We’ve all felt that feeling. You’re driving home after a night out, or winding down from a busy work day when it hits you. Perhaps the sensation is so intense that you actually groan out loud, cover your face or shake your head.
Sometimes the memory that hits you is from earlier in your life, last week, last month, even last decade. You cringe at what you said, it’s a kind of pain that’s relatable but also incredibly humiliating.
While writing this article I heard an audible groan from the next room.
“What’s wrong?” I asked my husband, expecting that he got a bill or an unpleasant email.
“Stupid thing I said” he muttered.
“Did you really say something stupid or does it just feel like it?” I asked.
He said he just wanted to forget about it and move on. That’s the power of cringe.
That Cringey Feeling
In Awkward: The science of why we’re socially awkward and why that’s awesome Tashiro observes that awkwardness comes when we aren’t sure of the rules to resolve our embarassing actions. It’s not just that we committed a social faux pas, but that we don’t know the way to come back from it. We don’t have a set of social rules for coming back from mistakes.
For example, there is no way back from asking if someone is pregnant, when they aren’t, unless the person offers us one.
How will they respond? What will the consequences be? Will they allow us to overcome our embarrassment or make sure we wallow in it?
Video essayist Natalie Wynne from Contrapoints Youtube channel explored the experience of cringe from a number of angles. She’s broken down the different types of cringe so that you don’t have to.
Cringing at Ourselves
There is the cringing we do about our own behaviour, which may or may not be as embarrassing as we think it is. We feel a desire to shrink into ourselves, to disappear, to forget the situation as quickly as possible. That feeling of shame and embarassment is a kind of pain, depending on how much you dwell on it.
But what about other people’s cringe worthy behaviour?
Cringing at Someone Else
There is an element of voyeurism in this kind of cringe. There are massive reddit communities devoted to the pleasure of watching someone else embarrass themselves. The Reddit community When it hurts to watch has 1.3 million members, which is slightly smaller than its offshoot subreddit, Cringepics: When it hurts just to look which has 1.5 million members ( although to be fair, the cringe bingers probably belong to both groups)
Why do we take pleasure in other people embarrassing themselves?
There are two main emotions we can experience when someone does something cringe worthy.
- we can empathise with the person and experience vicarious embarrassment. We cringe WITH them,
- Or, we can find their shame and embarrassment delicious in itself
If we take a kind of perverse pleasure in someone failing, it might be because we think they deserve it. They belong to a group that we think is weird or wrong, maybe we’re jealous of their previous success, maybe we simply don’t like the person.
This kind of pleasure is known as Schadenfreude, as coined by German sociologists. It takes a real effort to look away from the embarrassment of others, at least enough to switch on our empathy.
So what’s the answer?
I was on spotify the other day searching for Cringe and I came across a Playlist called Cringe Culture is Dead – I killed it. When I showed it to my 12 yo daughter she squealed with delight saying it had most of her favourite songs. The title didn’t make her cringe, she embraced her love of cute kitsch instead. What we might cringe at might also be valuable to us, or reflect parts of ourselves that are precious and enjoyable, despite how embarrassing they might be to us.
Biblical Wisdom on the Cringe
So much of our cringe response is hyper self-aware, we think people are noticing what we do, in a hyper-connected world where we document so much of our lives on social media.
The Bible reminds us that we probably aren’t as important as we think, in a good way. That stumble on the stairs or slightly awkward comment might not have carried nearly as much weight as we thought it did. The Bible reminds us not to get too caught up in what people think of us:
Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. (Romans 12:3)
On the other hand, if we really have done something truly bad, we shouldn’t just cringe or shrink from what we did, but seek resolution with the person we hurt. Furthermore we should be aware of a greater judge who sees all we do, and is sympathetic.
For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Hebrew 8:12)
It’s an amazing thought that God wouldn’t shrink back from us, even when we would, and have done. God knows our tendency to cringe.
Isaiah the prophet predicted the way humanity would respond to Jesus, the Son of God and His shameful death on the cross.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:3)
Article supplied with thanks to City Bible Forum.