“You’re meant to be on Hinge to try and impress people, but I'm like, ‘Listen, I've got a sex podcast with my mum, and If you can't deal with that, it's not gonna work,” Diggory Waite tells me over zoom. He runs The Real Sex Education Podcast with his sex therapist mum, Cate Campbell. I can’t think of anything more terrifyingly embarrassing than talking to my mother and a stranger about sex on a podcast, but these two seem to make it work. “Yes, I am cringe and I am awkward,” he says, “but also, I made that my vibe, so it's fine.”
We’re supposed to become less embarrassed with age, but lately I've been consumed by it. Social media, it seems, has presented us with new norms that we wouldn't otherwise be privy to: Double-texting makes me want to bury myself. Realising I've watched someone's Instagram story after “41s” makes me feel like a beg. Getting aired in the group chat fills me with the urge to burn my finger tips off so I can never type again. And I know for a fact I'm not the only one. Everyone around me seems obsessed with not being “cringe.” But are the memes right? Is to be cringe really to be free?
Like all emotions, embarrassment was once essential to our survival as humans – it kept us in with the pack. “Embarrassment is really just mild shame,” Diggory’s mother Cate says. “We all want to belong to the team, so when you feel you're not part of the team, you experience shame.”
“[Shame] means we work cooperatively,” she adds. “If we didn’t have it, we’d all run around killing each other. Because we expect to be judged by groups of people, we try to avoid being judged and want to be part of the team.”
But too much embarrassment is also not useful. It prevents us from doing ordinary and necessary things. Our obsession with humiliation is killing us – no joke. This spiralling feeling prevents people from attending prostate exams, mammograms and cervical screenings. It stops people from buying condoms. Embarrassment can leave a person vulnerable. I see this play out in myself; for so long, I’ve denied myself the ability to swim because I can’t imagine anything more cringe-worthy than a grown woman flailing around trying to learn. However, not knowing this valuable life skill could mean life or death.
But when we look a little deeper, being cringe isn't all bad – especially if you own your behaviour. In one study for the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that people who outwardly expressed their embarrassment were considered much more trustworthy and “prosocial.” Think about Julia Fox for a moment. She's weird and kind of annoying but in a fascinating and intriguing way. She is so at one with herself that it now feels embarrassing to hate her. Instead, we must stan her.
Indeed, some of the most interesting people online are the most eyewateringly awkward to watch. Amelia Dimoldenburg of Chicken Shop Date has built a career on making guests on her show feel weird and audiences are obsessed. Meanwhile, TikToker @holamide has built a 320,000 strong following by doing the things we’re too afraid to do, from going to the cinema in pyjamas to roller skating alone.
To complicate things, it’s also impossible not to be cringe online. Posting is embarrassing, social media detoxes are embarrassing, making a TikTok account is embarrassing. As Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote for The Atlantic last year, “We’ve been given more opportunities to display our cringeworthy characteristics and also to point out the cringeworthy behaviour of others.” Simply put: being online is all about exposing ourselves and others, which creates more opportunity for cringe. So how do we navigate this? Do we simply embrace it?
It is not enough to be told to “embrace my cringe” – I need to know how, exactly. I put this idea to Dr. Martha Deiros Collado, a clinical psychologist. “For me, the way to beat ‘cringeworthy-ness’ is to grow greater self-acceptance,” she says.
“All of us can be cringe at some point – absurdity is just a part of what makes us human. If you can learn to appreciate the cringey sides of yourself, laugh at them with others and accept it’s just a part of you – you’re more likely to land in a place of joy and contentment than embarrassment and shame.” In other words, working on your self-esteem in a more general sense is probably the best way to stop caring so much about your every move.
It’s also worth realising that people really don’t care as much as you think they do. It is scientifically proven that we are not the main character and multiple studies have shown that we consistently overestimate the impact of our shortcomings. We defy all sorts of abstract social norms every day, yet we continue to move throughout the world and have never died from being a bit odd or out-of-step.
So is to be cringe really to be free? Who’s to say – maybe it’s more accurate to say that to be cringe is… to be fine?