Monday, April 4, 2011

On Awkwardness

Thanks to a recent (March 28) blog by Matthew Wollin (, I have been thinking about awkwardness, both the word and the experience.

There is nothing awkward about Wollin's writing; in fact, his reflection is gracefully done. He looks at the forced intimacy of strangers in offices and on subways and finds urban life generally filled with little experiences of awkwardness.

He mentions, of course, puberty, a time of high anxiety on every front, and the awkwardness of sex (unless it is turned into a game called flirtation). And adulthood as a time when we pretend to understand why we feel awkward.

Feeling awkward, if it is a feeling, is so unbearable an experience, he says, that it must be talked or written about; he wisely says that "friends are made through awkwardness shared."

Wollin, who notes the awkward sound of the word 'awkward,' believes that we who use English are better able to express our reactions to social awkwardness than users of other languages. I wonder.

I wonder why he doesn't mention the obvious source of social phobias: fear. Too obvious, I guess. Shyness is commonplace. As a friend has shown me, it is often genetic and not a learned behavior--this fear of being easily embarrassed. Or is it both?

How difficult it is to get my students to talk in class: as first graders, they were probably eager to raise their hands, but, sadly, as young adults they have learned to be self-conscious and follow Mark Twain's advice ("Better to be say nothing and be thought stupid than open your mouth and remove all doubt.")

They don't believe me when I say, there's no such thing as a stupid question. Of course, this is strictly speaking untrue, but in a learning environment it makes sense. How can I instill confidence in them--especially when my own level of confidence is often low, when stage fright can overcome me and when I must play the role of "man in control"?

I invariably face awkwardness in using the phone and walking in to a crowd of people. I would like to think being sensitive is an asset to be proud of. Yet the struggle with social awkwardness is a daily experience, so routine that I hardly think of it.

All of this is very tricky, and I am grateful to Matthew Wollin for analyzing the issue of awkwardness. It affects everyone.

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