The internet has stripped several English words of their meanings. “Like” now means “am aware of.” “Love” now means “like.” “Complicated” now means “promiscuous.”
Probably the most misapplied word on the web, though, is “awkward.” Once a descriptor of genuine discomfort, the word now refers to anything quirky, unexpected, or mildly inconvenient.
I’m all for change of usage. “Hopefully” used to mean “full of hope.” (Ex: The Red Sox fan hopefully attended the season’s final game, only to have his dreams dashed to oblivion by the team’s sloppy play.) Now it’s generally used to indicate eager anticipation. (Ex: Hopefully this bus station bathroom has been cleaned this decade!) Great. Fine.
But something about the repurposing of “awkward” really grates on me. I think it’s because of the new trend where socially capable people pretend that they’re hapless fumbling losers. And it’s leaving us genuine dorks out in the cold. Sorry, pretty girls with glasses. My apologies, handsome dudes who played varsity sports. Awkward is our word. And even amongst the uncool, it’s widely overused.
To be completely honest, I’ve grown from a gawky, goofy teen into a pretty reasonable adult. So it’s a word that usually doesn’t even apply to me that often. But I’m carrying the banner. Why? Because when I was in high school I played trombone and decided to try and grow an afro and wrote school-spirit themed song parodies for our annual variety show. That may seem like a Triple Crown of awkward, but I owned it then and don’t feel embarrassed by it now. Goofy is in the eye of the beholder.
Here’s a handy guide to distinguishing authentic awkwardness from counterfeit discomfort, or fauxkwardness:
Accidentally walking in on strangers of the opposite sex washing their hands because you went into the wrong bathroom: NOT AWKWARD
Your significant other’s mom walking in on you flexing nude in front of a mirror while whispering “I am a pretty pony,” to yourself: AWKWARD
Saying “I love you,” to a co-worker as you hang up the phone: NOT AWKWARD
Whispering “I love you,” to a co-worker after you brushed up against each other in the hallway after a sexual harassment seminar: AWKWARD
Spilling a water glass on the floor: NOT AWKWARD
Spilling a full beer on a recovering alcoholic on a first date: AWKWARD
Someone wearing the same shirt as you to a party: NOT AWKWARD
Someone wearing a mask of your face, complete with actual hair they had surreptitiously plucked from your unsuspecting head, to a party: AWKWARD
Hitting on a girl who turns out to have a boyfriend: NOT AWKWARD
Hitting on a girl who turns out to have a girlfriend: STILL NOT AWKWARD
Hitting on a girl who turns out to have a pimp: MAJOR LEAGUE AWKWARD
White guy in “urban” gear walking into da club: NOT AWKWARD
Any guy with a comb over walking anywhere, ever: AWKWARD
Natalie Portman in Garden State doing a zany dance in front of one person in the privacy of her own home: NOT AWKWARD
Natalie Portman laughing like a maniac at the Golden Globes after talking about getting knocked up: MUCH CLOSER TO AWKWARD
Watching Black Swan with your little sister, whose ballet recitals you used to attend: AWKWARD
Forgetting whether the battles of Lexington and Concord were in Massachusetts or New Hampshire: NOT AWKWARD
Being married to a man who hosts “Pray Away the Gay” retreats even though he, himself is clearly gay: AWKWARD
True awkwardness isn’t something that could happen to anyone at any time on account of an innocent miscalculation. It’s the product of unforeseen circumstances, lack of self-awareness, and bad luck.
Calling someone awkward is like calling that person racist, in that there’s no good way to prove you’re not once the accusation has been levied. There is nothing more awkward than watching someone try not to be awkward. Except watching someone try to be overtly not-racist. It’s okay to slip up (not, let’s be clear, in a racist way). That doesn’t mean you’re an incurable dork. We don’t have to pretend that we’re all fumbling semi-competent dweebs just because something happens outside of our predetermined social script.
We designate situations as awkward rather than dealing with the actual emotional ramifications of a situation. Labeling something as “awkward” is like asking for a do-over or negating the validity of what was just said or done. But often, the mistakes and clumsiness are more valuable than an unblemished interaction. Calling out a pause in conversation as an “awkward silence” eliminates the vulnerability of sitting in quiet with another person. Running into an ex in public doesn’t have to be awkward. It can be a genuine moment of connection or repulsion. Brushing it aside tamps down your feelings rather than helping resolve them. What’s the use of that other than to insulate ourselves temporarily against excitement or heartbreak or anxiety or anger? Maybe, if we recognize our emotions for what they really are, we can figure out how to deal with discomfort honestly rather than brushing it aside with a quick roll of the eyes.