Interview: Melissa Dahl.
Melissa is a senior editor at New York Magazine, and I got to know her work because I've been a long-time fan of Science of Us, a site that has now joined The Cut. The sites cover mental health, human behavior, personality, relationships, work, health, wellness -- all subjects that I love to read about.
Melissa is also the author of new book about a fairly unconventional topic: Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. She looks at the situations that make us feel awkward, and argues that such moments -- although, well, awkward -- have great value. Fascinating!
I couldn’t wait to talk to Melissa about happiness, habits, relationships, and productivity.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers -- most?
Melissa: It’s funny — when I would tell my friends and colleagues what I was writing about, a lot of them had the same reaction: “You don’t strike me as particularly awkward!” Which, first of all, thank you, I will take the compliment.
But that response kind of encapsulates what ended up interesting me (and surprising me) about this subject. I became somewhat obsessed with the idea of understanding awkwardness as an emotion, not a personality trait. I mean, it can be both of those things — there are certainly “awkward people” out there. But to me, it’s also a feeling. I may not seem “awkward” from the outside, but I feel it almost constantly! I’m always sure I’m saying or doing the wrong thing; I’m always convinced that people are staring or talking about me after I’ve said or done the wrong thing.
Another thing that surprised me as I was studying this odd little emotion: I have a few first drafts of chapters floating around in my Google docs somewhere, which are all about how to totally ward yourself off from this feeling — with science! This book was initially going to be about how to “overcome awkwardness”; I actually just the other day looked at my book contract with Penguin, and that’s the description of the book that’s in there! But I didn’t end up writing about that at all. In the end, it became more about accepting awkwardness, and even appreciating it. It became a way of finding joy in the absolute absurdity of the human experience.
Gretchen: Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Melissa: TWITTER! Oh my god!
I mean, on the one hand, it’s great. I’ve connected with so many cool people through Twitter — it has brought genuinely good things to my life. I’ve made offline, IRL friends through idle chitchat on the site, and I’ve met editors and writers in my field who I’ve ended up working with. Sometimes it helps spark story ideas, or alerts me to some new psychology research that I’m able to cover before anyone else does. Actually, now that I think about it, I practically owe this book to Twitter: Years ago, I started chatting about running with another writer, who eventually connected me with her literary agent, who eventually sold Cringeworthy to Penguin!
But on the other hand! Oh, the other, terrible hand. I waste so much time on the site, first of all. I know I need to download one of those apps that limits the time you spend on time-waster websites, but I think part of me doesn’t want to give it up. (Also, I tried doing this years ago, and just found ways to get around the blocks I set up for myself — I downloaded the app to Chrome, so after a while, I just started to go to Firefox to get on Twitter. Gah!) It’s also starting to feel almost unethical to stay on the site — I read something somewhere once (maybe on The Awl? RIP!) that compared it to eating meat: It’s something most of us ethically, logically, know we mayyyyybe should give up, or at least limit, but we just … don’t … want to.
Can you quit a habit that part of you doesn’t really want to quit? I don’t know. But I do know this is getting ridiculous; I checked Twitter twice while writing this answer.
Gretchen: Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
Melissa: When I was in the final stages of writing Cringeworthy, a lot of my healthy habits disappeared as I desperately tried to finish this, the biggest project I’ve ever attempted. The last few days were particularly ridiculous: me shunning my perfectly functional desk for an Ikea Poang chair, surrounded by half-drunk cans of energy drinks and various open bags of chips and cookies. (All the greats are said to have had their idiosyncratic writing rituals; I was sad to discover that this, apparently, is mine.)
It really wasn’t that hard to clean my diet back up, but during this time, I’d also totally fallen out of the habit of running, something I’ve done most days of the week for the past 10 years or so. There are obvious physical benefits to running, or cardio in general, but I’ve always loved the activity more for the mental clarity it provides than anything else. I always have some new race on the horizon, which usually helps keep me motivated. But for some reason, I just couldn’t get back into it! I would sign up for races and then fail to train adequately, so I would end up skipping them. I was even supposed to run the NYC Marathon this fall, but had to skip that, too, because — again — I hadn’t kept up with the training.
So I tried something new: a run streak. The rules are simple. You run every single day, for at least one mile. And … it worked! I’ve run every day for the last seventy days, even in the rain, even in the snow. (Okay, sometimes I take it indoors, but still. It counts!) I know you’ve written, Gretchen, on how the small things we do every day sometimes matter more than the big things we do once in a while, and that feels so true to me in this experience.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up. One hundred days seems like a nice goal. Only 30 days away at this point! But at the same time, I’ve sort of decided I’m free to abandon it whenever I feel like it. The point of this whole thing was to get back into the habit of running, and that’s certainly happened.
Gretchen: Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
Melissa: Honestly, I sometimes struggle with feeling like a total pain, or a killjoy! I want to eat healthy, but if everyone else is ordering fries, I feel like I’m letting them down, somehow, if I order a salad. People comment on it, you know? Or if I’m on vacation, and I get up to go running, people comment on that too. It’s those little comments that bug me more than they should. Sometimes I brush them off, but sometimes even anticipating them is enough to make me drop my habit for the duration of the dinner out, or the group vacation, or whatever.
I’m getting better at sticking to my healthy habits, anyway, though. Maybe it’s just a matter of growing up a bit, and feeling more comfortable in my own dorky Upholder skin.
Gretchen: Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Melissa: As I mentioned earlier, I lean Upholder, for sure. It’s usually not difficult for me to keep outer and inner expectations — well, with the exception of Twitter, I guess? Ha. But, yeah — I run marathons for fun, I wrote this book on top of having a full-time job. I floss.
What I’ve really appreciated from your writing about the Four Tendencies is something that you’ve said yourself, Gretchen — correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to remember you saying that people have asked you things about the changes you made while writing books like The Happiness Project like, “How did you get yourself to do that?” And your response was something like, “I just … did it?” That’s mostly how I operate, too. I decide to make a change, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of inner or outer cajoling to make it happen. (I guess with the run streak and the Twitter debacle I’ve described my exceptions to this rule! But generally, when I decide to do something, I do just … do it.) I grew up going to church, and my favorite verse even when I was a little kid encapsulates this tendency of mine. I like the old-timey King James Version: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.”
Anyway! What I’ve really appreciated about this notion of “tendencies” is the grace it’s reminded me to give other people. Not everyone functions the way I do — and that’s fine! It’s helped me so much at work and in my personal life, as a gentle little reminder that different people are different, and not everyone sees and responds to the world in the same way I do.
Gretchen: I would also, of course, shine a spotlight on anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention.
Melissa: This sort of builds on that last question, of reminding yourself that your way of seeing the world is not the only way of seeing the world. It gets at what I’ve started to call Cringe Theory.
I think that the moments that make you cringe are the moments when you realize that there is a difference between the way you perceive yourself and the way that others perceive you. Something that really helped me understand the feeling, actually, was a piece I wrote a couple years ago for Science of Us, about why so many of us cringe at the sound of our own voices. Briefly, here’s an explanation for why our voices sound so different to us when we hear them played back: When you speak, you hear your own voice through your ears, but you’re also sort of hearing it through the bones of your skull. Bone conduction transmits lower frequencies than air conduction; if you’ve ever heard a recording of your own voice and been surprised at how much higher-pitched you sound, this is why.
So, okay, that helps explain why your recorded voice sounds so different. But why does that make you cringe?
This turns out to be a pretty perfect metaphor for my understanding of cringe theory. I think we cringe — so, we feel awkward, in other words — when the version of ourselves we think we’re presenting to the world meets the version of ourselves the world is actually seeing. We like to pretend those two are one and the same, and that the way you perceive yourself is the way others are perceiving you, too. Sometimes that’s true. But when it isn’t — when you see the way your self-concept isn’t measuring up to others’ concept of you — I think that’s when we cringe at ourselves.
It’s when we cringe at others, too — when we can see the self that someone else is trying to present to the world, and we can also see that they’re not quite succeeding.
So, looked at in this way, awkward or embarrassing moments are moments that force you out of your own perspective and into someone else’s. They remind you that your way of looking at the world is not the only way. I’ve come to genuinely love them for that. It’s nice to get a break every once in a while from your own point of view.