Melissa Dahl is reading an entry from her teenage diary – in front of people. It’s a passage about the boy band Hanson, and why nobody else seems to appreciate their foppish good looks or talent as much as she does. She’s sweating, she’s tense and she’s so nervous she can barely get through a sentence.
This is a sort-of awkwardness exposure therapy for Melissa, who is naturally prone to getting embarrassed and so is forcing herself into this nightmarish situation to overcome her fears. Also, it’s research. Sometime after the Hanson monologue, Melissa wrote the book, Cringeworthy: How to Make the Most of Uncomfortable Situations. "This is a book by me, but it’s also for me," she says. "I’ve been awkward my whole life."
Do not be fooled by Melissa’s professional success (she is a senior editor at New York magazine’s The Cut), silky hair or apparent composure: she has more than three decades of experience being awkward and she knows as well as any of us the flushed cheeks, high blood pressure, trembles and remorse that accompany cringe. She did, as she tells me, once walk out of the office bathroom with her tights tucked into the back of her skirt on the first day of a swanky new job.
That was before she wrote 279 pages on the subject of awkwardness, so she just sat at her desk for hours, mortified, praying that the photocopier would swallow her whole. Now that she’s an awkwardness expert, she would have found a way to laugh at herself and swiftly move on with her day. That’s because she’s come to completely rethink the whole concept of awkwardness – and she thinks we should, too. In order to tame it, we must first learn to love it.
"Initially, this book was a guide to never feeling awkward again, but I actually came around to the opposite point of view and realised we should love our awkward moments," she says. "I thought a lot about where they came from, and what’s happening when we make a joke and nobody laughs, or say something silly and feel embarrassed. Those little moments are when our authentic self slips through the artifice, and we reveal the dorkiness within."
Melissa has been collecting awkward-moment stories from people for years and she treasures them. Where once she would have been mortified on the awkward person’s behalf for saying or doing something ridiculous, she now finds it incredibly endearing – and a sign of genuine humanity. So, how can we come to tolerate and perhaps even cherish our awkward moments? How do we make the best of saying "You too" when someone asks "How are you?", tripping in the street in front of strangers or waving at our boss with visible sweat patches?
"Honestly, it’s about learning that everybody feels this way and everybody does this stuff. Even my friends who seem confident and competent and perfectly put together, they’ve all felt that way. When you’re feeling embarrassed or awkward, just think that that feeling is actually what unites us as human beings: we are all ridiculous at heart."
That is certainly a comfort, because when you do something stupid you tend to feel utterly alone, like you’re the only person who’s ever told a knock-knock joke at a work meeting and had that horrid, judgmental silence follow. It’s isolating, to feel like you have accidentally rebelled against social norms – but actually, it’s when we are most human.
"I like thinking about how my own awkwardness connects me to the grand scheme of humans in this weird way," says Melissa. "If you can think of awkwardness like that, it takes away the shame."
Imagine, for instance, that you scroll back through an ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend’s Instagram account and accidentally click ‘like’ on a post from 2014. The idea of it is enough to make you shudder – but perhaps knowing how common it is minimises the horror. "We all do it! Believe me," says Melissa – and she has just spent two years talking to people about their most embarrassing moments, so she does know. "It’s so common, it’s just that some of us are better at getting caught. I read this piece about social media etiquette from teenagers and they essentially said to just own it and move on. It’s more embarrassing to unlike the picture, so just leave it, realise that everyone does it and use it as good fodder for a story."
And there is the secret to turning an embarrassing moment into something else entirely: a good story. Melissa actually thinks our most embarrassing moments can be secret weapons and used in our personal and professional lives to bring people closer to us. Embarrassment is a product of vulnerability, and sharing vulnerabilities builds intimacy faster than anything else. Besides which, telling a ridiculous story about the time you spilled your drink all over a first date is funny and immensely endearing. "If you tweak your experience a little, it can go from horrifying to hilarious quite quickly. We can use these moments as social currency – it comes back to the idea of social connections and these stories can actually help us connect with other people."
For anyone who seriously struggles with social anxiety or a crippling sort of awkwardness, you might consider doing something like Melissa’s teenage diary reading. Ask yourself what the worst, most embarrassing thing is to you and either put yourself in a situation like it – or at the very least visualise what it might be like. Living through it even mentally could strip away some of the fear. "The point of doing something embarrassing is not to humiliate yourself, but to prove that you can survive it," says Melissa. "Awkwardness is so much to do with self-consciousness and we can get caught in something I call the nervousness vortex, where we do something awkward and make it worse the more nervous we get about it. The answer, I think, is to not take things so seriously. I take everything too seriously – most of all myself – so I think it’s about not gripping so tightly to your self-image. There is power in being able to laugh at ourselves."
So next time you trip, fall, fart, laugh inappropriately, spill something, knock something over, tell a bad joke, say something stupid or embarrass yourself in any number of other ways, make like Melissa and remember: this is what makes us human and it’ll make a killer story at the pub later.