'Cringeworthy' Explains Exactly Why You Sometimes Feel Secondhand Embarrassment About Your Friends — Or The President

In Brooklyn, the crew of the podcast Tinder Live! has moved on to a 27-year-old named Kyman, whose photo makes the crowd burst into laughter and jeers the moment it appears on the projection screen, without host Lane Moore or any of the other panelists having to say a thing. Kyman stands about waist deep in what looks to be a lake, and he's leaning to one side as if he might be in the middle of a game of volleyball. He is also shirtless and in swim trunks, a combination that accentuates his . .. If he were a woman, I'd call them curves. I don't know what the euphemism is for a man. Moore is less concerned with polite language.

"That's a butt!" she exclaims. "That's a buuuuuuuuutt!"

"Get in that butt! Get in that butt!" chants the third panelist, another New York comedian named Janine Brito.

"I mean, okay," Moore says after a few moments of this. "Obviously right, right?"

"Yes!" the crowd agrees, and what do you know: We have a match. Moore starts typing out a message to Kyman. So you should know I'm very classy or whatever but THAT BUTT THO, she writes.

This is how the night has gone: Pull up a profile, spend a few minutes mocking the guy behind his back, swipe right or left, and then, if it's a match, mock him to his face (or at least to the Tinder avatar version of his face). From my long chats with Sören Krach and Frieder Paulus of the Social Neuroscience Lab at the University of Lübeck in Germany, I recognize that this is bugging me because I'm feeling empathy for these guys, but I think you could also argue that everyone else in the room is too. Understanding how confused Kyman might feel when receiving a message like THAT BUTT THO is the whole joke — and understanding how he might feel is, of course, empathy.

Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl, $17, Amazon

Some psychologists account for this difference by splitting the concept of empathy into two: One of these is cognitive empathy, which means recognizing and understanding someone else's feelings but keeping those feelings at a distance. You can imagine what someone is likely going through, in other words, but you don't let it in; you don't feel it yourself. The other kind of empathy is affective empathy, or compassionate empathy, and this one is the way we usually use the word: It's understanding someone else's experience and internalizing what they are likely feeling. You feel what they feel.

"Understanding how confused Kyman might feel when receiving a message like THAT BUTT THO is the whole joke — and understanding how he might feel is, of course, empathy."

One isn't necessarily better than the other. For nurses and other health-care practitioners in particular, cognitive empathy can be essential in protecting against "compassion fatigue," burn­ out that comes from constantly internalizing patients' emotions. Some recent evidence suggests that if health-care workers instead engage in cognitive empathy, keeping a little distance between themselves and their patients while still understanding their emotional needs, this can lead to lower burnout rates and higher well­ being.

But there are times when cognitive empathy can turn darker.

A recent study tested the difference between these two branches of empathy in the context of internet trolling and found that Internet trolls tended to score higher in cognitive empathy than compassionate empathy. That might, in fact, be how they knew how to be so mean-they can guess at what the other person might be feeling, so they can plan their attack accordingly.

It’s true that you can't walk around 24-7 with a wide-open heart, your feelings pushed and pulled by those of everyone else around you. You have to know which type of empathy to use and when. It's worth remembering the theory of constructed emotions from earlier in the book: Emotion isn't something that happens to you. It is something your brain creates, which means you have some agency over your feelings. My instinct is that the crowd around me at Tin­der Live! is cringing while tapping into their cognitive empathy, perhaps in a way that's curdled into something more dismissive, like contempt.

It’s true that you can't walk around 24-7 with a wide-open heart, your feelings pushed and pulled by those of everyone else around you. You have to know which type of empathy to use and when.

Lately, though, I've been experimenting with choosing compassionate empathy whenever I can: I know how you feel because I am you, or at least I can see some version of myself in you. It's easier, of course, to do this with people I feel some kind of connection to, something Krach and Paulus confirmed in a follow-up study to that initial 2011 paper: Your empathetic reaction to some­ one else's embarrassment is stronger the closer you are to that per­son. It's why husbands and wives are so likely to be embarrassed by each other, or why your family's weirdness, particularly in public, never fails to make you cringe. They're a part of you; you've incorporated them into your self-concept. And then these people go, out there in the world doing god knows what, making you look embarrassing by association.

"Your empathetic reaction to some­ one else's embarrassment is stronger the closer you are to that per­son. It's why husbands and wives are so likely to be embarrassed by each other, or why your family's weirdness, particularly in public, never fails to make you cringe."

I thought about this finding of theirs — this particular paper is titled "When Your Friends Make You Cringe" — when I read a piece published in the spring of 2017 by The Cut: "When You Love Your Friend But Hate Her Social-Media Presence," by Hayley Phelan. In it the writer is weirded out by a new friend's online persona. She would post "multiple times a day, increasingly in nausea-inducing poses with her boyfriend that looked about as staged as a rom-com poster: laughing and eating soft-serve on a stoop, holding hands while walking over a bridge, stealing a kiss post-run. Soon, they had their very own hashtag. It involved the word 'lover.'"

But you can have embarrassment by association for something bigger than a corny hashtag favored by an Instagram addict. Your entire country can make you cringe. Australians have long lived with the scourge of the "cultural cringe," a term coined by Aussie writer and critic A. A. Phillips in a 1950 essay. He used the phrase to describe the embarrassment many Australians felt at the time when comparing their artistic efforts with those of bigger countries like Britain; in the second half of the twentieth century, it began to be used more often to describe the deflating way Aussie pop-culture exports never quite lived up to the cooler TV shows and films and pop stars coming out of the United States. "And so all too often, whenever we see Australian movies, TV, music, art, awards shows, slang, food, and fashion, we cringe," Australian writer Jenna Guillaume wrote in a recent essay for BuzzFeed. "Or rather, when we choose not to see them, because we reject them on face value as hogan (unfashionable, uncouth, unsophisticated) and avoid them altogether. It flattens our culture, this deep-seated cringe."

But you can have embarrassment by association for something bigger than a corny hashtag favored by an Instagram addict. Your entire country can make you cringe.

As I'm writing this in the upside-down world of 2017, Americans are experiencing our own cultural cringe, though it's over politics, not pop culture. In February, just a few weeks after Trump's inauguration, the New Yorker published an essay titled "The Embarrassment of President Trump"; a few weeks earlier, Vanity Fair had called his plan to keep his businesses a "national embarrassment." In May, Paste magazine published a listicle head­lined "The 8 Most Embarrassing Moments From Trump's *ONE DAY* At Nato"; The Nation used that same trip to argue that "Our Embarrassment In Chief's International Trip Is No Laughing Matter." It isn't just headline writers who feel this way; a poll from the McClatchy Company and Marist College released in early 2017 found that nearly 60 percent of those polled said they were "embarrassed" by the president, compared with 33 percent who said they were proud.

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I can't predict what the country will be like by the time this book is in your hands. Hello from the past. It's pretty weird here. How is it when you are? A brief dispatch from 2017: The talk right now is all about how divided this country is. If we are going to get emotionally granular about it, then the emotion I might choose to describe the national mood is some­ thing bordering on contempt, just like the vibe I was getting from the crowd at Tinder Live! Contempt is a powerfully negative emotion, one that the psychologist John Gottman has found to be the number one predictor of divorce. The behaviors associated with this feeling are eye rolls and the silent treatment, both of which can be understood as ways to shut out the targeted person, all the way out. Some psychologists who study emotion have theorized that these are embodied ways of refusing to acknowledge the offender's existence. By the time a relationship gets to a contemptuous state, reconciliation is likely to be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

"Contempt is a powerfully negative emotion, one that the psychologist John Gottman has found to be the number one predictor of divorce."

This is why I'm oddly cheered by these headlines and that poll that suggest the prevailing national mood is one of embarrass­ment. Embarrassment implies compassionate empathy, or feeling what someone else is feeling. The relationship hasn't completely dissolved yet. Sometime around the fourth month of the Trump era, Krach sends me the latest paper he and Paulus and a few other colleagues have published, on how engaging in mindfulness may decrease the pain associated with Fremdscham. In a Twitter direct message, he advises: "Next time you cringe because of Trump-just meditate before :-)."

As the sociologist Neil Gross observed in the New York Times, it's unlikely that these cringing Americans are reacting this way because they're embarrassed for Trump. It's much more likely that they're embarrassed for the nation as a whole-which, in the tacit, paradoxical way that cringe theory works, implies a feeling of connection to this country. The deeper the cringe, the more you care; that's one way to look at it.

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"Embarrassment of the sort that's bubbling up today is tied to national pride and patriotism, which the right often accuses the left of lacking and which cosmopolitan liberals sometimes fail to notice in themselves," Gross wrote. Pride and embarrassment are what the research typically classifies as self-conscious emotions, which would suggest that you wouldn't feel them unless you had some kind of personal investment in the thing that is making you cringe. "Time will tell whether embarrassment over Mr. Trump proves a galvanizing force for political change," he continued. "Either way, in these rancorous times, embarrassment is a healthier, more civic-minded emotional basis for dissent than hatred."

I wondered, at certain points while watching Tinder Live!, if my problem with the show might be more simply expressed this way: I am no fun. Moore and her panelists are sharp, skilled comedians, and I'm not opposed to poking fun at people. I did grow up with a little brother, after all, so I know that teasing the people you love is a great way to bond.

Even so, at the Tinder Live! show, I keep trying to get into the joke, but I just can't. I feel so upset for the guys they're mocking. Every­ one's secret fear when putting a social media persona together is some version of "Is everyone going to laugh at me?" For Jim and Kyman and all the guys in between, the answer tonight is "Yeah, actually, everyone is definitely laughing at you." All of us are afraid, to varying degrees, of social rejection or ostracism, and when we sense that fear in others, we can choose to respond with contempt or compassion. Both are ways of processing that automatic empathy response, the developmental psychologist Philippe Rochat has theorized. You feel the ostracism right along with the ostracized, and you can either bring that person in or push them out. In this way contempt can function as a defense mechanism. "Contempt turns social rejection the other way around," Rochat argues. Instead of feeling rejected yourself, "Now it is the self that rejects others." Tinder Live! felt like contemptuous cringing, an expression of the rejection all of us fear in love and relationships, only turned outward. We are safe, and we are superior-it's these guys who are the loser weirdos, amirite?

"All of us are afraid, to varying degrees, of social rejection or ostracism, and when we sense that fear in others, we can choose to respond with contempt or compassion."

The unspoken statement being made by the comedians on­ stage read to me like a message to the Tinder guys: You are totally ridiculous, and thank god I'm not you. A more compassionate (and probably more truthful) point to make is the opposite: You are to­ tally ridiculous. And so am I. The appeal of processing vicarious social rejection through contempt is understandable, because it turns the feeling outward, which keeps you at a safe distance from feeling rejected yourself. A compassionate response, on the other hand, invites the rejection inward by recognizing yourself in the rejected. At first I wasn't sure why you'd want to respond to some­ one else's embarrassment in this way, with a compassionate cringe, but then I realized that the explanation is simple: It helps you feel less alone. To cringe compassionately is to realize that we are more alike in our weirdness than we are different.

Adapted from Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness by Melissa Dahl with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Melissa Dahl, 2018.