By Doni Joszef

That awkward moment . . . when you navigate a wedding smorgasbord like an absolute imbecile, greeting peers and acquaintances with painfully uncoordinated attempts at a smooth handshake. You repeat this ridiculous scene over and over until you take the liberty of liberating yourself via iPhone, pretending to be on an important business call. For the next 350 minutes.

That awkward moment . . . when you’re riding an elevator–silent and stiff, thumbs fiddling, mind fidgeting, as the other passengers give you the up-and-over while trying to hide the fact that they’re giving you the up-and-over. You exit one stop early just to escape the piercing silence, which now fills the elevator like a thickening fog of hyperconsciousness.

Life is just full of awkward moments–whether you’re an introvert, extrovert, social slug, or social butterfly.

What drives this strange phenomenon we’ve come to call “That Awkward Moment”?

Why are some social scenarios seamlessly smooth, while others feel unbearably uncomfortable?

The psychology of social dynamism is complex, and I tire of the one-size-fits-all solutions that pervade the Web. But for the sake of speculation, I submit the following theory . . .

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes two types of thinking through which the mind rotates on a constant basis.

Fast Thinking, which Kahneman labels “System 1,” entails an intuitive, self-accepting, overconfident, mindset.

Slow Thinking, or “System 2,” entails an uncertain, self-examining, speculative mindset.

Kahneman writes:

“When System 1 runs into difficulty, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing to solve the problem of the moment. . . . System 2 is mobilized to increase effort when it detects an error about to be made.”

In my view–and I speak as an openly awkward human being–awkward moments arise when System 2 hijacks our minds, pulling our mental energy away from the intimacy and immediacy which drives the flow of a social encounter, plunging us into a state of self-analysis, which we’ve come to colloquially call “self-consciousness.” The bummer is that we can’t really stop System 2 from stepping into the picture (although alcohol and/or Xanax have traditionally been employed to do so). The more we analyze ourselves–how we sound, how we look (how we smell?)–the more awkward we feel. Self-consciousness is, essentially, a heightened sense of sensitivity to an outsider’s perception of us. (I suspect this is why nervous public speakers are sometimes advised to imagine their audiences in underwear–a cognitive shift away from self-critique toward other-critique.)

It’s kind of like looking at yourself in one of those magnified mirrors–only the mirror exists in the mind(s) of whomever you happen to embrace. Since it’s impossible to mind-read and socialize at the same time, you start to freeze up, like a computer overtaken by too many commands. It’s hard (perhaps impossible) to be socially smooth (System 1) while simultaneously consumed by self-analysis (System 2). And it’s even harder to stop analyzing yourself once you start the slippery slope that is System-2 thinking. The best we can do is ride the wave, and accept the reality that awkward moments are unavoidable facts of every social life.

“And their eyes were both opened, and they realized they were naked . . .” (Bereishis 3:7)

Is awkwardness a new phenomenon?

Not quite, but I think we’re getting more and more awkward as our socializing gets more and more digitally mediated and, as a result, our identities more intricately individuated.

Computerized socializing is so much easier, safer, and less vulnerable than face-to-face interactions. But, for these very reasons, it’s so much cheaper, lonelier, and more detached.

The more we shield ourselves in mediated modes of socializing, the less comfortable we are in old fashioned, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart interactions.

What I’m saying now is nothing new, and may very well resemble the beating of a dead horse. But I don’t think this horse is entirely dead; in fact, I think it’s alive and well. I think we’re just seeing the beginning of an entirely new norm of socializing–one which leans on the aid of media as a way of muddling through (or bypassing altogether) the emotional, vulnerable, experientially sensitized elements of social interaction. This makes real-life encounters a lot less intuitive, and a lot more prone to System-2 bouts of insecurity and self-consciousness.

But–Facebook or no Facebook–I think self-consciousness is part of the human condition. Socializing is not the smooth stream of savvy one-liners and hardy-har-hars our Hollywood culture would have us think. Nothing could be more human than feeling vulnerable in the presence of others. Try as we may to present a cool, calm, and collected persona, sensitivities and soft spots simmer subtly-yet-surely beneath the surface of every psyche. v

Doni Joszef, LMSW, is in private practice working with individuals, families, and groups in Lawrence. Available by appointment. Call 516-316-2247 or e‑mail to schedule a consultation.

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