B2 High-Intermediate US 4442 Folder Collection
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Hey, Vsauce.
Michael here.
Not knowing what to do with your hands
or offering a handshake
when the other person offers a fist bump.
Forgetting someone's name...
Not having anything to say and forgetting your phone at home so you can't
be distracted by it. Getting caught staring at a stranger.
Striking up a conversation with someone you don't know in a bathroom.
Someone oversharing, telling a group
too much information. Overhearing a couple breaking up.
Noticing food in someone's teeth but not telling them and, well, now it's been too
long and bringing up would be weird.
Smelling a fart in an elevator that wasn't yours
but, well, now you can't even react to it or mention that you've noticed it
or pretend to even know what a fart is. All of those things
are awkward.
We don't like
awkwardness. It makes us uncomfortable, cringe.
But what is awkwardness?
Why is it good and who is the main character
of the universe?
To really understand awkwardness we need to put it in context with the entire
family of forces that guide social behaviour.
Think of this sheet of cardboard as a list all possible behaviours.
It's not infinite because of the limits of science and biology.
You can't move faster than light or be in two places at once.
You can't wear pants made out of molten lead.
Next, there are legal limits - the laws of the state.
They delineate what you agree not to do, lest the authorities
punish you - murder, stealing, speeding. What's left
is molded by the finder tool of social expectations.
It's not illegal to chew with your mouth open or
not cover a sneeze on a crowded bus or
act disrespectfully, but it is frowned upon.
Punished not by the police, but by social ostracism,
public opprobrium. Being called rude,
gross, mean, annoying.
Awkwardness is the finest tool. It sands
social dynamics by smoothing out what even etiquette doesn't rule on.
It's not a violation of the laws of physics to accidentally hug someone
for longer than they expected. It's not against the law
either. And the etiquette for how long a hug should last
isn't black-and-white. But it is
awkward. Like touching a hot stove or getting a parking fine or losing friends,
awkwardness nudges us to avoid certain actions in the future
and smooth things out when they happen. People who demonstrate
self-consciousness when needed
are communicating cooperative intentions,
which helps them get along well with others. It's no coincidence that brains,
susceptible to feeling occasional awkwardness, would become so common.
They're successful at cooperating,
at social life. Feeling awkward shows that you understand
and are keen on smooth social exchanges.
Now, too much or too little concern for social rules
isn't healthy, but researchers found that just the right
amount is great.
When a person shows remorse or embarrassment or
awkward discomfort, when appropriate,
others perceive them as being more trustworthy, and their actions as
more forgivable. And it's not just perception.
Such individuals also tend to be more objectively prosocial when tested.
Kinder, more generous. Even when a person is completely oblivious to a faux pas
they've committed,
awkwardness still arises.
People around them can feel uncomfortable. It's called
vicarious embarrassment and it's a function
of empathy - the ability to feel what others feel
or will feel, when
or if they realize what they've just done.
The more 'EEE' someone is, that is
easily sympathetically embarrassed, the harder it is for them to sit through
other people's cringe-inducing moments,
even fictional once like in cringe comedy.
Researchers found that being more easily and pathetically embarrassed
does not correlate to be more easily embarrassed yourself.
Instead, it's linked to being more empathetic,
an important capacity for social creatures to have. Our seemingly
counter-intuitive attraction to viewing cringing moments
like, say, bad American Idol auditions, is perhaps then just a light form
of morbid curiosity. You may think that
awkwardness is totally different from physical pain
or outright name-calling.
But your brain would disagree. You see,
researchers found that social missteps activate, among other regions,
the secondary somatosensory cortex and
dorsal posterior insula - areas of the brain that are also connected
to the sensation of physical pain. Our brains
process the breaking of social standards and the breaking of
bones through similar neural pathways. Likewise
the same sympathetic nervous system that mobilizes you to deal with physical
"fight or flight", is activated by social challenges
where awkwardness or embarrassment
might be at stake. Like events where you are very aware
of being watched. Speaking in front of a group or
embarrassing yourself in front of onlookers or having nothing to say
on a first date.
Awkward silence...
Your blood pressure increases, causing you to overheat
and sweat.
Oxygen is needed for
fighting and running, so breathing increases and digestion shuts down, causing
nausea and butterflies in your stomach.
Your body instinctively contracts into a protective fetal position and
fighting that reaction to act natural makes you shake.
Blood vessels in your extremities contract to prioritize major organs
leaving you with cold fingers
and toes and nose. These symptoms don't
alleviate awkwardness, they compound it.
But that's history's fault.
Long before human social dynamics were complicated enough to involve
"is it one kiss or two?" or politics
at Thanksgiving dinner, we developed primitive reactions to
physical threats and haven't had enough time yet to evolve
newer ones. Self-conscious
anxiety can be tough to get out of our minds after we've done something
awkward. Fixating on social blunders is
easy and hard to overcome.
Why was I so unsure, so unconfident,
so awkward? Well, some of the blame
may lie with the neurotransmitter oxytocin.
Oxytocin is sometimes called "the love hormone"
because it modulates prosocial feelings, like trust
and attachment, which it does. In fact,
nasal sprays of oxytocin are being used to increase
trust during couples therapy and in the reduction of anxiety
and depression. Though there are fears that it could also be used to
deviously increase trust and make a person more susceptible
to con artist schemes. But oxytocin
also modulates negative social feelings like
fear and anxiety. A dose of it
makes people better at recognizing the facial expressions for disgust
and fright. It's also involved in the feelings that make us
approach or avoid certain social stimuli.
And it may play a role in making positive and negative
social interactions more salient
in our memories; that is, stand out more,
command more of our attention after the fact, make us
think about them more. Negative ones
especially because of what psychologists call
negativity bias. All things being equal,
negative social interactions and negative emotions
have a greater impact on our mental states than positive ones.
In fact, we have more words for negative emotions
than positive ones and a richer vocabulary
to describe them. Thus such memories and thoughts can be tough to just
get over. What does the other person think of me?
I was so awkward. Are they telling other people? We replace social encounters in
our heads over and over again.
Surely, the person we were awkward with remembers us the same way
we're remembering ourselves and is equally fixated on that
awkward thing we did. Or are they?
A great wet blanket for smothering the fire of self-conscious anxieties
is perspective. Consider the famous advice of Eleanor Roosevelt:
"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you
if you realized how seldom they do."
As much as you
obsess over yourself, you're not the first thing on everyone else's minds.
They're worried about themselves, what
you think about them. And, more importantly, what they think about
You're not the centre of their world.
Another famous old piece of advice tells us that in your twenties and thirties
you worry about what other people think about you. In your forties and fifties
you stop worrying what other people think about you. And then
finally in your sixties and seventies you realize that they were never
thinking about you
in the first place.
The tendency to act and think as though you are the true main character of the universe
has been called protagonist disease.
It seeps into our behavior all the time.
For instance, the fundamental attribution
error. When evaluating actions you
often view yourself as a complex character, acted upon by
various challenges and antagonist, whereas
other people are seen as just one-dimensional background characters
with simple unchanging
roles. The guy who took way too long ordering in front of you this morning,
well, he's obviously just innately annoying person.
That's his entire purpose. But when you take too long ordering,
it's because the staff was unhelpful or you were flustered,
preoccupied by an earlier conversation.
You are the main character after all. You know a lot more about what's going on
in your life. It's easy to live like that.
There isn't time or mental space to consider every other person
as complicated and fully flushed out. But they are.
The realization of this has a name. A name given to it by The Dictionary
of Obscure Sorrows, one of my favorite resources
and now, YouTube channels. They wrap profound concepts up in tiny little word
To be sure, giving something a name doesn't show that you know it or
how to feel about it but nonetheless words put handles on things,
so we can manipulate them, hold them down, offer them to others,
feel bigger than the concepts they label.
Now, their word for acknowledging that you are just
an extra in other people's stories, not even cast in most of them,
is 'sonder'. This is their definition of it.
"Sonder - the realization that each
random passerby is living a life as vivid
and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions,
friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—
an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling
deep underground, with
elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives
that you’ll never know existed, in which you might
only appear once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background,
as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a
lighted window at dusk."
Acknowledging this makes your awkwardness
looks small. But it also makes
all of you look small.
Tiny. A needle in a giant haystack,
but nonetheless in possession of a big
idea. Your blemishes are
lost from far away, and so is your uniqueness,
but the view from way up here... Well,
it's unbeatable.
And as always,
thanks for watching.
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The Science of Awkwardness

4442 Folder Collection
Andy Liu published on April 11, 2015
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