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In defence of being cringe

We have entered an era of unapologetic, ‘exuberant’ bad taste – and it feels liberating

I’ve always found the experience of being a human painfully embarrassing. I feel like a freak when I get to the start of a running route and suddenly transition from walking to running. I break out in a sweat when I take longer than one second to put my change into my wallet and there’s a queue behind me. I would honestly rather miss a bus or a train than suffer the indignity of jogging for it. I simply do not wish to be perceived.

I think part of my heightened self-consciousness also stems from the fact that I am, regrettably, cringe. I’m bad at dancing. I watch reality TV. I love avocado on toast. Sometimes, I find myself affecting aloofness so as to make myself appear less cringe: I’ll stress I’m watching Emily in Paris ‘ironically’ or describe listening to ABBA as a ‘guilty pleasure’, as if to say “I’ll admit to liking this thing, but I need you to know that I’m self-aware enough to know it’s not ‘cool’.” I’ll always stop short of being earnest and unapologetic about my passions, instead choosing to perform a sort of sardonic detachment.

According to Dr Roger Giner-Sorolla, a social psychologist at the University of Kent, the pandemic has likely made us all a bit more susceptible to feeling cringe. “We have been missing out on practice and maintenance of face-to-face interaction,” he says. “There is an emerging set of studies about the effect of the pandemic and lockdowns on social anxiety, and they generally find that social anxiety increased during this time, while lockdowns might temporarily reduce social anxiety due to reducing social contact but do not solve the problem long-term.”

The increasing pervasiveness of social media has also compounded this. As Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in The Atlantic last year, our exposure to online networks has made us hyper-aware of others’ cringe behaviour: “our sense of cringe has been heightened to truffle-pig levels of sensitivity. We can sniff out the tiniest flaws in someone else’s public performance, dig them up, share them around. We’re connoisseurs of cringe. Maybe we’re even gluttons for it.” It’s true. On the internet, the possibilities for being cringe are limitless: selfies are cringe, Instagram ‘boomerangs’ are cringe, posting a minute-long story is cringe. This is arguably why people with no social media are seen as so desirable.

This goes both ways, too. As James Greig wrote on Dazed earlier this year, we’re also more conscious of being perceived as cringe. “Because the possibility of being surveilled is now ever-present, we start to modify our own behaviour,” he wrote. “We become inhibited, we self-censor, we begin to view ourselves as though looking from the outside.” This reminds me of an instance the other week when I was out in a bar where the walls were panelled with mirrors. It was jarring – not least because it made me dizzy when I was four vodka sodas down – but also because every time I caught a glimpse of myself dancing I wanted to peel off my skin and scratch my eyeballs out.

“If people are creating content on social media, the instant feedback can increase self-awareness, often to toxic levels” – Dr Roger Giner-Sorolla

This tendency to continually survey yourself can also be witnessed in the rise of ‘main character syndrome’, where young people imagine themselves as the ‘protagonists’ of their lives. Speaking to the Guardian last year, author Olivia Yallop suggested that the so-called ‘syndrome’ encourages “perpetual self-surveillance – ‘everyone is always looking at me, and I’m always looking at me looking at myself’. Main characters can’t exist without an audience.” 

“If people are creating content on social media, the instant feedback – often extremely positive or negative and at a much greater speed and volume of what you would get in face-to-face interactions – can increase self-awareness, often to toxic levels,” Dr Giner-Sorolla says. “One negative feature of social media is the tendency to polarise and read a moral issue into every use of words or images. This is dangerous because it turns the response to embarrassing mistakes from a laughter that can involve the original poster to a savage mockery that excludes them and invites shame rather than embarrassment.”

Thankfully, the older I get, the less I find myself caring. It’s natural to give less of a fuck about what others think as you age – and you stop altogether at 46, apparently – but it seems as though culture in general is shifting towards being more earnestly cringe, too. In a recent TIME article, Judy Bergman suggested that we have entered an era of unapologetic, “exuberant” bad taste. “What's remarkable about this particular pendulum swing is that after centuries of wrestling with hierarchies of taste, the cultural stigma that has always come with indulging in bad taste has disappeared,” she wrote.

Plus, when we drill down into what makes something ‘cringe’, it becomes apparent that the criteria is usually set by straight men. Men generally love to shit on anything popular (see: Love Island, astrology, pop music, the Kardashians) and misogyny underpins the whole idea of ‘cringe’, making it especially hard for us to feel like our interests and hobbies are valid. Ironically, though, men’s insistence that ‘reality TV is shit’ is often borne from their own failure to understand or appreciate it. Unwilling to confront their own embarrassment at being uninformed about a given subject, they project their own cringe onto us and make us feel small for being into something popular. And we shouldn’t let this dictate how we live our lives.

This earnest embrace of cringe can be witnessed across pop culture. Take Amelia Dimoldenberg and the popularity of her excruciatingly awkward Chicken Shop Date interviews. Julia Fox, renowned for her total unabashedness, has been hailed as an it-girl. On the internet, ’I am cringe but I am free’ memes proliferate. Taylor Swift told graduates to “embrace cringe” as she accepted an honorary degree from NYU last week. And, of course, there’s Kravis – arguably the horniest, soppiest, cringiest couple on earth – who tied the knot this weekend.

It certainly appears as though cringe is – dare I say it – actually ‘in’ right now. And it’s about time too: even research affirms that being vulnerable can make you more likeable and multiple studies have shown that we really are our own harshest critics. Plus, despite eroding my already limited social skills, the pandemic has also taught me that life is just too short. I try to remember that there was a time when I would have traded my first born child just to go to a club again, and now that I’m free to go out, I shouldn’t waste my time fretting about how my arms look while I’m dancing.

“Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side,” writes Tim Kreider in his New York Times essay ‘I Know What You Think of Me’. “There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.” It’s true that it’s incredibly scary to think that a stranger might think I’m weird or ugly or annoying and there’s nothing I can do about it, but equally, I find it kind of liberating. Maybe it’s cringe to say so, but we’d all do well to accept that if you’re judged no matter what, you might as well dance like no one’s watching.