Why Do We Cringe?
Cringe manifests as compassion, or contempt, depending on our own insecurities.
When you watch a train wreck, you cannot take your eyes off it — something about the magnificence of failure keeps you arrested, while your brain does the math — attempting to understand how so many things that shouldn’t have gone wrong, went wrong. Now, think about a failed grand, public proposal — the proposer is rejected and at the mercy of a whispering audience. The vicarious embarrassment of watching it all happen isn’t quite different from a trainwreck — one cannot take their eyes away. Our fascination with looking at a hot mess, regardless of the second-hand shame it elicits in certain situations, illuminates quite a bit about what we are, or what we fear we will become.
In 2000, Seinfeld creator Larry David also created an auto-fictionalized T.V. series called Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which he gets into various misadventures with his friends by virtue of being socially awkward. Almost painful to watch, David’s brash, convoluted, misadventures were also a significant contribution to a genre known as cringe comedy — where people both laugh and get goosebumps from the second-hand embarrassment they feel for the socially awkward butt of the joke. Since the advent of the internet, fictionalized cringe comedy has been more or less pushed aside, as people prefer laughing at real people embarrassing themselves. From the long list of monetized Youtube cringe compilations that preserve footage embarrassing accidents and social faux pas, to the class-centric mockery of TikTok cringe content, to influencers who make their living by reacting to cringe content.
Our visceral reaction to people embarrassing themselves is due to the brain’s adaptation to social conditioning. Neurologists and psychologists have posited that the pain of social rejection is similar to the pain of physical injury, yet more memorable than the latter. Evolutionary history has hammered in us a need for community, considering how lone prehistoric men died alone and survived in packs. Over time, this morphed into a rejection of those who did not adhere to arbitrary social mores — and the cringe is a symptom of anticipating that rejection. Later, a cringe reaction became the gut-feeling equivalent of cultural arbitration — why would anyone cringe at a good thing? Cringey things in culture automatically became bad, and something one can laugh at.
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But, gut feelings are not facts. Developmental psychologist Phillipe Rochat says cringe is an automatic empathy response of either contempt or compassion. An empathy response involves the necessity of experience — one cannot cringe without knowing what an embarrassing situation feels like. Now, the contempt or compassion involved in this empathy response is dependent upon the personal experience of the person experiencing cringe, and how they process embarrassment. Cringe content exists exclusively for people to laugh at, or feel contempt for. In this case, the empathy response comes from a place of self-hatred. By laughing, individuals reassure themselves that they would never tolerate themselves behaving in such a manner. Contemptuous cringe reactions, therefore, are a projection of insecurity.
As an example, think about the public push-back that non-binary individuals receive for attempting to discover their gender identity. Coming out as trans, or rejecting the man/woman gender binary is strongly associated with social rejection. This makes people immediately want to mock non-binary individuals back into the gender binary. A deep discomfort with social rejection births contemptuous jokes like ‘I sexually identify as an attack helicopter.’ Due to this, video-essayist Natalie Wynn points out how contemptuous cringe is also a potent weapon for warring social and political ideologies. The old-as-time war between men and women fighting for their rights. Feminists believe in their right to ignore beauty standards and to express themselves however they like. Men’s rights activists then painted women as blue-haired, ugly, loud, and hysterical feminazis, which then made women feel ashamed of their self-expression and their feminism.
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The psychological projection that inspires contemptuous cringe is a clear defense mechanism, which arises from an inability to express one’s complex emotions clearly. The foil to this is constant self-questioning, self-awareness, critical thinking, and kindness — or, a compassionate viewpoint. Here, the other half of Rochat’s theory comes into play — compassionate cringe. Cringe as compassion is when our response to something “cringeworthy” is a memory of one’s own failure. A person who wishes they were treated better in their moment of shame, will view others’ failings with compassion.
A small example of feeling compassionate cringe is listening to a confession and relating. Writer Melissa Dahl, who wrote Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, read her seventh-grade diary out loud to a live show. She could connect with the audience and feel a sense of camaraderie while reading her younger self’s thoughts out loud because everyone relates to having hadsuch silly thoughts. In an interview with The Verge, she said, “It became interesting to me, to as often as I can, try to process embarrassment through compassion…It’s hilarious and it’s a mix of self-recognition and tenderness because you can see yourself in every person up there.”
What we cringe at plays a pivotal role in how we perceive the world. Developing a taste for cringe content, and the contempt it inspires may often lead to one losing a sense of human error, and kindness. When driven by performance, herd mentality, hatred for what’s different, and a fear of mistakes, life essentially becomes a shell of what it could be. Interrogating the source of contempt, and rethinking how we react to embarrassing situations is how we move past contempt. According to Dahl, reframing awkwardness as something people can relate to becomes a learning experience, rather than something coated in shame. She adds, “It makes the feeling a little less isolating and is a nice way of connecting with other folks through our mutual human absurdity.”
Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.