The word “cringe” gets thrown around a lot these days. Cry laughing emojis are cringe. Posting on Instagram is cringe. GIFs are definitely cringe. Machine Gun Kelly is cringe. Getting really into NFTs is cringe. The amount of times the word “cringe” will appear in this article is cringe.
Essentially, anything that is slightly “overdone” or “off the mark” has the potential to be cringey. And when I say “cringe” I mean that hard to describe but easy to recognise sensation of wanting to curl up and delete yourself momentarily, either because of yourself or someone else. Like embarrassment, but worse.
Over the past couple of months, the cringe discourse appears to have reached fever pitch (it could even be on the verge of becoming cringe). 2023 is supposed to be the year we properly embrace cringe – “to be cringe is to be free,” proclaim the memes. And if you’ve spent any time on TikTok, you’ll have probably seen the Lewout “ending the video when we cringe” guys and their many very funny copycats. Even so, “cringe” remains the most devastating insult to bestow upon a person or entity. The idea that you might be making someone cringe is almost too cringey to imagine.
But what purpose does this feeling actually serve? Why do certain things – like our parents dabbing, for example, or people who use loads of hashtags – make us want to exit our own skin? Tom Farsides, a lecturer in Social Psychology, says that cringing can be divided into two types: “personal disgust” and “collective disgust” (AKA cringing at ourselves or others). When useful, the function of disgust protects us against risk. “If appropriately disgusted, we avoid, distance ourselves from, or otherwise ‘deal with’ the apparent threat,” Farsides explains. The threat in this case might be social alienation, or doing something misaligned with our character.
Dr Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist and author of Emotional Ignorance: Lost and found in the science of emotion, agrees with Farsides. He says that “cringing is essentially a mechanism to deter us from behaving in ways that risk us losing status or gaining the negative judgement of others.”
Our bodies consider “negative judgement” to be a threat to survival, Burnett explains. “Our primitive brain reflexes don’t really discern between a physical threat (e.g. a nearby tiger) and a psychological threat (e.g. potentially embarrassing ourselves in front of others), so they trigger similar responses,” he says. “In this case, the unconscious desire to make yourself smaller to avoid detection or judgement means we cringe to minimise our presence until the ‘risk’ has passed.”
So when we find someone cringe because they use too many nail polish emojis, our bodies are essentially telling us to avoid them. Otherwise we could risk becoming socially alienated from the pack and therefore face a greater chance of death. Sure, the “nail polish emojis” to “impending mortality” pipeline might feel like a bit of a reach, but Farsides says that cringing isn’t always useful or logical. It’s just an inherited trait.
“Cringe is dysfunctional if it gives us disgust reactions to things that are not threats,” Farsides says. In fact, excessive cringing could actually lead to us missing out in some instances. “When experienced in reaction to something in the present or possible future, it can lead us to shut ourselves off from potentially positive (pleasurable or growth) experiences.”
If cringing isn’t always useful, then maybe to be cringe really is to be free. Burnett says that there are ways to liberate ourselves from the shackles of cringe – not by avoiding certain behaviours, but by refusing to be cringed out by ourselves, therefore mitigating the threat of social alienation. Think of Julia Fox calling her own unfinished memoir a “masterpiece”, for example. She is an icon precisely because she refuses to be cringed out by her own behaviour. “Laughing at your own clumsiness, embracing the awkwardness or making it seem like you meant to do whatever happened can turn the situation on its head and avoid cringing because you remain in control – or at least seem to, which amounts to the same thing here,” says Burnett.
That said, this doesn’t mean you should go around cringing everyone out by being annoying or offensive. There’s a reason why guys who worship Andrew Tate give many people the ick. Or why white dudes with dreads make people recoil. Or why the nation was horrified when former health secretary Matt Hancock thought it would be funny to go on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Cringing can be a way of steering clear of those who don’t share your values.
“It’s important to remember that cringing has its uses,” adds Burnett. “It’s a regular reminder of what is and isn’t acceptable or appropriate if we want to remain an accepted member of the society we identify with or belong to. People who don’t get embarrassed by anything, who don’t cringe at all, are often not very liked by others. They have no internal checks on their behaviour or thinking, so end up disrupting group harmony and cohesion, and become less liked and acceptable as a result.”
Even so, next time you find yourself cringing about something weird you said an afters three years ago, or at your colleague who posted an engagement photo with the caption “did a thing!”, it’s worth asking yourself: is this useful, logical or necessary? Or am I just cringing for no reason at all?