A Breakthrough on Awkwardness

When it comes to awkwardness, I’ve heard it all (I’ve done it all too). So as I grow older and become more mature, I’ve become a little more guarded and jaded about the term “awkward.” People seem to use it a lot; way too much in fact. Everything now is awkward and it seems that for growing number of people, this is our default way of relating to people.

So I’ve been doing some thinking, and my thoughts were these: first, can I say anything new about awkwardness that helps this amorphous concept take on a new distinctiveness and with it, perhaps a new significance? Second, could any theory that I came up with explain the apparent EXPLOSION in the use of this term? In other words, I guarantee you that people living together in the 1100s, 1200s, 1600s, and 1800s didn’t have much  use for this term. Why now?

At long last, I think I have some answers, and I found them by going to get my haircut.

You see, I really like the haircutting job that my current “stylist” gives me. She is VERY quick, reasonably priced, and seems to do a good job. Then again, I’m comparing her work to when, until shockingly recently, I just shaved my hair to a uniform length with a razor when it got too long. NOT a hit with the ladies as you might imagine. Not even really a hit with myself when I looked in the mirror.

Anyway, the one problem with this hair person is that we are about as different as two people can be. We have nothing to say to each other. Not anything — and I consider myself a competent conversationalist. And true to form, I have been able to keep things going with her in the past. We talk a little bit about the weather, not too much, but sometimes about her kids, recent holidays.

The only problem is that to advance these conversations, I had to lie quite a bit. She would ask me why I was getting my haircut at 2:30 on a monday dressed in shorts, and to be honest, I was a little ashamed of the fact that I was a philosophy grad student and hence had no job and read books all day (today I would do things differently and would not be ashamed to admit that piece of information — call it maturity, or call “i just don’t care anymore,” whichever suits you). So, I made a vague story about how I get a lunch break from my job (which remained unspecified) which I use to get my hair cut. This has continued and now I have to keep making things up when I show up at odd times to get my haircut because I forgot my lie from last time. AND FRANKLY, I didn’t think this woman was really paying attention.

But today, everything came crashing down. I was a little tired, and had no energy to pull conversational teeth. So, things quickly lapsed, and that was when I realized that I understood awkwardness very well — it is the consciousness of futility. Here’s what I mean. I tried some topics I knew she wouldn’t care about. For example, I told her “there is a girl I really want to take sailing, so I’m looking forward to April, when the dock opens back up. I need to get back into practice.” I’m met with “O sailing?” followed by silence. Ok fine I thought. She then asked what I did on the weekend. I was filled with dread. I ran through my activities briefly, trying to think what would strike a chord. I said that I caught up on sleep and went to Chelsea (poorish, immigrant part of Boston) to work on a public health campaign that I’m a part of. “O.” And then this is where the insight really hit me, which is that after that, I wanted to find something to say, at least to be polite, to show that I was trying too, but I felt trapped. Why? Because ANYTHING that I might find interesting and worth talking about, she would not. I began to feel that the conversation was FUTILE, and I became vividly aware of that fact. More specifically, I felt trapped by my own psychology, because anything that my mind, either naturally or through sustained ratiocination, settled on as a topic, would almost certainly not appeal to her. So I stewed in this state as she snip-snipped away, and then thought “well, I can at least ask her HOW her weekend was,” but I hesitated because it’s a strange question to ask a thirty-something year old married woman. But more than anything I just knew she wouldn’t care or wouldn’t elaborate on anything, so I waited, and then realized that I HAD WAITED SO LONG that I couldn’t even ask the polite “how was your weekend” if I had wanted to.

Caught in the mirror of this salon, I became distinctly conscious that this woman and I could not bring ourselves to care about each other. Now don’t take this is the wrong way. I do care about this woman in some ways. I give her a good tip, and I like her work, and were she ever to be in trouble, or needing a blood transfusion, or on and on, I would be glad to help. And of course, she is polite to me and respects me as a customer, so she cares about me in a sense too. But in any DEEPER sense, we do not care about each other, and the awkwardness of my haircut today I think grew out of the dangerously obsessive awareness of this fact.

Awkwardness, in all (most?) situations, is, I think best understood as the realization of the hopelessness of further conversation in the situation. It is the realization that all communication will have a strictly utilitarian character. This is why it’s awkward to run into an ex that one isn’t on good terms with. All communication for the sake of communication (which is normally an entertaining exchange of ideas and worldviews –this blog has tried to show deep an activity a simple conversation is) is out. Communication is for a utilitarian exchange: “how are you?” “what are you up to these days” These are things just to fill periods of silence just as my stylist asked me questions simply to pass the time. The answers were irrelevant. When you’re at a party and a conversation is getting awkward, the reason is that your jokes and comments aren’t hitting home — they’ve become an act or a play and they aren’t finding their proper reception.

Now the extrapolation. Why is it that in this day and age, we are so enamored with the concept of “awkwardness” and why do we reach for it so naturally and instinctively?

I think the answer comes from the spread of standards of behavior (brought about partially by capitalism, but not entirely. Besides, laying everything at the doorstep of capitalism is so passe, and wrong to boot) and most recently, the way that the internet renders relationships. You see, more and more, we run into people that we respect and have some attenuated concern for, but as our web “weak” concern spreads further and further, we find that our web of “strong” concern is not keeping up. So, we run into the waiter who we trust to take our order and not spit in our food, but have no ability to josh with him before he takes our order. We have facebook friends who we may run into at a party or out in the city and its quickly apparent that our biggest connection is contained in servers tracking facebook’s data somewhere in Los Angeles (or where ever they keep the damn things). So we find ourselves draw, in some situations, to respond and acknowledge other people that it is FUTILE to speak to. We know it is. We know there is nothing we care to share with each other, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the case for everyone. I’m not trying to depict a lonely world of disintegrating social bonds (but as you know, I believe that to be happening,  but just not in this post and with this point). People try hard to speak to others and some people (especially older people who’ve had hard lives it seems like) have an uncanny ability to launch into conversations and to genuinely TAKE AN INTEREST in another person’s life. Is this skill best classified as curiosity or kindness, or what? I don’t know but I know awkwardness is the outgrowth of our increasingly dwarf-like ability to relate to others that are very different than us, and when this inability comes home to roost in the form of a conscious moment, we find ourselves being awkward. Words become mere sounds and pleasantries become, well, just pleasantries.


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