was “Why is the emotion ‘awkward’ so difficult to process.” So now we know what “awkward” is, we know what causes us to feel it or be oblivious to it, but why is it hard to process? Why does it make you feel like you just got brain hiccups and suddenly have a strong desire to just escape the premises and reboot?
If you remember our example about neural firing patterns in the brain and how they create emotions and feelings, I think that gives us a clue into what is happening. When you get cut off in traffic, you may technically have a slightly different variation of “anger” than any previous one before, but it’s likely very similar to the last time you were cut off in a similar way. Unique as the neural pattern may be, it’s quite familiar to the pattern you felt last time this happened. Likewise, you probably have your response mapped out well too (honking horns, flipping birds, playing bumper cars, etc.).
By definition, though, an awkward situation is one that is unique enough that you don’t yet have the tools (the neural patterns) fully developed to register than emotion or to develop a response to it. I believe the brain hiccup feeling could be the brain trying to rewire.
Furthermore, I think “awkward” may even be its own class of emotion that is basically what it feels like to register a new emotion that is different enough from others that you’re not sure what you’re feeling yet. Or maybe that makes it not an emotion at all but something else entirely, which justifies its absence from any charts or lists.
Continuing on, your brain also has to solve a new problem as a result of this unique, awkward situation and figure out how to proceed with something it isn’t terribly familiar with yet, and that may give you a little mental headache too. It’s a little like trying to put together a new piece of office furniture with a crappy set of instructions, and you get a brain cramp and frustration until you get through it a time or two and make it more comfortable and fluid, less awkward.
And likely another part of the reason that you feel so flustered and unable to process things is because the situation has activated your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, and with all the blood rushing to your muscles (or your now red skin on your face), you likely don’t have much for thinking resources in your brain. And then maybe you get tongue-tied and forget how to speak. Or you make poor decisions and reactions, stuff like trying to go left around a person, then right, then left, then right, whereas when you almost ran into them in the first place, you could just as well have stopped and stood still to let them decide which way to go in this sidewalk game of chicken. This sympathetic nervous system idea may tie more into embarrassment rather than awkwardness, but again, it’s all a spectrum and difficult to perfectly delineate.
Clear As Mud?
So that’s my new perspective on why awkward feels so awkward and why it feels so difficult to process in the moment. While I did have a few resources from which to draw here, there is a healthy amount of conjecture and connecting-the-dots in this working theory. It makes sense in my head, but please, if you’ve read something else somewhere that tells a different story, or if you happen to have a different opinion, please leave your comments below! I promise it won’t be awkward.
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I’ll leave you now with my favorite example of awkward from the Urban Dictionary:
“Passing a homeless person while carrying a jar full of change.”
Awkward indeed. Not too dissimilar from what happened to me a while ago in “Skywalkers of Des Moines.”
Thanks for reading!