My year of cringe
Aidan O'Malley | Tuesday, March 1, 2022
“Your YEAR of cringe? What about the other 20??”
Recently, I’ve realized my most fundamental character trait — my greatest blessing, but my worst curse — is self-awareness. Actually, I’ve thought this for a while. I’m not sure why, where or from what it came to pass, but now I’m stuck with it.
At the risk of sounding like my dad, I do think part of it is “the phones.” Social media in particular has forced us all to view our lives — and not just our own, but everyone else’s — from a perpetual, comparative, third-person omniscient perspective. It’s not just Instagram, where I’m trying to look like I’m having fun. It’s also Twitter, where I try to look funny; LinkedIn, where I try to look intelligent; or (*cringe*) Letterboxd, where I try to look funny AND intelligent!
This observation helps explain why Gen Z, in my experience, is more self-aware than older generations. At the very least, we’re better at presenting ourselves online, although to do so still requires some conception of how you’re perceived (for example, most people on Facebook are loudly lacking said conception).
But there’s also something personal — something uniquely and entirely neurotic — about my special brand of self-awareness. I wouldn’t be writing this column about it if not for the fact that I’ve continually (and recently) been told I possess it. Part of it is in the phones, but most of it is in my bones.
Yet for a very long time, I was proud of self-awareness. Socially, it has been a godsend! Showing others that you know how you come off — especially if, maybe, you’re not coming off well — is a foolproof icebreaker. Self-deprecation (in moderation) is relatable! And in high school and college, self-awareness has allowed me to reconcile a social life with my perennially dorky interests (I am, after all, writing this column in the student newspaper). I think it’s made me a better writer, and it’s given me a good sense of humor.
But as of late, I’ve been a lot more pessimistic. I think it started (as all internal crises these days do) with COVID, specifically lockdown. I got really into TikTok, and to be honest with you, I’m still really into TikTok. Cringe, I know! But for all of the reasons you should rightly hate that app, allow me to introduce another: the rabbit hole of irony.
If you’ve happened to fall down it, you know exactly what I mean. The rabbit hole of irony is a kind of positive feedback loop, whereby increasing sarcasm, “satire” and ~memery~ compounds themselves. On the internet, this can take the form of making a joke about someone or something, only for the joke to then morph into a derisive, faux-embracing of the object of ridicule, only for THAT object to be combined and mocked with another, only for BOTH to be embraced sardonically, etc. If that makes no sense, don’t worry. It’s purely unintelligible — it’s self-awareness brain rot.
What’s worse, this brain rot has leaked off my phone screen and started infecting my life. I fear I’m losing the ability to engage sincerely with others, as well as with myself. I fear I’m holding back and forbidding myself from doing the things I enjoy and love, all because of their so-called cringey-ness. And when I do these things in spite of that fear, my chronic self-awareness and oppressive internet irony add so many asterisks to the activity in question that I might as well never have done it.
In other words, I think the Facebook moms are onto something.
Last July, when I first began to actually articulate these feelings, I tweeted: “today, i CAST OFF the shackles of self-awareness!! 2021 is the Year of Cringe, the summer of shamelessness!!!!”
Now in 2022, I think I’m ready to realize that vision. I will proudly proclaim myself a film major, and I’ll be honest with the fact that I have no clue where I’m going with it. I will not apologize for the amount I talk about The Observer, and I will plainly assert that student journalism is cool. I will spam my Instagram account with study abroad posts, and I will gladly tell people that “study abroad changed me” because in just one month, it already has. I will link a cringey meme that references video games AND anime in the literal second paragraph of this Inside Column because frankly, I am done giving a f*ck.
After all, everybody was cringey in middle school. Were you not also happier?
You can contact Aidan at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.