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Folks, We've Reached an Awkward Age
There's One Perfect Word for Any Less-Than-Perfect Situation

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Things that are " awk-ward," according to a group of University of Maryland students hanging out on the campus quad:

1. Elevators.

2. That guy in the dorm who is so tall that he sees over shower stalls without even trying.

3. Having dinner with your new girlfriend when your ex-girlfriend and her new girlfriend show up at the same restaurant (you, in this instance, are a he).

4. Vegetarian chopped liver, which looks like the most "feces-like food ever," and which what's-his-name was eating in public for Passover.

5. Curry.

When any of these are encountered, the appropriate reaction is to say, loudly and in falsetto, awk-ward!

Recently, the Maryland students all tried to come up with the situation most deserving of the declaration and decided on this: You are about to hook up with someone when you discover that he or she is the opposite sex than you thought.

Awk-ward: Sing the second syllable a minor third lower than the first.

It is the era of awkward.

It is as if the world has suddenly become blessedly simplified. Every complex negative experience can now be encapsulated in two syllables.

Time magazine's top 10 lists for 2007 included the year's 10 most awkward moments. No. 1: Columbia University's president introducing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "petty and cruel dictator."

A diplomatic incident? A shameful act? An admirably bold one? Now it's pretty much just awkward.

The home of awkward is Facebook, which has more than 500 groups dedicated to people acknowledging various awkward situations. "An Orgy With the Golden Girls Would Be Awkward at First -- but Fun Overall" has 1,166 members. "I Tried to Smother My Roommate With a Pillow and Failed So Now It's Awkward" has 834.

Kelley Gorshow, a sophomore at San Diego State University, founded "College Is AWKWARD" because she realized she was hearing the term "at least 10 times a day" anyway. "Like at the library," she says. "The library is so awkward."

Seeing people study. Painfully embarrassing.

Acute discomfort is a hallmark of the high school and collegiate experience, and this is the population that has embraced the word and hugged it out. The state of awkwardness is not remarkable. But the compulsion to label the state in public, rather than using the traditional method of internalizing mortification? It's so self-aware, like the real-time equivalent of a Facebook status update. Joe is feeling awkward. In case anyone was wondering.

"It's exciting to have a label we can agree on," says Andrew K. Stein, a 2006 Brown University graduate who is familiar with all things awkward. While in school he wrote a column celebrating awkwardness and the Awkward Turtle -- a sad, floundering hand gesture used to accompany an uncomfortable situation when the word alone is not enough.

Stein says that the term is cathartic. It acknowledges an uncertainty of how to deal with a situation -- and that recognition can bring its own sense of assuredness.

Liz Salemme, 24, who wrote Time's most awkward list, sees the word as a neat solution to an extreme influx of awkwardness: "It's kind of hard to come up with reactions to all the strange situations we see now" on YouTube and reality television shows, says Salemme. "Sometimes all you can do is say, 'Okay, awkward,' and then move on."

It's code for "I'm not even going to go there," because "there" is a sticky, messy place. Disclosing our real feelings about "there" might be offensive or expose vulnerability, and result in long and stammering discussions. Awkwardness can be a substitute for real emotion, especially when you're pressed for time.

"Here in our language-monitoring program, this is a phenomenon we have noticed," says Mike Agnes, the editor of Webster's New World Dictionary. He doesn't foresee an addendum to the word's dictionary entry because it's mostly being used correctly, just tempered with hyperbole or understatement, depending on the circumstance.

It's like "random," that Gen X-unifying word of 2003-04, which caused people to randomly go into the store, where they would randomly run into some random person before saying some random things and leaving.

Of course, like all good buzzwords, it might be reaching the point of saturation.

"People who used to not be funny now have something they can say," says Charles Visconage, one of the Maryland students. " Awk-ward" always gets a laugh, "so people use it all the time."

"Sometimes the situation wasn't even awkward," adds his friend Steven Yenzer. "But saying it makes it that way. It's not really awkward, it's just . . ." He searches for a word.

Mockward?

"Yeah," he says. "That's exactly what it is."

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