An awkward exposé

Uncomfortable occurrences left unaddressed

The other day, one of my friends claimed there was no such thing as an awkward situation. She argued it is a socially constructed idea, existing only inside people’s minds. Perhaps that is true — but then, is this not enough to make awkwardness a reality?

There are plenty of situations which are just plain uncomfortable — being a third party witness to a heated argument, accidentally opening the door to a bathroom someone is using or having loud music start playing out of your computer during class. These scenarios are all generally accepted as awkward moments. But my purpose is not to dwell on the hugely awkward — those mishaps get enough press already. It’s the small, generally undiscussed occurrences I want to focus on.

There is the awkward moment when you go to sneeze into your elbow, only to realize with horror that you have unintentionally used your sleeve as a tissue, snot and all. Of course, the natural reaction is then to nonchalantly make the elbow-on-the-desk, head-in-your-hand pose until you can find an acceptable time to slip away to the bathroom and deal with your mess. I apologize for starting with such a gross example, but let’s be honest — it’s happened to you, right? No? Just me? Awkward.

Then there’s the case of fiddling with your earring in class because you have nothing else to do — until you pull it out slightly too much and send the back attachment falling to the floor, where it makes a small “ding!” as it lands. Spotting it on the first glance is impossible. You don’t want to look crazy as you stare down the space around you, so you casually glance around every few minutes in hopes you will see it before you have to do a full-fledged search after class. In the meantime, you pull your hair over your bare ear to mask your newly asymmetrical appearance.

And let’s not forget those times in class when your professor asks an exceedingly simple question, leaving everyone hesitant to answer for fear of sounding dumb. The class — or at least the half still paying attention — recites the inner monologue: “I can’t say this…what if there is some overly complex answer I am completely overlooking?” The professor stares out in silence and complete disbelief at how stupid his class of students is acting and eventually caves, forced to enlighten everyone the “media effects theory” is in fact about “how media affects people.” Who would have known?

Unless you have four arms, I am guessing you have also experienced the overwhelming feeling of receiving change after a purchase, but have then lacked the time or ability to put it away without inconveniencing the person behind you. Whenever this happens to me, I awkwardly waddle to the nearest bench or counter to unload the massive amount of merchandise in my arms, inevitably dropping a few coins on the way.

And then there are all the things which happen on the way to class. The awkward dance-like motion you do when you are walking directly facing someone and try to keep moving the same direction to pass each other. When you are walking behind people you need to pass, but can’t find an good opportunity and end up lingering behind for too long. When you see that person you have a class with and you don’t know if you should wave or not. The struggle is a constant one.

Nevertheless, perhaps my friend has a point. Maybe these things are only awkward because we think they are, and because we don’t acknowledge they happen to everyone. Maybe if we embrace these things as natural and laugh at ourselves for doing them, the red hue of our cheeks will begin to fade toward pink. After all, we are only human.

Kelly’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at

Published March 17, 2014 in Life

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