Hey, Vsauce. Michael here. Not knowing what to do with your hands or offering a handshake when the other person offers a fist bump. Forgetting someone’s name… Not having anything to say and
forgetting your phone at home so you can’t be distracted by it.
Getting caught staring at a stranger. Striking up a conversation with someone
you don’t know in a bathroom. Someone oversharing, telling a group too much information.
Overhearing a couple breaking up. Noticing food in someone’s teeth but not
telling them and, well, now it’s been too long and bringing up would be weird. Smelling a fart in an elevator that wasn’t yours but, well, now you can’t even react to it
or mention that you’ve noticed it or pretend to even know what a fart is.
All of those things are awkward. We don’t like awkwardness. It makes us uncomfortable, cringe. But what is awkwardness? Why is it good and who is the main character of the universe? To really understand awkwardness we need
to put it in context with the entire family of forces that guide social behaviour. Think of this sheet of cardboard as a
list all possible behaviours. It’s not infinite because of
the limits of science and biology. You can’t move faster than light
or be in two places at once. You can’t wear pants made out of molten lead. Next, there are legal limits – the laws of the state. They delineate what you agree
not to do, lest the authorities punish you – murder, stealing, speeding. What’s left is molded by the finder tool of social expectations. It’s not illegal to chew with your mouth open or not cover a sneeze on a crowded bus or act disrespectfully, but it is frowned upon. Punished not by the police, but by social ostracism, public opprobrium. Being called rude, gross, mean, annoying. Awkwardness is the finest tool. It sands social dynamics by smoothing out what
even etiquette doesn’t rule on. It’s not a violation of the laws of physics
to accidentally hug someone for longer than they expected.
It’s not against the law either. And the etiquette
for how long a hug should last isn’t black-and-white. But it is awkward. Like touching a hot stove or
getting a parking fine or losing friends, awkwardness nudges us to
avoid certain actions in the future and smooth things out when they happen.
People who demonstrate self-consciousness when needed are communicating cooperative intentions, which helps them get along well with
others. It’s no coincidence that brains, susceptible to feeling occasional
awkwardness, would become so common. They’re successful at cooperating, at social life. Feeling awkward shows
that you understand and are keen on smooth social exchanges. Now, too much or too little concern for social rules isn’t healthy, but researchers found that just the right amount is great. When a person shows remorse or embarrassment or awkward discomfort, when appropriate, others perceive them as being more
trustworthy, and their actions as more forgivable. And it’s not just perception. Such individuals also tend to be more
objectively prosocial when tested. Kinder, more generous. Even when a person
is completely oblivious to a faux pas they’ve committed, awkwardness still arises. People around them can feel uncomfortable. It’s called vicarious embarrassment and it’s a function of empathy – the ability to feel what others feel or will feel, when or if they realize what they’ve just done. The more ‘EEE’ someone is, that is easily sympathetically embarrassed,
the harder it is for them to sit through other people’s cringe-inducing moments, even fictional once like in cringe comedy. Researchers found that being more easily
and pathetically embarrassed does not correlate to be more easily
embarrassed yourself. Instead, it’s linked to being more empathetic, an important capacity for social creatures to have.
Our seemingly counter-intuitive attraction to viewing cringing moments like, say, bad American Idol auditions,
is perhaps then just a light form of morbid curiosity. You may think that awkwardness is totally different from physical pain or outright name-calling. But your brain would disagree. You see, researchers found that social missteps
activate, among other regions, the secondary somatosensory cortex and dorsal posterior insula – areas of the
brain that are also connected to the sensation of physical pain. Our brains process the breaking of social standards
and the breaking of bones through similar neural pathways. Likewise the same sympathetic nervous system that
mobilizes you to deal with physical threats, “fight or flight”, is activated by social challenges where awkwardness or embarrassment might be at stake.
Like events where you are very aware of being watched. Speaking in front of a group or embarrassing yourself in front of
onlookers or having nothing to say on a first date. Awkward silence… Your blood pressure increases, causing you to overheat and sweat. Oxygen is needed for fighting and running, so breathing
increases and digestion shuts down, causing nausea and butterflies in your stomach. Your body instinctively contracts into a
protective fetal position and fighting that reaction to act natural makes you shake. Blood vessels in your extremities
contract to prioritize major organs leaving you with cold fingers and toes and nose. These symptoms don’t alleviate awkwardness, they compound it. But that’s history’s fault. Long before human social dynamics
were complicated enough to involve “is it one kiss or two?” or politics at Thanksgiving dinner,
we developed primitive reactions to physical threats and haven’t had
enough time yet to evolve newer ones. Self-conscious anxiety can be tough to get out of our
minds after we’ve done something awkward. Fixating on social blunders is easy and hard to overcome. Why was I so unsure, so unconfident, so awkward? Well, some of the blame may lie with the neurotransmitter oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes called “the love hormone” because it modulates prosocial feelings, like trust and attachment, which it does. In fact, nasal sprays of oxytocin are being used to increase trust during couples therapy
and in the reduction of anxiety and depression. Though there are fears
that it could also be used to deviously increase trust and make a
person more susceptible to con artist schemes. But oxytocin also modulates negative social feelings like fear and anxiety. A dose of it makes people better at recognizing the
facial expressions for disgust and fright. It’s also involved in the
feelings that make us approach or avoid certain social stimuli. And it may play a role in making positive and negative social interactions more salient in our memories; that is, stand out more, command more of our attention after the fact, make us think about them more. Negative ones especially because of what psychologists call negativity bias. All things being equal, negative social interactions and negative emotions have a greater impact on our mental
states than positive ones. In fact, we have more words for negative emotions than positive ones and a richer vocabulary to describe them. Thus such memories and
thoughts can be tough to just get over. What does the other person think of me? I was so awkward. Are they telling other people?
We replace social encounters in our heads over and over again. Surely, the person we were awkward with
remembers us the same way we’re remembering ourselves
and is equally fixated on that awkward thing we did. Or are they? A great wet blanket for smothering the
fire of self-conscious anxieties is perspective.
Consider the famous advice of Eleanor Roosevelt: “You wouldn’t worry so much
about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” As much as you obsess over yourself, you’re not the
first thing on everyone else’s minds. They’re worried about themselves, what you think about them.
And, more importantly, what they think about themselves. You’re not the centre of their world. Another famous old piece of advice tells
us that in your twenties and thirties you worry about what other people think
about you. In your forties and fifties you stop worrying what other people
think about you. And then finally in your sixties and seventies
you realize that they were never thinking about you in the first place. The tendency to act and think as though you are the
true main character of the universe has been called protagonist disease. It seeps into our behavior all the time. For instance, the fundamental attribution error. When evaluating actions you often view yourself as a complex
character, acted upon by various challenges and antagonist, whereas other people are seen as just
one-dimensional background characters with simple unchanging roles. The guy who took way too long
ordering in front of you this morning, well, he’s obviously just innately annoying person. That’s his entire purpose.
But when you take too long ordering, it’s because the staff was unhelpful
or you were flustered, preoccupied by an earlier conversation. You are the main character after all.
You know a lot more about what’s going on in your life. It’s easy to live like that. There isn’t time or mental space to
consider every other person as complicated and fully flushed out.
But they are. The realization of this has a name.
A name given to it by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, one of my favorite resources and now, YouTube channels. They wrap
profound concepts up in tiny little word packages. To be sure, giving something a name
doesn’t show that you know it or how to feel about it but nonetheless
words put handles on things, so we can manipulate them,
hold them down, offer them to others, feel bigger than the concepts they label. Now, their word for acknowledging that you are just an extra in other people’s stories,
not even cast in most of them, is ‘sonder’. This is their definition of it. “Sonder – the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated
with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness— an epic story that continues
invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might only appear once,
as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.” Acknowledging this makes your awkwardness looks small. But it also makes all of you look small. Tiny. A needle in a giant haystack, but nonetheless in possession of a big idea. Your blemishes are lost from far away, and so is your uniqueness, but the view from way up here… Well, it’s unbeatable. And as always, thanks for watching.