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Andrew Stein ’06: If being awkward is cool, I’m Miles Davis

We've entered the Golden Age of Awkwardness. But how did we get there?

Friday, February 3, 2006

At the University of Pennsylvania, a peculiar gesture has swept parts of the campus. During an uncomfortable silence, someone will mimic a turtle with his or her hands. They’ll put their right hand fully on top of the back of the left, both hands pointed away, thumbs wiggling. And, with a straight face, they’ll say, “Awkward Turtle.” Everyone else will do it too, and for a few moments they’ll all swim their Awkward Turtles in the air. Penn students are kind of weird like that.

What’s going on here? Why are college students celebrating social discomfort? Has awkwardness changed, or just our perception of it? Certainly, awkwardness itself is nothing new; humanity has been awkward ever since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, realized they were naked, and started looking forward to the invention of Bloomingdale’s. But it doesn’t seem as if anyone over 25 would be inspired to make an Awkward Turtle. Or ring an imaginary Awkward Bell (or Awkward Gong), as some Keeney first-years like to do. As Smita Ghosh and Annelise Garlin observed last year in Swarthmore’s newspaper, “Awkwardness has become vogue. It’s now commonplace to loudly announce it, usually in a sing-song voice, when one deems a situation awkward.” And, as reported previously on this page, Brown has five Facebook groups for awkward people, none of whose names include the words “volunteer,” “community service,” or any of the seven virtues. Awkwardness is the new ethic.

Clearly, a phenomenon is afoot. Perhaps it’s actually cool to be awkward like our cute hero Seth Cohen ’10 of “The O.C.” If defines our zeitgeist, then the upsurge of awkward groups and awkward profiles must point to something deeper, something innate, something… obvious. We are proud dorks. So what if we’re made cool by a trait synonymous with social dysfunction? “Awkward? Fine with me. Better than being sketchy.”

But why do we love talking about it so much? The answer, I propose, is a unique confluence of culture, age and our generation’s use of the Internet to maintain social connections. Which is to say that we live in the Golden Age of Awkwardness.

First, AOL and its Instant Messenger inflated our standards for conversation, making real-time interaction seem more awkward by comparison. With the advent of IM, our generation conversed in two ways: (1) on IM, with the “thinking time” necessary to say what one means to, and (2) in real-life, where we are far less articulate. The difference is huge. This is the first time in human history that there’s been a more eloquent way to converse in real-time, and thus the hyper-awareness for awkwardness was conceived.

If this hyper-awareness was born with AOL Instant Messenger in October of 1997, then its puberty has been our puberty, its voice cracks were our voice cracks. We were surely awkward as teenagers, but we didn’t really know it yet. Now, as worldly college students, we’re less oblivious. Thus college – the place to experiment with drugs, sex, booze and stupidity – allows us to be knowingly awkward in a “safe space.” Maybe we like to label awkwardness because (1) we’re old enough to recognize and mock it and yet (2) young enough that we’re not doing anything so important as to have our awkwardness actually matter.

If we didn’t notice that growing up was awkward, we learned it from the plethora of such coming-of-age TV shows as the lucidly titled “Growing Pains.” And we’re made further aware that we look, talk and flirt a lot more awkwardly than characters on TV or movies. How many kisses did you see on a screen before you had your own first kiss? Dozens? Hundreds? Did it make your first kiss any less awkward? Probably not. Maybe it even made it worse – all that pressure to perform to the cinematic standard. If you don’t have Celine Dion crooning in the background, can it ever measure up?

Soon popular culture began lampooning this kind of discomfort, spawning the awkward humor of our era: Jerry Seinfeld, Da Ali G Show and Napoleon Dynamite, to name a few. On campus, Matt Vascellaro ’07 and Kent Haines ’07 captured this spectacle with their eight BTV episodes of White Brown Friends – the best of awkward Brown comedy. On the show, the loose story progressed through a series of awkward comments such as, “I’m going to write about that in my courage journal.”

At its core, this kind of observational humor is about labeling things, and “awkward” is an easy and cathartic label to apply. Indeed, the recognition of uncertainty brings its own certainty. And in the face of our contemporary torrent of information, we label things to cope. Instant-analysis is our new national pastime, with CNN, Fox News and Speed Dating leading the way. And, since awkwardness lies in the gray areas of conversation, it’s the most apt, most healing and most amusing label we have. It calls the moment. It releases tension. And it’s damn funny.

But use it while you can, for the Awkward Turtle is an endangered species. Soon it won’t be cool to call something “awkward.” The Class of 2029 will throw “awkward parties” to make fun of all this retro discomfort. Verily, this will be a dystopian future: China will become the world’s largest economy; the 60-year lack of nuclear weapon use will end; and President Ruth Simmons will leave Brown to go fix up Princeton. And if you dare call something “awkward” in this humor-forsaken future, everyone will look at you funny, roll their eyes, and it will be really … I dunno – they won’t have a word for it.

Andrew Stein ’06 lives in St. Anthony Hall, Brown’s co-ed literary fraternity.

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