Offices are awkward. Suddenly, for no compelling reason, you begin spending most of your waking hours in intimate contact with the same strangers every day. You are obligated into friendship, necessitated into a camaraderie whose boundaries are anything but clear. Is it weird if you want to be friends, or worse if you do not? What if (God forbid) there is someone in the office that you like—like, like-like? There’s no avoiding it, no deluding yourself into thinking it’s fine; you are forced to see that person every single day, horribly and thrillingly. The situation is repetitive but lacks security: we all know we are just circumstantial friends. This is awkwardness at its most quotidian, inane and purest form.
What is it exactly? An emotion? A fabrication? A blinding moment of unforgiving clarity? It’s like porn: you know awkward when you see it. There are awkward people, awkward situations, awkward thoughts to have at awkward times. There is the word itself, which is wonderfully onomatopoetic in its own peculiar way. It is something that always matters more or less than you think, and never just as much.
Something of awkwardness pervades urban life in general, underwriting the briefest of glances and interactions with worlds of potential mishaps and misunderstandings. Subways in particular: Hi, I don’t know you, but that pole you’re holding for stability? Well, I need it too, and if I move at all I’m going to jump to second base with three strangers simultaneously, so can I just reach around you like we’re cuddling on the couch instead? And no, I’m not checking you out, I promise, I’m actually trying to check out the person next to me by looking at the reflection in the window, which is why I’m going to super-casually look in the other direction at that mom with her kid—oh God, eye contact—and then look back quickly, and now we just made eye contact again because of course you’ve been watching me this whole time because you’re not an IDIOT like me, and now there’s no way you don’t think I’m checking you out, and now the person next to me also thinks that I’m checking you out so there’s no chance there, and that mom with the stroller that I stared at also thinks I’m a creepster, and oh, all of you just got off the train and I’m never going to see any of you in my life again and here I am alone.
The quality of the awkwardness can determine into which category a relationship falls. Strangers, passers-by on the street, exist only through its lens, each of you jumbled, incoherent fragments of action and perception to the other. Foreigners are people with whom you don’t even share the same notion of what constitutes awkwardness. Friends are made through awkwardness shared, inventing ways of laughing and living together that only we can understand. A romance progresses as you pass through all the other stages—the figments and preconceptions and expectations of physical intimacy—to the awkwardness of reality, and the heart-pounding thrill of being exposed in every way at the same time.
For something so small and irritating, so embarrassing, awkwardness has a habit of inspiring near-religious reverence, particularly among young people making its and each other’s first acquaintance, initiated into the painful, measured ways of adult self-consciousness. This is largely because of that first awkwardness, the thing itself, the one that needs no explanation and from which all other awkwardnesses stem: puberty. An awkward word whose component parts are scarcely less awkward than the whole, whose mere mention makes me want to go crawl under a rock until the world has moved to a different backyard. Locker rooms, bathrooms, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, bedrooms, basements, kitchens, the outdoors. Just thinking about it is enough to make me blush burningly and send me flashing back to gangly teenage years and the discovery that things are all so much grosser and more complicated and above all more awkward than you thought they were yesterday.
With age comes the supposed remedy: pretending that you understand the reasons why you’re awkward and believing in other peoples’ constructions of same. Now, instead of ignoring the issue, you confront it head on, openly and publicly analyzing everything that hints at awkwardness so that it becomes a bridge instead of a divide. Suddenly it’s cool to be as awkward as you can. It’s possible to take this even farther as well, using awkwardness as a weapon to cut through the social fabric. Some people hold their awkwardness out for all to see, brandishing it so obviously and so awkwardly that awkwardness passes from social phenomenon to metaphysical condition. This is awkwardness that physically, tangibly hurts. So acute that neither you nor those around you can ignore it and must confront it head on.
Which is where romance comes in, subsuming awkwardness and rendering it not only charged but erotic. Because there’s always sex, whether implicit or explicit, consummated or unfulfilled. Sex fulfills and transcends the awkward promise of puberty, offering justification for the pain and embarrassment and sheer amount of effort it took to get through those years. But it brings with it a new form of awkwardness, too; the awkwardness of exposing yourself, bit by bit, to another person as he or she does the same, until both of you are confronted by the existence of an individual who is somehow both a part of you and not at all what you thought.
On one end, there’s the No Strings Attached/Friends With Benefits/Strings Attached to Friends genre of contemporary romance (or non-romance, rather), which is so conspicuous in its trumpeting a brave, new non-awkward paradigm that something about it becomes deeply unsettling in its manic cheer. On the other, there’s Kitty and Levin, or Jane and Mr. Rochester—stories in which tens of thousands of words are spent consummating awkwardness. There are a whole range of approaches in between and beyond these: awkwardness as a bluntly erotic turn-on during revolution (The Unbearable Lightness of Being); awkwardness as what unites two youthful outcasts (anything with Michael Cera); awkwardness made epic, intoxicatingly surmounted and then banished forever (Romeo and the other one). Flirtation makes a game of it; hookups plunge into and past it; dates codify it and make it livable.
Awkwardness lives outside your mind. Instead, it makes itself known somewhere between your cheeks and your heart and your stomach. It breathes out of every uncomfortable pore of the body. It is so insistent in its demand to be acknowledged that it becomes, by necessity, a delectable, guilty pleasure, until it seems the only possibly solution is to introduce your full awkwardness to the other person and either descend to earth or ascend together to heaven.
I’ve traveled a fair bit, and as far as I have encountered, English is the only language that codifies this particular concept. There are approximations elsewhere, but none are so unforgiving or profoundly undignified. French has maladroit, which in typical French fashion is both more beautiful and less useful. Spanish speakers have incomodo, or dificil, or maybe peculiar, but their plurality dilutes their impact. I don’t know what German has, but it probably sounds like it hurts.
Consequently, much of my traveling has been spent in thrall to awkwardness that only I had the word to define. Being in other cultures lends the most minute of interactions an electrifying valence in which every step and every syllable results in either triumph or public failure. I would have explained why I stammered and stuttered and blushed when I meant to ask where the train station was and instead asked how to find the Eastern War, but the word I would have used would have meant nothing to these gorgeously sympathetic foreigners looking on in pity.
English has awkward. English awkwards alone. Does this mean that English speakers are actually and quantifiably the most awkward people on earth? I find this plausible, if a bit disheartening. There is no doubt a linguo-historical explanation. Maybe once upon a time awkwardness performed some roundabout evolutionary function, such as prompting removal from social situations that could damage one’s reputation and hinder one’s chances to find a mate and reproduce. Maybe it gave English speakers a way to stand out at evolutionarily significant parties. Maybe evolution just got bored with efficiency and decided to have some fun.
I suppose it may be our burden to bear. But I wish everyone else could know how delicious it is to awkward. It’s the great leveler of contemporary society: no one is so exalted that they are exempt. There is something beautiful and admirable in its impartiality—neither for you or against you, but simply a great blank, a uniquely synthetic and human creation. By Jove, it’s what separates us from the beasts!
We (or maybe just I) have fetishized it—but more to our strength than our detriment, I’d argue. We do not fit like pieces of a puzzle; we do not want to. Awkwardness is a warning against complacency. A connection with the incomprehensible achieved only through immersion in contemporary life, a moment of awareness of the gap between your perception and understanding. It is the urbane corollary to the antique sublime: the social vista that slaps you in the face with the breadth of what you still don’t understand. It is watching James Franco and Anne Hathaway co-host the Oscars.
That’s part of why I like traveling so much, almost in spite of myself. Right after I return is when I feel it most acutely. I am in Dulles airport catching a connection to JFK, coming back from my gamble at being French, five months of melancholy and three weeks of pride at the close. I can finally understand what everyone around me is saying, and it is all so stupid. Eight hours earlier, every person was brilliantly, incomprehensibly articulate and unfathomably self-aware, a petrifying challenge I loved more than I realized.
There’s a strange pleasure in allowing awkwardness to become the defining feature of my actions. There’s a security in the foreignness, when nobody knows me or the guilty, deep-seated secret that I’m nothing more than who I seem to be. Perhaps that is the appeal: the constant presence of The Awkward makes the difference between my various reasons for foreignness difficult to discern. I am always, reliably apart. Whereas here, in the same language as everyone else, awkwardness exposes truths I cannot explain away so easily.
Which is why I say, perhaps against my own better judgment, Up With Awkward! Here’s to reveling in uncomfortableness until it becomes a tool to expose inanity. Here’s to forcing visceral meaning into the monotony of the everyday. Here’s to the painful disruption of complacency. Here’s to awkward endings.
Matthew Wollin lives in New York. He has no other pertinent personality traits.