It’s 2024, and Being Cringe Is the New Cool (Promise)

Photo: W+G Creative
Two minutes into my Zoom interview with executive coach and author Henna Pryor, I get a software alert on my computer screen: “Mac Update Required: Your Mac will automatically update when the time runs out.” According to the timer, I had seven minutes remaining. “Welp, this is awkward,” I think to myself, before silently panicking about how I was going to explain to my guest why I had no other choice than to stop her mid-interview to restart my laptop. “She’s going to think I’m a total moron… ”

Ironically, situations like this are the reason I’m interviewing Pryor in the first place. Her new book, Good Awkward: How to Embrace the Embarrassing and Celebrate the Cringe to Become The Bravest You, challenges the notion that nothing good comes from life’s cringiest moments. In fact, Pryor believes just the opposite—that being so-called "awkward" isn’t a weakness at all, but often a catalyst for authentic human connection. Knowing how to navigate life’s inevitable uncomfortable moments while they’re happening and embrace the resulting awkwardness can propel us beyond self-imposed limits, fostering resilience and inner strength.

“Unless someone has cracked the code on how to eliminate all moments of uncertainty, awkwardness is something you’re going to experience,” says Pryor. “If we want to grow and be better humans, then we have to be very intentional about embracing these moments and getting good at them, not avoiding them altogether.”

Pryor’s working definition of awkwardness is the social emotion that we feel when our internal reality doesn’t match our external reality. “It’s what we feel when our true self is momentarily at odds with the person on display,” she explains. “That tension and that gap is awkwardness.”

“[Awkwardness is] what we feel when our true self is momentarily at odds with the person on display.” —Henna Pryor, executive coach and author of Good Awkward 

Case in point: my (temporarily) botched interview. On the inside, I know I am a seasoned journalist who can conduct a proper interview. But what I’m worried about is presenting Pryor—on whom I have 30 minutes to make a good impression—with the image of a person who is unprepared for our conversation and isn’t taking her time seriously. It’s awkward! But what’s more awkward is potentially having my computer spontaneously restart in the middle of our Zoom interview without giving her a proper warning. I had to say something.

After much internal deliberation, I worked up the courage to just tell Pryor what was going on, which she understood was out of my control. We happily agreed to pause our chat so that I could restart my computer and then pick up where we left off. When we did, I was glad I had just acknowledged the elephant in the room rather than spinning out about it.

“You’ve illustrated the point—[awkwardness] exists in uncertainty,” she assures me. “It’s really helpful to have a few strategies for how to deal with that proactively, if and when [these moments] do arise.”

Are #awkwardmoments something we wish we could leave in 2023? Absolutely. But that’s not the reality—there are plenty of situations where the ways in which other people respond, react, and engage with your environment aren't going to be what you expect, and awkwardness is what will follow. “All we can control is our emotion, how we react to the moment, and how we frame our self-talk going forward,” says Pryor.

Aside from making sure your computer software is up-to-date *before* a Zoom call, here are a few tips for learning how to get ahead of and embrace awkwardness.

How to embrace moments of awkwardness whenever they show up

1. Reframe what it means to be awkward

Pryor says that the number-one thing you can do to embrace your awkwardness is to think critically about how you’re using the word “awkward” in the first place. “I want people to be thoughtful about how they use the word ‘awkward’ as it relates to describing themselves or their experience,” she says. “For some people, it’s a limiting box they put themselves in when the truth is, there is no such thing as a factually awkward person.”

She uses herself as an example. A child of immigrant parents, Pryor often felt awkward among her peers growing up. "My clothes didn't smell like everyone else's; my food smelled very spicy and aromatic in the cafeteria when everyone else was eating peanut butter and jelly," she says. "Throughout my childhood, the 'me' I wanted to be on display was always clashing with the 'me' that was happening inside—the two versions were not matching." Even so, this awkwardness and discomfort around her classmates was still a feeling, she says, and not a factual reality. Which is all to say, awkwardness is subjective.

“Understand that the statement, ‘I am awkward’ is entirely up to you, and understand that it is a statement of opinion,” says Pryor. To help you remember that truth, she suggests using language that focuses on awkwardness as an emotion, instead, with statements like “I feel awkward,” as opposed to, “I am awkward.”

2. Overcome the “spotlight effect”

Ever felt like everyone has their eyes on you, analyzing your every move? That's the spotlight effect in action. It's natural to feel self-conscious, as if the proverbial spotlight is shining on every aspect of your appearance or actions—which can cause a lot of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. But the reality is, in most situations, most people aren’t paying attention to you at all. Even in moments when the spotlight is literally on you, like during a speech or presentation you’re giving, most people will be more focused on their own lives and concerns rather than fixating on your perceived flaws or missteps.

“The minute a moment has passed, people are more worried about themselves—they're not paying nearly as much attention to you as you think they are,” says Pryor. “Once we start to believe that, it’s very freeing because it's true.” Reminder: You’re not the main character (at least, not always). Breaking free from the illusion of the spotlight will help you foster a healthier relationship with yourself and learn to embrace, rather than fear, your cringey interactions or awkwardness.

3. Acknowledge what you can’t control

Sh*t happens—the more quickly we can get comfortable with the unexpected, the less awkward things will feel in real time. Pryor says it’s impossible to plan ahead for every single scenario. After all, no matter how much you prepare for a presentation or rehearse a conversation or get your ducks in a row before an event, you simply cannot predict exactly how things will turn out; it’s empowering to let go of what’s out of your control.

When you get through any awkward or cringe moment (which you will!) Pryor says to focus on the “redemption story”—AKA, the positive outcomes—rather than shame-spiraling into the negatives. For example, let’s say you were giving a presentation at work when you stumbled over some words in front of your coworkers. Your face got hot, your hands were clammy, and you lost your train of thought for a moment, but you quickly collected yourself and finished it out successfully. Rather than focusing on what went wrong and the icky feelings you felt, focus on what went right. Yeah, that one awkward moment didn’t feel great, but you still put yourself out there and made it through in the end.

“There's a gift in the garbage that came out of that situation,” Pryor says. “Most of us don't slow down long enough to ask ourselves what an experience actually represented and if we can give it new meaning.”

4. Use awkwardness as a social lubricant

Ironically, the avoidance of awkwardness will only amplify the feeling of awkwardness—it’s better to acknowledge and embrace your awkwardness as it's happening to lighten the mood. “All it takes is one person to be like, ‘Man, this is cringey... ’ and then everyone laughs, their shoulders drop, and the tension leaves the room,” Pryor says. “The avoidance of it makes it worse. Naming it is connective.”

An easy way to do this is by using humor. Jokes, memes, and even that one awkward-turtle hand gesture can quickly make you and everyone around you more at ease. “Awkwardness is universal,” says Pryor. “The people we perceive as really competent are the people who lean into it and move through it, not the people who try to pretend it didn’t happen.”

5. Remember: Awkwardness is always temporary

As mentioned, awkwardness is a feeling, and feelings aren’t forever. “Remind yourself that awkwardness is an emotion, and it will pass,” says Pryor. “Sometimes it takes longer to pass than at other times, but it will pass.”

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