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An Anatomy of Awkwardness

With a loosening of Covid restrictions in Scotland, we have seen St Andrews return to the town we all know and love — the reinstatement of in-person classes, the revival of proper nights out (complete with Dervish and all!), and most importantly, The Saint’s return to print newspapers and, concurrently, in-person distribution. Distribution involves standing outside several popular St Andrews locations and attempting to hand a paper to each and every passerby. If you have somehow never come across a member of The Saint committee playing paperboy outside the Union, Library, or Physics café on a Thursday, you will have certainly experienced an evangelical/political campaigner/club promoter attempting to hand you a leaflet of some kind. Within all of these interactions, both on the end of the desperate paperboy as well as on the end of the fresher trying to check out library books for the first time, there is an undeniable sense of awkwardness.

Awkwardness — what a strange word! The kind of word that feels like gibberish if you say it too many times, awkwardness is an experience that encompasses several everyday interactions. We experienced awkwardness as children, as we sat in front of our birthday cakes while people sang to us, unsure of who to look at or what to do with our hands. We experienced a new kind of awkwardness during isolation when we had to learn how to interact via Teams’ calls. We experience awkwardness now when we see a former friend we have not seen and/or spoken to since early 2020 and are unsure whether to acknowledge each other. But what causes this funny feeling? And why do we experience it so often?

Awkwardness, according to philosopher Adam Kotsko, happens in an interaction in which a social norm has not been properly set but it certainly feels like one has been broken, greatly telling of just how connected we are to the social world around us. To experience awkwardness is to be highly aware of the presence of those around us. Awkwardness is contagious (and seemingly empathetic) — one person’s awkwardness is passed on to those around them.

As Kotsko puts it, “You can’t observe an awkward situation without being

drawn in: you are made to feel awkward as well, even if it is probably to a lesser degree than the people directly involved.”

For example, take this interaction I had while distributing The Saint — handing out newspapers or leaflets is inherently awkward because you have been on the other end. You understand that many people do not know how to say no and simply take the leaflet out of pity, that some who do want the paper feel creepy closing in on the leafleter to grab one and have to feign disinterest while secretly hoping they will be handed one, that some will purposefully swerve away far before they even get close to you to avoid the interaction altogether.

One specifically awkward interaction took place after attempting (and failing) to catch the eye of the fresher beelining straight for the library, refusing to even look up from the very interesting pavement, I let out a friendly “Would you like a copy of The Saint?” I held out the copy, expecting, at least, a “No, thanks,” or an “I’m OK.” However, I was met with deafening silence as the fresher refused to even look up or acknowledge anything was said but we were so close together he could not pretend he hadn’t heard me. The awkwardness was palpable.

So palpable that the poor soul walking behind the fresher swooped in

like my knight in shining armor and graciously accepted my copy, offering

me a warm, if awkward, smile.

Awkwardness is recognisable — it is experienced each and every day signaling a warping of expected decorum. As sociologist Erving Goffman argues, there can be no awkwardness without social interaction and there can be no social interaction without awkwardness. Awkwardness is inherent in “coming into play” and sustaining an interaction in play.

That said, as Kotsko argues, awkwardness is not necessarily an inherent concept itself — it is highly normative and highly relational. Awkwardness, he says, involves unofficial codes of conduct. It can only be felt within a social situation. Strangely, awkwardness creates a sort of social bond because of the tension it creates — think back to the empathetic (and awkward) smile my aforementioned knight gave me. In it, there was a recognition of mutual humanity and mutual awareness of how the situation was awkward, even if the reason it was so could not be exactly pinpointed. As Kotsko puts it, “One could say that the tension of awkwardness indicates that no social order is self-evident and no social order accounts for every possibility. Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to ‘get by,’ with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness is what prompts us to set up social norms in the first place – and what prompts us to transform them.”

This might be the explanation for the proliferation of comedies that revolve around awkwardness as a key comedic device — films and TV shows like The Office, Borat, and Fleabag. Though occasionally too cringeworthy, as in the infamous example of The Office’s “Scott’s Tots” episode (which I would define as beyond the scope of awkwardness — it is truly just horrifying), most awkward interactions on the show are comedic because of the unspoken recognition between the audience and the showrunners that some norm has been broken. There is an ease of familiarity as we can pat ourselves on the back for understanding what makes the bit awkward.

If awkwardness is normative, where does an awkward person then fit into this puzzle? It would seem that by conferring onto them the label “awkward,” we are stripping the term of its relational quality and defining it as an inherent characteristic.

However, this does not have to be the case — someone who is awkward tends to show a consistent lack of awareness of unspoken social norms. They ask questions about their friend’s ex in front of their friend’s new partner or pay using only coins when there is a long queue behind them. They consistently fail to do what is expected of them in an interaction and, interestingly, hardly feel awkward about it themselves. Instead, the awkwardness is conferred to all those around them. But who are we to decide what is and what is not awkward?

Awkwardness speaks to what is and what is not acceptable in a social context. Awkwardness is uncomfortable but can be equally charming as it tells us of our mutual human understanding of how one should act. Awkwardness is a reminder that, in many situations, none of us really know what exactly we should be doing.

Illustration: Bethany Morton

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