Why is it awkward to listen to a recording of your own voice? What makes us cringe? For the last few years, Melissa Dahl, co-founder of NYMag.com’s popular social science site Science of Us, has been digging for answers. The culmination of her research is ‘cringe theory’—a psychological explanation of why we find awkward moments so painful. A central part of that theory is what psychologist Philippe Rochat at Emory University calls the irreconcilable gap. Dahl explains: “What makes us cringe is when the ‘you’ you think you’re presenting to the world clashes with the ‘you’ the world is actually seeing, and that makes us uncomfortable because we like to think that we’re coming off in a certain way.” Are you not as suave as you thought? Did your voice just pop? Did you just sit on a whoopee cushion—or worse still, was there no whoopee cushion? It shatters our sense of certainty about who we are, and what others think of us. These experiences may seem devastating, but Dahl says we can train ourselves to think of an awkward moment as a piece of useful information that can help us better understand ourselves, and see the funny side of our bruised egos. Here, she explains how she challenged herself to get on stage and live out one of her social nightmares, and how she came out the other end more confident and connected to other people than before. Melissa Dahl’s new book is Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness.
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Most of the time it’s like we kind of have social scripts to follow; you come in here, you say hello, and then if something goes out of the ordinary it shakes us up and makes us feel uncertain. And there is a long stretch of scientific literature on this dating back to the 1960s.
There’s this classic study where they shocked people with these little electric shocks and they asked people if they preferred shocks when they knew they were coming or if they preferred shocks that just came out of nowhere, and people would rather know when the little painful shock was coming.
Which seemed interesting to me because you would think that the expectation might make it worse, but we like predictability, I guess. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s interesting that sometimes we call awkwardness painful or excruciating—it adds an interesting layer to that.
So a big part of my “cringe theory”—that’s kind of what I’m calling it—is that there is a difference—we don’t like to pay attention to it very much, or I don’t—but there is a difference often between the way that you see yourself and the way that you think you are presenting yourself to the world, and the way that the rest of the world is perceiving you.
And something that really helped unlock this for me was the idea—it’s almost like a clichéd thing—that people hate the sound of their own voices or people don’t like looking at recordings of themselves. In particular, the thing about people hating the sound of their own voices is a great example of this because your voice really does sound different to you than the way everyone else is hearing you.
So when we hear somebody talk you’re kind of hearing somebody else through the air, but when I’m hearing myself talk I’m hearing myself through the air and through the bones of my own skull, which actually transmit the sounds differently and makes my voice sound lower than it actually is.
So it’s a really common complaint, people are like—they listen to their own voices and they’re like, “Oh my gosh it’s so much higher than I thought it was!” That’s always what I think about when I hear my own voice played back.
And I think that this is a central part of my theory about what makes us cringe is when the ‘you’ you think you’re presenting to the world clashes with the ‘you’ the world is actually seeing, and that makes us uncomfortable because we like to think that we’re coming off in a certain way and it’s just like, “Oh no, that’s what you think of me? That’s how you see me?” And I think that’s never going to go away. There’s always going to be—there’s this psychologist Philippe Rochat at Emory University who has a name for this, he calls this the “irreconcilable gap”. And so he really thinks this, it’s even in the name—it’s never going to go away, there’s always going to be this gap between the way you perceive yourself and the way others perceive you. And I think that’s at the heart of what we call awkward moments or awkwardness—kind of that uncomfortable feeling that you’re cringing at yourself or at somebody else.
It takes a while but you can start to train yourself to think of that as a useful piece of information. If you try to negotiate a raise or negotiate a promotion at work or something, it makes us uncomfortable