You Say That Like It's a Bad Thing
It began where all of the best stories begin: with a night out.
Christie was dragging me to Main Street, despite the fact that the fierce winter wind was rattling our screen doors and storm windows. The biting cold kept me bundled up in blankets, sweatshirts and fuzzy socks, and the thought of slipping on anything else made me shiver. It had been a while since my last night out—I had come to prefer movie nights and late-night gossip sessions with my roommates—so I obliged. Putting on jeans felt like stepping into a pair of cardboard pants after my many nights of pajama bottoms and sweatpants, but at Chritie's insistence, my complaints were rendered useless. These days, it all seemed like so much effort—the shiny hair, the perfect eye makeup, the statement jewelry—and for what? A random hook-up? Mono did not interest me, especially with graduation looming.
“What if your destiny is at Rush tonight? What if you meet the man of your dreams?” Christie bounced on my bed, eager to head out to a pregame before we hailed cabs.
“Last time I was there some gross guy groped my ass,” I growled.
“Okay, so we’ll watch out for the handsy guys and keep focus on the hot guys,” she stood in front of the mirror, flipping her hair until she deemed it appropriate.
“What if the hot guys are the handsy ones?” I asked, just to annoy her.
“Then you’ll have a story to tell tomorrow.”
Little did she know that she would be the one with the story to tell. And it wasn’t one of those stories that began with “I was so drunk last night;” she had more self-respect than that. It was one of those “this is so awkward” stories.
Ah, the “this is so awkward” story. It’s a classic tale that incorporates misunderstanding, misguidance, and misinterpretation. Anthropologically, it’s the stuff that keeps us social. It reasserts the in-group, making it clear who belongs in the out-group. It’s the stories we can’t wait to tell our friends over a cup of coffee. It’s the ones we bank on for a laugh or two.
Christie's story was one that began with a date party and ended with a date party. After her date backed out last minute, she was scrambling to find someone to take to semi-formal—finally managing to secure a law student—an impressive feat in many of her sorority sisters’ eyes. But Christie wasn’t interested in finding a promising future husband, she just wanted an easy fling—someone she could make out with on the bus ride back and call a night. Law School Guy had other ideas. He really enjoyed her bubbly energy, her sweet personality and positive demeanor—not just her short skirt and push-up bra.
So when we arrived at Rush Street that Saturday night, and headed towards the bar, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, she found Law School Guy. Immediately, she turned away, grabbing my arm as I leaned over the counter to try to get the bartender’s attention.
“What?” I yelled over the loud music.
“Law School Guy is here,” she whispered loudly.
“Who?” I shouted again. Our friend, Jane, turned around and looked at Christie with a smirk.
“From date party?”
“Shhh!” Her eyes widened as she scrambled to maintain her anonymity amongst the crowd.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” I shook my head. Sorority life wasn’t for me, and I knew little about the date party code of conduct.
“My friend set me up with this guy. And he’s here.” She covered the right side of her face with her hand as he walked by.
“I think he saw you,” I said. I let my eyes linger on him a minute before quickly averting them so he wouldn’t catch me staring. “He’s cute for you. Too hipster for me.”
“Shut up.” Christie couldn’t help but smirk.
“If you like him, why don’t you go talk to him?” Jane asked.
“I don’t want to talk to him,” Christie said. “He was just a set-up.”
“What does that have to do with it?” I asked.
“Why do these things always happen to me?” Christie said with a laugh. “This is so awkward.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” I laughed.
Christie narrowed her eyes. “What do you mean?”
“You’re awkwardness is part of what makes you so cute,” I said. “Embrace it.”
The following semester, Christie asked Law School Guy to formal. For Christie, it was a normal date party. Get set up, get drunk, make out, go home. Law School Guy was utterly confused. I’m sure he had more than enough of his share of date parties. And the next time we saw Law School Guy out, Christie made the same to-do about it. After all, “this is so awkward” stories are the best because they make your friends laugh. And who doesn’t want to be thought of as the funny one?
On the first day of my Celebrities and Media culture class, our professor asked us to take out a sheet of paper and write down five celebrities we loved and five celebrities we hated. We each wrote quickly, trying to sneak a peek at everyone else’s list. Is it embarrassing if I put One Direction down on my “love” list and everyone else wrote them down on their “hate” list? Is putting Beyoncé down on the “love” list too generic? We all wondered these things as we silently handed in our lists.
I was proud of my top five: Jennifer Lawrence, Mindy Kaling, Jennifer Garner, Ben Affleck, Jon Hamm. My cockiness came as a result of the false assumption that I was far more creative than my classmates were. Of course, this wasn’t the case. In fact, so many people put Jennifer Lawrence as their number one that we used her as the discussion example.
The conversation extended from fandom to the idea of celebrities’ images: the ones who seemed too perfect were fake and greatly disliked (i.e. Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow). The ones who were quirky, awkward, and tripped on the red carpet, were class favorites (i.e. Jennifer Lawrence, Tina Fey). What was it about these “awkward” celebrities that make them so popular? How can someone so famous also be so relatable?
These questions lingered as class ended. What really struck me as odd was the way in which celebrities made seeming “awkward” cool. As contradictory as those two words are placed next to each other, it makes sense in our culture of digital media. It’s that idea of “awkward” coolness that made Snapchat and GIFs so popular. How awkward is taking a selfie in the library? Not if everyone else is doing it! Who would take a selfie at a glamorous event like the Oscars on live TV? Jennifer Lawrence. Ellen DeGeneres. Lupita Nyong’o’s brother. Even Brad Pitt, who up until that moment seemed far too A-list to even think about partaking in the silliness of social media, hopped into the back with an effortlessly sexy smirk (how does he do that?!)
Imagining Jennifer Lawrence as a college student would be easy. Countless college-aged girls have claimed Jennifer Lawrence to be their celebrity best friend. Even Buzzfeed has dedicated an entire article to listing reasons why Jennifer Lawrence would make an optimal BFF. She eats French fries! She gets starstruck! She photobombs Sarah Jessica Parker! She talks about how uneven her boobs are on live TV! All of these things remove her form that cookie-cutter shaped star perfection. She’s awkward, just like the rest of us. But removing Jennifer Lawrence’s star status is like performing a play without ta set. In the end, it’s just someone talking on a stage. Without stardom holding her afloat, Jennifer wouldn’t be considered awkward in that endearingly adorable way—she’d be plain old weird. Her bluntness would be misinterpreted for rudeness, her sarcastic comments misrepresented as ungrateful, and her sharp words misunderstood to be a sign of disrespect. She’d be the girl you roll your eyes at, she’d be the friend that you laugh at, and she’d be the one who everyone knew was just a little bit crazy. Because the truth is, just like every human, Jennifer Lawrence has insecurities. She may be awkwardly cool, but her underlying weirdness can’t be denied once you strip away all of the glitz and the make-up and the film editing.
The line between being awkwardly cool and weird is defined by a few unspoken rules—bathroom selfies are okay if you’re drunk with friends and have taken the photo in a seemingly ironic fashion. But forget about taking a bathroom selfie by yourself and posting it online—that’s just plain weird. Using Tinder is acceptable if you want to get a good laugh, but never if you’re looking to find love. Digital media facilitates awkwardness; it compels you to crouch with your friends in a photo that proves you went out that night. It makes you want to Instagram your food, to blog about your vacations, to Tweet links to your favorite clothing lines. Sure, it’s possible to form conspiracies about corporations and advertising taking over the minds of young people by digital means, but in fact, we all love Facebook far too much for this to be true.
It’s kind of like a legalized form of espionage, except the espionage comes in the shape of spying on your friends based on the carefully facilitated images and commentary they choose to share online. If you’re really talented and manage to scour the Internet for untagged photos, old Tumblr accounts, and crackling YouTube videos, then maybe you can learn about the secrets your friends try to hide. But most likely, you flip through their photos and tweets wondering how you can make yourself look better than them. Twenty years ago someone taking a picture of their food would get glances from around the room. Today, if you aren’t taking a picture of your food, you get the weird looks. If you aren’t taking a picture in general, it’s as if you were never there. It’s as if the footsteps you make and the air you breathe and the memories you file away in your mind aren’t good enough. You need physical evidence of your presence. You can’t trust your mind anymore; you can only trust photos. Still, Photoshop may have intercepted the memories before you’re viewing them. Without a photo, it’s as if you were erased from the confines of your night at the bar, your trip to class, your walk through the park. Without a filter, the raw reality of what you’re doing—the awkwardness you’re creating by sharing your lunch or your face or your dog—comes into light. So you must crop out the shadow that shows you taking a selfie, you have to enhance the colors so the sky doesn’t look so dull, and forget about wrinkles, or double chins, or zits—any evidence of your flaws must be erased, for the sake of yourself.
The essence of our awkwardness lies in the fragility of our own fears and insecurities. It’s a way for us to rename our blunders. We have no longer fallen ploy to the tricks and falls of happenstance; we can make an attempt to control our mistakes, our slips, our errors. An embarrassing trip on the way up some stairs is redefined by our innate clumsiness. A careless bump into something or someone quickly evolves from absentmindedness to quirkiness. It’s the stuff that romantic comedies whole-heartedly embrace. The heroine retains her sense of self through the constant mishaps of her life, and eventually, these mishaps—her sense of awkwardness—are duly compensated by the affection of a handsome man. It’s an expectation that grows deep down in the heart of every dreamer, every woman who watches The Mindy Project religiously. Perhaps, if we can be as awkward as Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson, then maybe we’ll be rewarded with love, success, and a killer shoe closet. It’s the foundation of a certain kind of humanity in which we are rewarded through the mistakes in our lives, leaving us void of disappointment. As Elle Woods “accidentally” runs into her ex-boyfriend at Harvard in Legally Blonde, she slowly has to face the looming awkwardness of the situation—she desperately followed a man in an attempt to win him back. What does this say of her self-respect? Don’t worry, though, Elle pulls through and her awkwardness trumps all when it helps her to stumble upon a witness’s false testimony.
So is this where our awkwardness comes from? Romantic comedies and stupid love songs? It seems that this is the case as I look around at my friends who all claim awkwardness when they accidentally fall into their own traps.
My roommate has a secret hook-up buddy that she is afraid we will all find out about. Of course, some of us already know. She’s not that good of a liar. She locks her bedroom door whenever he’s over and pokes her head out into the hall to make sure none of us have our doors open to see him when he leaves. She waits patiently by the front door, watching like a puppy for him to arrive, so she can escort him up the stairs a la the secret service. We’ve all asked her why she is embarrassed for us to meet him. After all, having a hook-up buddy is hardly shameful.
“It’ll just be so awkward,” she said one day, shaking her head. “I don’t want to have to deal with it.”
This spoke much more truth than she had intended. She didn’t want to have to deal with it. The “it” she kept referring remained unclear. Was “it” that she didn’t want to face feelings she was developing for him? Was “it” the shame she felt for using him for purely physical purposes? Was "it" their vastly different religious and ethnic backgrounds? No matter the answer, it is irrelevant. We love her even more because of the awkwardness she shares with us. We feel compelled to laugh it off with her, to remind her that we’re just as awkward as she is. We’ve all had experiences where we had to hide the guy we were making out with under our comforter because we didn’t want our roommate to see him half-naked. We’ve all tried to silently open our creaking doors so that no one sees us sneak a guy friend out of our bedroom late at night. Maybe it’s shame for some of us and privacy for others. Either way, it generates a good laugh, a bright red face and a new inside joke that only adds to our friendships.
Assessing the awkwardness of others was simple. It seemed to me that the way my friends went about their lives pertained on whether or not their stories and reactions made me laugh. I never thought of the ways in which awkwardness can be painful, haunting, or even, raw. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to laugh something off until I ran into my ex-boyfriend.
I was out sipping Long Islands with my friends, when they asked in hushed whispers if it would be okay for him to join. I nodded, even though I wanted to shout no. How could I realistically subject myself to the pain of a post break-up encounter? I felt my shoulders tense up as he slid into the booth, his eyes on me. That one gaze was a mutual undressing of unaccounted-for feelings. We looked into each other’s eyes and saw what neither of us was willing to admit. For that reason I was careful. Careful not to let any emotion towards him show, sure, but more careful not to create an awkward situation out of, well, an awkward situation.
He seemed to feel the same way, but took on the challenge of speaking up. Maybe he was trying to prove something to himself, I don’t know.
“Guess how many girls liked me on Lulu this past week?” he said with a smirk.
“What’s Lulu?” My friend Nick asked. I felt my two other friends—Diana and Jackson exchanging glances. My heart was pounding. Was he really doing this now?
“Is that like Tinder for girls?” I asked
“Kind of,” he said, pulling out his phone to show us all. He always adored social media, taking to Twitter and Instagram during their infancies, far before I decided to join. I guess it was normal for him to use a dating app, though most normal guys get drunk and try to pick up girls at bars with hopelessly cheesy lines.
He passed his phone around the table, eyeballing me as I glanced at the screen to see thirty-eight girls had view his profile and liked it. Was that a lot or a little? I guess it wasn’t surprising; he was a good-looking guy.
I caught Diana's gaze for a second, even though I didn’t want to. She narrowed her eyes at me as if to say what kind of stupid game are you two playing?
I widened my eyes to show her that I had no interest in these break-up games. We dated for four and a half years—this was just one of his coping strategies. Where I tried to will away the existence of awkwardness, he needed the awkwardness to remind himself of the way he felt.
“Alyssa, why don’t you have a Tinder?” Nick teased. He was trying to make light of this awfully awkward situation. I looked at him sympathetically. If this was something I was going to laugh about tomorrow, I needed all the help I could get. I needed to embrace the awkwardness, and jab my ex in the ribs for forcing the situation on all of us.
So I retorted, “Because I’m not a loser.” It was an incredibly lame response, but it took him by surprise. I took a chance on what he had set up neatly for himself, and ran my finger right through it. I looked into his eyes, and smiled sweetly. My friends laughed, and he grinned sheepishly. The awkwardness had won, the pain still twanged in my heart, but I felt a sense of relief. The burden of our break-up became more mutual. His weak attempt to evoke jealousy caused him to help me take on the load of our demise. What we once were, we were no longer. What I once struggled beneath, he lifted for me, helping me to move on, just a little bit.
His thoughts were unseen by me, but the awkwardness revealed them to me. His games were deceiving, but the awkwardness was what helped me win. What I had initially perceived to be a disjointed slew of invited instances, all resulting in an overwhelming sense of awkwardness, quickly became the technique by which I maintained my sanity. For it’s the awkwardness that preserves our humanity. Because if there were no awkwardness, we would fail to exist as people. We would be no better than monkeys. If we didn’t feel the awkwardness, we would never know how much we truly value the people with whom we share our lives. We would never know how much we value ourselves.