Tedx Talk at University of Essex - 2022

Public speaking, May

In my talk, I reflected on the cultural and social implications of why we cringe, and argue that what we do about it might be more important than ever before. Referencing Jennifer Jacquet's Is Shame Necessary?, Sarah Schulman's Conflict is not Abuse, and ex-philosopher and YouTube essayist Natalie Wynn, I hoped to make the case for interrogating our discomfort when we cring, learning from it, and choosing to be kinder and more generous in our judgements of others and ourselves.

 

You can watch the recording on YouTube or read the script below.

 

Other speakers included the brilliant Henriette LaursenMatthew GillettPascal Vrtička, Abigail Agyei MBE, Jude G. Lottie Graham, Eliot Wood and Tobias Rauscher

Tedx Talk

Interrogate your cringe

And use it as an emotional vehicle for compassion

I’d like you to find out what the following scenarios have in common:

 

First, try to recount some of the early rounds of X-Factor auditions during which a contestant- entirely unaware of their lack of talent - belts out a Celine Dion song. 

 

In the second, you’re standing in a circle of friends and strangers in the midst of telling what you thought was a funny story. But instead of laughter following your punch line, there is nothing but silence. Everyone’s eyes are nervously darting back and forth, probably looking for a way to escape.

 

In the last scenario, a group of celebrities record themselves singing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon from their million dollar houses during a pandemic that had - if not infected and killed - distressed millions of people around the world.

 

If you twitched or grimaced at any of those scenarios, perhaps your heart rate even went up in recognition, you already know what I’m about to say: These are all examples of what we recognise as cringe-worthy.

 

Depending on how this talk goes, I might have to add this one to the list too.

 

Although it’s usually easy to identify when I feel ‘cringe’, I find that I’m actually quite bad at putting a finger on why I do so. I cringe when a past mistake creeps into my brain at night, or when I over-analyse my behaviour in a social setting. Despite being very specific emotional reactions and judgements - one might involve guilt while the other one shame - this umbrella term of just ‘cringing’, and my knee-jerk reaction to retreat from honest reflection, prevents me from leaning into the discomfort so I can better analyse what my cringing might teach me about others and myself.

 

As we scrutinise each others’ behaviour more and more, since the lines between online behaviour and offline performances are blurring, thinking about how we cringe and what we do about it might be more important than ever before. Otherwise, we’re left with impressions and uninhibited judgements left, right and centre, with no clear direction of where to go from here, or where these strong reactions even came from in the first place.

 

So, if we first want to put ‘cringe’ under the microscope to understand it as a social and psychological phenomenon alone, psychologist Philippe Rochat might be able to help us: He put a name on what connects these awkward, uncomfortable spaces we find ourselves in when we cringe. He calls it ‘the irreconcilable gap’. Rochat argues that, first of all, when we cringe at others or ourselves, there’s a discrepancy between how a person thinks others perceive them, and how they actually do.

 

Additionally, what we perceive as cringe is also hugely dependent on the culture we’ve been brought up in and the ever-fluid trends we’re adapting to day to day.

 

For example, sometimes actions that are misaligned with our taste and mainstream trends can trigger feelings of cringe - something which Gaby Rasson helped us express by coining the word cheugy. She first started using it back in 2013 to describe people who were slightly off-trend or out of touch. Cheugy examples include your parents' inspirational ‘live laugh love’ banners, Hollister t-shirts, and frosted tips reminiscent of Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s. Cheugy therefore requires a level of out-of-touchness in someone’s taste.

 

This out-of-touch element is also required in cringe behaviour: We know intuitively that we cringe at others when their performance doesn’t align with various norms. In other words, we cringe when someone’s behaviour is socially transgressive - like witnessing someone accidentally making an offensive joke, or putting on a terrible performance despite their previous show of confidence. Both examples put the onlookers in an uncomfortable situation, possibly even wanting to withdraw. As Melissa Dahl explains in her book Cringeworthy: “If awkwardness sounds the alarm, cringing is what happens when it goes off.”

 

But what actually happens in our brains when we cringe?

 

An fMRI experiment by Sören Krach and others might have some ideas on that.

 

In the experiment, the researchers showed participants examples of cringe while observing their brain activity, and found that the parts of the brain structures which neuroscientists believe might be involved in pain processing lit up. What’s interesting is that these brain regions aren’t just linked to your own pain, but they also become active when you’re feeling someone else’s pain.

 

Quite fittingly, the paper was called ‘Your Flaws Are My Pain’. 

 

Our ability to empathise with other people to the point that we can quite literally feel their pain seems like a positive, human trait, right? In some ways, it is. Sometimes, cringe is the emotional vehicle to our empathy and compassion for one another in an awkward situation. But what if we cringe and don’t want to lessen the pain of the person we’re cringing at? What if we’re so disgusted by their behaviour, we almost feel like, well, they deserve it? 

 

This is where Melissa Dahl makes a clear distinction between what she calls contemptuous and compassionate cringe. 

 

Compassionate cringe is what happens when we recognise the humanity of someone’s awkwardness. I find that this is usually done in hindsight, like when you tell your friends an embarrassing story and they all cringe with you, wishing on your behalf that it had never happened. But it can also happen immediately when the embarrassing behaviour is benign, and often relatable to those observing it. It’s the humbler version of the two, the kind of cringe that knows it could have happened to anyone, making you want to hug the embarrassment out of someone.

 

However, at risk of offending the whole audience, we’re probably all guilty of engaging in contemptuous cringe, too: Who hasn’t enjoyed watching someone mess up their X-Factor audition on live television? When this happens, we might even feel they deserve what’s happening to them, and enjoy their humiliation, while at the same time pitying them.

 

As a response, you distance yourself from the person you’re cringing at. You might even say that you feel disgusted by their actions as you cringe: How dare they think so highly of themselves that they believe they could rise to fame? How dare they express themselves so shamelessly? During these moments of contemptuous cringe, you might feel somewhat superior as you’re convinced their cringe behaviour defines them as a person. 

 

One of the reasons why cringe works so well on TV is because a key element of contemptuous cringe is the act of shaming, and shaming, in turn, requires exposure as Jennifer Jacquet explains in her book Is Shame Necessary?. She writes that the way we feel shame, and the way it’s weaponised against others, is closely linked to our cultural norms: While individualised cultures often rely on a personal moral compass to adjust or improve their behaviour, collectivist cultures tend to use shaming as a means of social control. In other words: shame can help someone realise their poor behaviour and - at best - motivate them to make amends.

But if exposure is necessary to shame someone for their transgressions, what happens when this occurs online without the presence of the shamed? And if shame is supposed to tell us whether we need to adjust our behaviour to avoid being excluded, what happens if the shaming isn’t even warranted at all - it’s just that the person’s behaviour being cringed at simply doesn’t align with our expectations?

Popular YouTuber Natalie Wynn, also known as Contrapoints, produced an hour and a half long video essay interrogating “cringe”, during which she tracked parts of our history with cringe on the Internet. What becomes apparent pretty quickly is that cringe content and the shaming that follows it in cultural media is often targeted at those not conforming to various homogenous norms. This means that cringe often comes from a place of a series of phobias and isms - be that fatphobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, and ableism, just to name a few. Whole subreddits and internet forums are dedicated to cringing at trans people who don’t “pass”, disabled people who don’t interact with the world the same way other people do, or women who subvert misogynist assumptions about how they should behave.

What’s worse, because cringing often helps people bond, they even find community in their collective hatred in which they punish people for their deviations. This kind of cringe relies on the belief that the person doing the shaming has a level of social, maybe even political, authority on behalf of the group they belong to - unless the person being cringed at moulds themselves into who the group thinks they should be, there is neither room for acceptance nor positive behavioural change.

Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t come without consequences: Although Jacquet makes the case for using shame as a political tool to force people with authority and power to act more ethically, she warns us that sometimes, shaming is so serious and causes such pain that the transgressor would rather withdraw from society and live as an outsider - or would rather not live at all. 

As Sarah Schulman also reminds us in Conflict is not Abuse, our hunger for “punishment, denouncing, excluding, threatening and shunning others” only divides people, and makes us forget that there is no real correlation between having the ability to punish and being right. More often than not, she argues, the wrong people get punished, and the punishers use their power to keep from being accountable.

Outro

 

During my short 23 years of being alive, I’ve spent too much time, and probably still do, recycling the pain of my past mistakes instead of learning and laughing at the humanity of it all. 

 

I wonder what I could’ve learned about myself and others if I had interrogated the culture which encouraged me to remove myself from what I was told was the cringe of femininity, the cringe of speaking my mind to appear more likeable, or even the cringe of simply being unapologetically sincere to others; the cringe of seeking connection rather than competition. The cringe of caring for others and myself.

 

This is not an argument against the fact that we cringe, but what actions follow it afterwards. 

 

If we know that cringe is dependent on ever-changing social norms, cultural trends and attitudes, an assumption about who we and others should be and behave, I want to encourage you to practice ‘radical compassion’ next time you cringe:

 

Whether you’re experiencing it online or offline, sit with the feeling for a little while. Confront it, rather than retreat and reject it. See if you can replace the contempt or dismissal you might feel for the person you’re cringing at with curiosity, no matter how painful your initial response is. Also, be specific. Is your cringe reminding you of your own internalised shame? What emotion was it really that triggered your cringe? 

 

I think you’ll discover that more often than not, you can find a source for connection rather than contempt for the other person - in the best case scenario, you might even be able to extend this generosity to yourself when the cringe is directed at you.

 

I believe that the empathy inherent in our cringe response holds huge potential for learning, understanding, and collective care. At its best, I believe embracing and interrogating our cringe can help us not only understand each other better and encourage us to be kinder, but ultimately - and most importantly - be liberating for us all.