Whether it’s a hug that goes on for too long, an excruciating pause in the conversation, or living with a couple that just broke up, awkwardness is an inevitable part of our lives. And while it’s safe to say we’d all rather live without awkward situations and self-consciousness, these feelings actually play a crucial role in how we relate to each other. Quite simply, as social animals, we can’t live without awkwardness, and Michael from Vsauce is here to give you a whole new appreciation for that weird eye thing you do sometimes.
As the video above explains, when you do something slightly embarrassing in front of other people, it might not feel great at the time, but by showing that you’re feeling self-conscious and awkward about it, you’re actually communicating cooperative intentions. You wanted that greeting with your coworker to be awesome, and you regret going in for a hug when all they wanted was a handshake.
"It’s no coincidence that brains susceptible to feeling occasional awkwardness would become so common," says Michael. "They’re successful at cooperating at social life."
So feeling awkwardness helps us all get along (at the occasional expense of your ego), because it shows that we’re keen on having smooth social interactions, and understand what that entails, even if we screw it up sometimes.
But that’s the perfect scenario. A little bit of awkwardness makes us more endearing, more personable, and more fun to be around, because your lack of perfection puts your peers at ease. Research has shown that when you display to others that you’re uncomfortable or remorseful about saying the wrong thing, or having accidentally eavesdropped on a very personal phone call, you’re more likely to be perceived as trustworthy, and their actions as more forgivable. You’ve put all your cards on the table for them to see.
And for all of my awkward brothers and sisters out there who are thinking, "Well that’s great, but I still feel terrible about myself when I don’t have the right change for the bus," I’ve got good news. According to Vsauce, research has also shown that people who display the right amount of awkwardness in embarrassing situations are generally better at being social when tested, are are kinder and more generous.
So pat yourselves on the back, because you’re awesome. Nope, not in front of everyone, now you look weird.
Some of us are so kind, we even feel awkwardness for those who are completely oblivious to their own faux pas. It’s called vicarious embarrassment, and it’s a function of empathy - you feel really bad for the person because of the awkwardness they’re about to feel, or should feel, if they didn't have the social IQ of a baby rhinoceros. If you struggle to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, you know what I’m talking about.
Cringing when you make a social misstep or watch someone do something completely embarrassing isn't an overreaction either - research has found that the parts of the brain that activate when we feel awkward are the same as those that are connected to the sensation of physical pain. Why? I'll let Vsauce explain in the video above, but let's just say it's a really good thing, so try not to feel too bad when it happens to you. We're all awkward together, and it's beautiful.