Two years ago, when I moved back to my hometown of Dublin, I managed to secure an interview for the alluring position of “Trainee Barista” at a well-known Irish coffee chain. It seems absurd to me now that I should have been so nervous about auditioning for what was after all an unskilled minimum-wage job (with its emphasis not on the fine art of coffee but on washing dishes, toasting sandwiches and cleaning toilets) but I was indeed nervous, and visibly so. Sitting in the HQ’s waiting room, shakily fingering a travel journal, pretending to read an article about Bolivian nightlife, I silently rehearsed what I was going to say and do when the interviewer called me in. A good handshake, I’d been told, was the first step towards conveying an impression of smooth professionalism and reliability and interpersonal grace, so thereafter I kept one hand loose to avoid moistening it with sweat.
When a few minutes later the interviewer emerged smiling from the next room and called out my name, I immediately stood up – matching his friendly grin, maintaining fierce eye contact – and walked towards him with an impeccably outstretched hand. I had not, however, correctly measured the size of the room and so had not calibrated the distance between us. Having already assumed handshake posture, I could not, or at any rate did not, break free of it, and was forced to walk the entire length of the room like this, grinning, stepping over the feet of the other candidates, then around the receptionist’s desk, then a large fern, all the while keeping my arm fully extended at a right angle to the rest of me. Someone told me later that it looked like there was an invisible rope around my wrist, and some malignant entity had been pulling me slowly towards it.
It got worse. After our palms had finally made contact – a limp, unpleasant operation, like two squids rubbing tentacles – my questioner-to-be ushered me into a large, empty conference room. He told me to take a seat, so I slipped into a chair near the head of the table, the only one surrounded by documents and folders. I’d already crossed my legs and started to make small talk when he frowned and said, “Oh, that’s my seat, sorry. Why don’t you just sit down over here…”
Why is awkwardness so amusing? I mean, why is it so perversely entertaining to behold? As a phenomenon, it is probably better grasped with reference to paradigms and examples and vignettes than by this or that succinct definition. But I’ll try at least to visualize it. If a rigid social transaction such as the one above is to be imagined as a tight-rope walk, with the distant ground below representing complete social catastrophe, then awkwardness is every wobble and blip, every contingent shift in the weather, everything which reminds us that we are not at ease, that we are not on solid ground, that we are, in fact, floating in anxiety. It does not represent the catastrophe in itself but rather an unforeseen and vertiginous awareness of the thousand potential catastrophes to come. Awkwardness is subtle but grave, objectively minor yet subjectively devastating. Awkwardness is when you reply, helplessly, to the words “happy birthday” with “thanks, you too”. It is when you have asked someone to repeat themselves a second, a third time, and still have no idea what they’ve said. It is when you discover, halfway through a conversation, that a clump of green matter has been on full display in your nostril the whole time. It is when you walk in on your mother-in-law in the toilet. And it is when, at the end of a first date, the waiter regretfully informs you that your card has been declined. How did this happen? What have I done? Why did I say that? Why did I even leave the house today? These are questions that attend to the awkward as pagans attend to the sun.
In the preceding paragraph, I used the words “we” and “you” more than I normally would. But I feel quite sure that these scenarios and moments are familiar to the reader, if only by approximation. Something of the sort has surely happened to you; the tight-rope walk is universal. I say this with a degree of confidence because, leaving aside the nerveless and narcissistic few for whom the crossing is always smooth and the winds of ineptitude never give trouble, awkwardity is a general condition, and nothing but exile or death can cure it.
Unlike real humiliation, which is isolating and traumatising and often extremely funny, awkwardness is a deeply democratic malaise, and provokes empathy above all. It provokes a blush, an inner wince (the most popular word for this right now is cringe), and perhaps a release of guilty laughter. Because when we witness a show of awkwardness, what we are really witnessing is our own awkwardness, our own vulnerabilities and uncertainties projected onto another’s body. It doesn’t matter who the body belongs to; the most powerful person in the world can incite the same reaction as the man on the street. As Bob Dylan once wrote “even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.”
Which sometimes he does, albeit metaphorically. (Although, regarding Trump, I cannot assert that Bob’s words will always retain their metaphorical status). Here is my favourite example of elite or upmarket awkwardness. During his visit to Britain in 2011, President Obama attended a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. At one point, he proposed a toast to the Queen, who was seated next to him, and everyone in the hall stood accordingly. He began to speak in his typical lapidary style. However, a few seconds into his toast, the orchestra mistakenly started to perform God Save the Queen. The doleful strings resonated through the hall, and what followed was a case study in awkwardness (you can see the video here). Obama, unaware of the strict royal protocol surrounding the national anthem, did not allow his words to trail off elegantly but instead spoke louder, with more emphasis, and even quoted Shakespeare (later he would say that he’d thought the music was intended as a kind of “soundtrack” to his speech).
When he finally raised his glass in salute, the mortified Queen just stared back at him, muttering a hasty admonishment. This was the moment he realized what he’d done: he gently put down his glass and faced forward, a blank, directionless gaze coming down over his features. It is the same gaze that I adopt when somebody just won’t stop staring at me on the bus. Suddenly, Obama stopped looking like the prince of political cool, like the world’s most famous and powerful man. He looked instead like an ungainly kid at some remote family gathering, humbled and universalized by his brush with the awkward.
As we’ve seen, awkward moments tend to flourish in stiff, protocol-heavy contexts, and it would be hard to find a more salient example than a state visit to Buckingham Palace, with its baroque displays of traditionalism and officialdom. But there’s another force at play here. Obama had obviously meant well, just like I had meant well during my job interview, just like Mark Corrigan always means well as he continuously embarrasses himself, in TV’s most sublimely awkward comedy, Peep Show. Had Obama deliberately intended to insult the Queen or undermine the ceremonial pomposity surrounding the British monarchy, the toast would not have been painful to watch. In fact, it might have been a pleasure to watch, unambiguously. (I’m speaking as a true Irishman now). Instead, his gaffe brings on the tightening of the posture and the reddening of the cheeks that we all know so well, and it does so, I suspect, because it adheres to a platinum social rule. Like defeat and like hell, the road to awkwardness is paved with good intentions. If you don’t believe me, just look at that “handshake” with Castro. No, Obama is a vessel of pure, possibly infinite awkwardity. In other words, he is one of us.