The ‘Awkward’ Age

“Awkward turtle” gesture

I admit, I’m a little slow on the cultural uptake. Only just this morning did Spanx complete its frontal assault on my consciousness, thanks to the one-two punch of hearing Robert Pattinson reference the wildly popular slimming undergarment during a Jon Stewart interview a couple of days ago and then reading about it in The Philadelphia Inquirer this morning.

It’s the same with words. I recently commented to my 21-year-old daughter, Maria, that the word awkward really seemed to be popular among people in their teens and 20s. “Yeah, that was big about five years ago,” she replied.

In my defense, I have some empirical evidence that big awkward still is. There’s an MTV teen-comedy show called Awkward, and a popular online series called The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl. Just last Thursday, the following headlines were posted on the Web: “The Socially Awkward Yet Underrated Mitt Romney” (The Atlantic), “The Awkward History of Americans Talking About Contraception” (also The Atlantic), “Awkward Photos of Roger Federer and Chocolate Balls” (USA Today), “Awkward Sex Story From a Guy” (Glamour), and “Sleeping Girl in Awkward Snuggle With a Stranger on London Subway” (New York Daily News).

Asked about the prospect of dating his pal Zooey Deschanel, the actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt said, “It’s awkward when people say that. Whatever.” Somewhat more alarmingly, the singer Rihanna said this last week about what it was like to see Chris Brown, who was convicted in 2009 of beating her, in the year since his restraining order was lifted: “It’s awkward because I still love him. My stomach drops and I have to maintain this poker face and not let it get to the outer part of me.”

The Jon Stewart-Robert Pattinson interview in which Spanx was mentioned has awkward relevance as well. In a comedy bit, Stewart proffered a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and asked Pattinson about his breakup with Kristen Stewart: “We’re just a couple of gals. … Tell me everything!”  “This is a program where I can feel awkward in every situation,” Pattinson replied. Justifiably, the most common adjective used in the blogosphere to describe the interview itself was “awkward.”

So why did awkward initially get so popular among youth? I figured I would ask an actual youth, my daughter. Her reply and our subsequent exchange follows:

Maria Yagoda: The rise of the word awkward—as we know it today—was inevitable. Youth culture needed a word to embody the discomfort that comes along with the extreme awareness of ourselves, and how other perceive us, that we experience in our day-to-day lives. My generation can’t handle lulls; with all our various forms of communication, we’re too quick and self-aware for social glitches to go unnoticed and unaddressed.

Dad, have you ever heard of the “awkward turtle“? (I imagine you haven’t; it was really big about four years ago and will probably get to you in a year.) It’s a turtle-like hand gesture people would make to signify an uncomfortable moment in conversation. People still do it, but it’s sort of considered obnoxious now (along with awkward snail, cow, balloon, etc.).

And, of course, the rise of the word awkward gave rise to a larger category of awkward behavior and awkward-based humor. Mockumentary TV series like The Office and Parks and Recreation—even Curb Your Enthusiasm—are sometimes unbearable to watch because of the awkward factor. I haven’t lived long enough to competently judge what came before, but it seems like there’s been a dramatic rise in that kind of humor.
I think it’s refreshing for us to encounter the authentic in comedy, and awkwardness—breaks from the dull excess of postmodern life—makes it easier for us to access.

B.Y.: So awkwardness is actually a good thing? What a concept. But it actually rings true and makes me think of how, back in the James Bond days, cool used to be the ultimate compliment. You don’t hear that much anymore. Hot is the all-purpose word for attractiveness, and I can’t think of any approving epithet for suaveness. It doesn’t seem to be valued.

Maria, given we’ve established that I’m a half-decade behind the curve,  does my current awareness of awkward indicate that it’s not such a big thing anymore? And if that’s the case, what might replace it?

M.Y.: I wouldn’t go so far as to say as being awkward is “in.” It’s still important to be cool and personable in social interactions. However, I do think that people continue to appreciate both their own and others’ recognition of awkwardness, in the same way that self-deprecation is valued. What’s changing is that the word awkward, which has
been overused ad nauseam by my generation, has less comedic cachet, in part because it’s less surprising now. I don’t think there’s a real contender to replace it. I’ve found myself using uncomfortable, as in, “It was really uncomfortable when I told the homeless man I didn’t have any change, and some quarters dropped out of my pocket.”

Maria Yagoda, who graduated from Yale in May, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and blogs at


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