What is the reason for the modern fascination with cringe? The past decade has seen the proliferation of cringe compilation videos (which can generate millions of views), as well as the growth of specific forums where such content is shared, like the various-cringe-related subreddits: r/Cringetopia (1.7 million members, at the time of writing), r/cringepics (1.4 million members), and r/cringe (1.3 million members).
Cringe has lacked serious analysis. It is a neglected, overlooked emotion. I, like many others, enjoy cringe comedy (e.g. Peep Show and Curb Your Enthusiasm) and videos of cringeworthy moments (and have, at times, binged on these videos). But I haven’t really given much thought as to why.
The emotional reaction called cringe has undoubtedly predated the modern obsession with it: cringe is likely an ancient emotion, akin to embarrassment and shame, and thus useful for making sure that we adhere to social norms and avoid the pain – and, in our evolutionary past, potential death – that comes from social rejection.
Cringe can be thought of as a symptom of anticipating potential rejection; it is a reaction linked to the culture we belong to, a culture that acts as social glue in a community. When we cringe at ourselves, this is a warning sign, a discomfort, telling us we’re straying from the cultural path and putting ourselves in social danger. When we cringe at others (when we experience vicarious embarrassment, known as fremdshem in German), this can motivate us to avoid that situation. Cringe can also be a way in which we evaluate the reputation of others. And it can even be a form of shaming. All of this, again, aims towards social conformity.
As social creatures, then, who care constantly about where we and others stand socially, it makes sense that cringe content is so popular: these videos, although painful – sometimes excruciating – to watch, keep our gaze, perhaps highlighting to us what is unacceptable and what must be avoided. Like our negativity bias that gets hijacked by the 24-hour news cycle, our need for approval and fear of disapproval gets hijacked by cringe content. Cringe videos may also make us feel better about ourselves (“I’m glad I’m not them”) or cause us to feel empathy for that stranger in the video (“I can relate to this”).
Yet the evolutionary perspective on cringe is not what fascinates me the most; what interests me more is the philosophical, moral, political, and existential dimensions of cringe. What I would like to explore then, or try to develop, is a philosophy of cringe. In the philosophy of emotions, several important emotions have been extensively analysed, such as happiness, guilt, shame, compassion, envy, sorrow, lust, anxiety, depression. But what of cringe? Here not much has been said by philosophers, which is a pity since I think cringe opens up many avenues and questions: What is cringe, precisely? How does it differ from similar feelings, like awkwardness, embarrassment, and shame? Are cringe videos morally problematic? And what does cringe reveal about the human condition?
I want to examine these sorts of questions (and more) in this essay, hoping to arrive at a better understanding of what cringe is and what its implications are.
What is Cringe?
Cringe is similar to awkwardness and embarrassment but not quite the same. When we call something awkward or feel awkward, there is a sense of out-of-placeness, a kind of clumsiness, misstep, misalignment, or lack of grace that stands out, that we want to avoid, that can make us feel uncomfortable, anxious, or embarrassed (if it happens to us).
Embarrassment, meanwhile, is not the same as awkwardness, even if this emotion follows something awkward or inappropriate we do or say. We can be embarrassed by something that has nothing to do with our lack of ease or clumsiness. For example, social rejection can feel deeply and painfully embarrassing; but this does not mean the rejection has to feel awkward (although, sometimes it can be that too). Being teased or bullied, as well as a range of mishaps and accidents, can also be embarrassing without being awkward.
What makes cringe unique is that it involves an inward recoiling (and often an associated and distinct grimacing of the face). Cringeworthiness goes hand in hand with awkwardness (since we will cringe at awkward things we do), as well as embarrassment (since when we cringe at ourselves or others, we will think we or some other person is embarrassing). But it is the physical gesture and psychological reaction of recoiling – flinching with a kind of immediate disgust – that defines cringe.
I would say that cringe is closer to awkwardness than embarrassment, nonetheless, since cringeworthy moments tend to involve awkwardness, yet there are many instances of embarrassment that do not include the recoiling gesture and feeling that is characteristic of cringe. We might feel that someone has embarrassed or humiliated themselves, but this doesn’t necessarily make us cringe. However, what is common to all three (awkwardness, embarrassment, and cringe) is that they all seem to involve an incident that entails some discomfort based on social norms, pressures, or expectations; a discomfort that may be felt by the individual who the incident happens to or vicariously by an outside observer.
Cringe could also be thought of as an extreme form of awkwardness, something so awkward that it caused the reaction known as cringing. We all do or say awkward things from time to time, as clumsiness is inevitable, especially in a species trying to live according to a complex set of social rules (many of which are implicit). But awkwardness does not always make us recoil; for example, we can come to accept our own social awkwardness and that of others, in which case the wincing, toe-curling quality of cringing may be absent. And even when a situation is experienced as uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it will make us cringe.
Melissa Dahl, the author of Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness (2018), associates cringe with awkwardness, hence the subtitle of her book. She defines cringe or awkwardness as “self-consciousness with this undercurrent of uncertainty. You’re really aware of how you’re coming off to the world and then there’s an ambiguity about what to do next.” She then links embarrassment to awkwardness but disentangles them as well: “Embarrassment is a huge part of it, too. But embarrassment is like when you get pantsed in high school. I don’t think we’d call that awkward.”
According to Dahl’s theory of awkwardness, we cringe or feel awkward when “the “you” you think you’re presenting to the world clashes with the way the world is actually seeing you.” Or as she states in an article for The Guardian, “The moments that make us cringe are when we are yanked out of our own perspective, and we can suddenly see ourselves from somebody else’s point of view.” Since cringe depends on the interaction between two “yous” – our self-conception and our self as it is perceived by others – this shows that cringe depends on social and cultural factors. If we never experienced socialisation or being embedded in a culture, could we ever really cringe? I doubt we could.
In addition, when we feel secondhand embarrassment for someone else, we could say this is because they’re trying to present themselves one way but coming off another way. And we can cringe at our former selves because there is a conflict between our old self-conception and our new one. What used to feel ‘cool’ is now unbearably cringe in hindsight. (There’s definitely plenty to cringe at when I look back on my emo phase in the 2000s.)
The reason cringe is so commonplace is that there is, as the Emory University psychologist Philippe Rochat puts it, an “irreconcilable gap” between who you think you are and who the world is seeing. Certain awkward mishaps can then bring this mismatch into focus. When this happens, essentially the ‘front’ we put on gets exposed. Cue feelings of cringe.
In further trying to clarify cringe, I would say it is not quite moral disgust or hatred and not pure mockery – cringe is less harsh than moral disgust and hatred, and not always funny. While cringeworthy moments are colloquially described as ‘painful’, do they belong on the spectrum of emotional pain, along with shame? Often, it does, since embarrassment, which is painful, is its common bedfellow.
I also think we can identify an offshoot of cringe, which I will call meta-cringe: this is when this emotional reaction gets applied to itself. For example, cringe culture – bingeing on cringe content and the way that people talk about this content – can be cringeworthy in its own right.
The Ethics of Cringe
Now I would like to turn to the moral dimension of cringe. Given how popular cringe culture is, evidenced by just how many members belong to those subreddits I mentioned, could there be something harmful about spreading and enjoying online content that depends on the humiliation of others? Google Trends shows that the frequency of searches for ‘cringe’ has been more or less steady since it peaked in 2016. So this pointing and laughing at others doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere soon; still millions of us are benefiting from the strange feeling of enjoyable discomfort we get from looking at people embarrassing themselves – and these people may want such content to disappear forever. The internet won’t allow that, however.
Beatrice Harvey, in an article for The Prindle Post, compares cringe culture to cancel culture:
Cancel culture attempts to uphold morality in online spaces; when someone says or does something racist, sexist, or otherwise problematic, they are publicly shamed and their reputation in the community is blemished. Cringing at someone, on the other hand, just feels like an evolved form of middle-school bullying. But the two practices aren’t completely worlds apart; both attract large audiences, and both involve a spectacle of public humiliation (justified or otherwise). Despite their similarities, cringe culture is cancel culture’s more vulgar twin, the trashy daytime reality show to cancel culture’s CNN.
Some of the most popular cringe content tends to involve people doing cringeworthy things yet not experiencing shame themselves, which the viewer believes they should feel. The first several top posts of all time on r/cringe, for instance, are Trump acting awkwardly in speeches and interviews, without visibly experiencing shame. Another one is a group of white girls singing along enthusiastically to a song containing the n-word, with one black man in the room with them, looking pretty uncomfortable. The subjects of the content are not suddenly realising how they’re being perceived; it is us, the viewer, who realises that.
In his book Humiliation (2011), the cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum argues that:
Humiliation involves a triangle: (1) the victim, (2) the abuser, and (3) the witness. The humiliated person may also behold her own degradation, or imagine someone else, in the future, watching it or hearing about it. The scene’s horror — its energy, its electricity — involves the presence of three.
But if someone in a cringe video is not aware of their own flaws, then perhaps we can laugh at their embarrassment without being cruel. Maybe our laughter is just their comeuppance for their lack of self-awareness, and so in these kinds of instances, this would be morally justified, or righteous cringe. Moreover, it is not clear there is an ‘abuser’ or humiliator in these situations since it is the cringeworthy subject who is humiliating him or herself, not the person filming them. And with the situation being witnessed online instead of in-person, there is a large distance between the viewer and the embarrassing subject. Thus, this may make certain cringe content less morally serious than cases of undeserved humiliation, like real-life bullying.
However, the picture is not so simple. Keep in mind that cringe content can be viewed by millions, can continue to be viewed by millions, and won’t fade in people’s memories like real-life interactions since the video can always be rewatched – and may remain online forever. Online comments, due to the anonymity or pseudo-anonymity of the posters, can also be ruthless and very much experienced as bullying. Whether the individual in the video consents to having the content online or uploads it herself changes the matter; but if they don’t, is it fair that he or she receives all that public shaming and continued embarrassment for an awkward moment or mistake that we are all susceptible to? Most of these moments are (fortunately) not recorded by others. So, it is typically only by a stroke of luck that some people face online humiliation whereas others do not.
Public shaming can be morally justified but Harvey points out when this takes the form of cringe content, some issues arise:
Public shaming reinforces which behaviors (racism, political chauvinism) are socially unacceptable, and reminds us (in more mundane cases) that no one is perfect, and that everyone does embarrassing things. But when it becomes a spectacle, as it often does online, cringe content can be a kind of moral junk food. It allows us to feel a burst of superiority, and demands no reflection in return.
Some standards of cringe can be harsh, encouraging unnecessary judgement and criticism against ourselves and others. While a self-flagellating form of cringe may cause us emotional distress and be undesirable, we might not want to conclude this is immoral per se, unless we deem it so because it makes us less virtuous (a point I’ll expand on later). When we harshly cringe at others, conversely, we may be unfairly damaging a person’s reputation, which, as an inherently social creature, is definitely a kind of harm; and sometimes quite a serious harm. When cringe turns into a character assassination, especially one that someone is not allowed to recover from (like with cancel culture), this becomes a moral problem.
The YouTuber ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn) has made a distinction between compassion cringe and contemptuous cringe in an hour and a half long video essay. She defines the former or “laughing with” as a way to “[laugh] at our shared absurdity, our insecurity, our ridiculous pretenses, [which] make us feel alone.” Indeed, as I pointed out earlier, cringe can elicit empathy: we feel the painful cringe of the embarrassed subject, and we also relate; we know that we’ve either been in a similar situation to them or we’ve been embarrassed as they have. Cringe is universal. We all have the capability of this empathic relation. So compassionate cringe is inevitable and common.
The latter, contemptuous cringe, on the other hand, Wynn defines as “laughing at”. And it is this contemptuous variety that entails moral issues because as Wynn has highlighted, this type disproportionately falls on the group that contempt often falls on: the marginalised. Consequently, contemptuous cringe can be utilised as a weapon for warring social and political ideologies.
If we look at the time when the popularity of cringe compilations videos on YouTube peaked – the mid-2010s – we find that, while compassionate cringe was present, there was a time when the most viral compilations were centred around contempt for feminists and triggered social justice warriors (SJWs). What these compilation videos end up doing is assuaging the egos of the viewers, either because they feel they can’t relate at all to the embarrassed subject since they feel they have no shared identity with them (we can call this outgroup cringe), or they feel what Wynn calls “ingroup cringe”, where you cringe at someone with your shared identity, believing their behaviour paints your ingroup in a negative light.
Here’s an example: cringe videos of vegans in public, of which many exist, can make vegans cringe just as much as anyone else – and perhaps even more strongly because they feel that this will besmirch a movement that is already trying to challenge negative stereotypes surrounding. If vegans were already perceived as weird, pestering, and self-righteous, these videos will only magnify that perception.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that cringe content involving people belonging to justice movements is, for that reason, necessarily unethical and that we should feel guilty for cringing at certain individuals. It all depends on the context. The anti-SJW-type cringe content can, for instance, be antithetical to the legitimate and necessary goals of those on the side of social justice. However, there may be genuinely extreme and absurd opinions about something ‘virtuous’ – and presentations of those opinions – that the individual is unaware of, and so we cringe. Not all outgroup or ingroup cringe is unethical, nor is all cringe content involving people who care about social justice issues a form of punching down (sometimes, it may actually be the opposite).
Undoubtedly, there are examples of cringe content that ‘punches up’ rather than ‘punches down’; and as we have seen, such content remains incredibly popular: the cringe videos of Trump attest to this. Thus, when cringe content punches up, this can be considered morally non-problematic and even a moral good if, like other comedy that punches up, it helps to expose the flaws and façades of the corrupt, the powerful, and the entitled. Unethical cringe, in contrast, is that which targets those with the least power, who are already disrespected and stigmatised, such as those living with a mental illness. There have been many cringe compilation videos of people who are autistic or experiencing some severe form of emotional distress. Other cringe content has focused on poor people. As Harvey writes, “Anything that felt outside of white middle-class neurotypical values was considered embarrassing simply for existing.” She adds: “Framing something as cringey allows us to distance ourselves from it, to disown it, which as the earliest phase of cringe content reveals, has the potential to do more harm than good.”
Another way to think about the moral problems of cringe content is to realise that it is easy and normal to slap the label ‘cringe’ on strangers on the internet. But how often do we do this in real life? Rarely. We will habitually slap the label on people in real life but only in our own heads. People make these sorts of judgements about others all the time, and people are awkward all the time. Yet we don’t go around pointing out to people their awkwardness, laughing at them, sharing in the mockery with others, and making further contemptuous comments.
With the anonymity or pseudo-anonymity that the internet provides, it seems our moral principles fall by the wayside, even though the effect on the embarrassed subject can be damaging, maybe even more damaging due to the sheer volume of viewers and comments involved in cringe content. Like with any other harsh online comment, nevertheless, we do not witness the real-life person who may be harmed by the cringe content that targets them. These people do not represent actual people like us but one-dimensional characters who are a means to an end: their pain is our gain.
In a similar vein, Wynn argues that our penchant for contemptuous cringe lies in the evaluation of our own self-worth by comparing ourselves to others. So long as we don’t reach the harrowing cringe that others experience, we can find comfort in the belief that we’re more normal and acceptable. This kind of cringe boosts our egos, but this depends on the bullying of others, which can cause the targeted subject to internalise shame. The immortality of the cringe content can also make it harder for this person to get over these painful feelings. The vital question then arises: Do the ego boosts of all these strangers justify the unfair level of shame that one individual experiences? We do not need to contemptuously cringe at others to bolster our self-worth. That is not what self-worth should depend on. Hence, we have a targeted individual paying a (potentially heavy) cost for people’s unhealthy conception of themselves and others.
Since cringe content can also punch up, it’s important for individuals to analyse their motives when posting or reacting to such content. Cringe culture can encourage marginalised and vulnerable people to internalise the public notion that they are deviant and embarrassing, and be poised to point and laugh at themselves, but in a contemptuous way. This kind of internalised cringe can be disempowering.
Wynn contends, correctly I think, that contemptuous cringe stems from someone’s fear that they themselves may be perceived in the same way. She refers to this as the “A-Log Theory of Morbid Cringe”: we form obsessive contempt for “people who make us uncomfortable because we see something of ourselves in them.” Herman Hesse captured this kind of psychological projection of fear in his novel Demian: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” So long as we can point the finger at cringeworthy people, we can deflect our attention away from ourselves, from either the parts of ourselves that also make us cringe or from the potential within us (that we all have) to put on a display of awkward behaviour that will torment us.
I previously touched on the idea that cringe could be virtuous, which needs some explaining. By virtuous cringe, I do not necessarily mean the compassionate cringe that Wynn talks about: the cringe that connects rather than divides people. Instead, I mean the way in which cringing at ourselves can make us more virtuous. If you fail to cringe at yourself in those moments where cringe applies (according to Dahl’s definition), then you are lacking self-awareness. By becoming more aware of the gap between how we and others perceive ourselves, we may be able to see certain flaws that we would like to correct. Our self-conception is not always healthy, after all.
Cringing at ourselves can also allow us to develop virtues like self-acceptance, self-compassion, and humility. This is assuming that we appreciate what our reaction of cringing is revealing to us (i.e. normal human imperfections or missteps). Dahl performed for a live edition of the show Mortified, which invites people to read aloud from their childhood journals in front of an audience. She read from her seventh-grade diary. Reflecting on the show, she said that it was an exercise in “process[ing] embarrassment through compassion”. This kind of cringe can be kind and tender. However, If we cringe at ourselves in a more self-castigating way, then this would not develop strength of character. Virtuous cringe should be about finding acceptability and lessons in our awkwardness.
Finally, we can look at cringe, ethically, not just from the perspective of the harm it causes or the virtues or vices it is tied to but also from the point of view of moral or cultural relativism. Contemptuous cringe, that which deserves our moral judgement – our self-shaming or public shaming – varies across time and location. It depends on the specific cultural milieu you find yourself in. Therefore, that which makes us contemptuously cringe at ourselves or others is, a lot of the time, completely arbitrary.
The Animal That Cringes
Do non-human animals ever feel awkward? This is doubtful. Animals may be clumsy from time to time and get themselves into situations that if we were in them, we would feel awkward. As Dahl emphasises, cringe involves self-consciousness, and the kind where we can compare self-perception with other-perception. Moreover, cringe depends on social rules. The available evidence suggests that some primates, such as chimpanzees, have the capacities of self-awareness, theory of mind (allowing them to comprehend the minds of others), and conformity to cultural norms. However, this does not mean that chimpanzees experience cringe.
Humans have emotions relevant to navigating complex social relationships. Feelings like embarrassment, which serve these purposes, depend on having a sufficient degree of self-awareness and understanding of what others think of us. Embarrassment shows to the group that we understand what the social rules are and will avoid breaking them in the future. It is a prosocial feeling, one that ultimately brings us – a highly social species, that has depended on close-knitness for survival – closer together. It is not clear that higher primates like chimpanzees have a consciousness that is developed to a degree sufficient to allow for embarrassment. Embarrassment requires a high level of reflective thought, where one can look back on one’s experiences and understand how they might have affected themselves or others. It is difficult to prove if other animals are capable of this level of thinking. We might feel we can observe embarrassment in non-human animals, but we may be mistaking discomfort or confusion for this, or we might be anthropomorphising them, attributing human emotions to them.
As far as we can tell, the social rules that lead us to cringe in the first place are nothing like the ones that other intelligent and highly social animals live by, and it is questionable whether cringe would be useful to the kind of relationships that chimpanzees or dolphins form with each other. Humans, in contrast to other animals, have more seriously depended on social bonds for survival. Some have called us an ‘ultra-social’ species, as it is extremely important to us to reflect on what we are like as individuals, how others perceive us, and what actions or attributes could lead to us being ostracised. Furthermore, cringe entails a distinct movement of the face and body, which has not been seen in another species. Even if another animal could cringe in some way, it is unlikely to be like how we experience it.
We can say that the human is the animal that cringes. We also experience awkward moments on a regular basis due to the complexity of our social interactions, the many explicit and implicit cultural norms we are expected to follow, and the ever-shifting landscape of these norms. We are bound to ‘slip up’ – how could we not? Cringe is just part of the human condition. We are truly the awkward ape. This is both a blessing and a curse: it may be considered one of the worst things we can experience as an animal that craves approval, yet, it can also be instructive and bring us closer together. Dahl states that compassionate cringing can make “the feeling [of cringe] a little less isolating and is a nice way of connecting with other folks through our mutual human absurdity.”
Absurdity is central to the existential dimension of cringe. To the French existentialist Albert Camus, the absurd lies in our desire for meaning in a meaningless universe. The experienced, perceived gap between the two – this innate desire for something and the unobtainable nature of that something – is the absurd. This unmet desire for meaning can, understandably, create a sense of alienation, dissatisfaction, and even worse, existential depression. But Camus encourages readers to embrace this situation and still live joyfully, by finding worthy and valuable experiences within the absurdity. As I have argued in a previous article on this subject, the structure of absurdity, which involves a tension between our inner reality and the outer reality, is fit for comedy. This is essential to absurd comedy, whereby the comedian will build expectations and then knock them down. Much of comedy depends on contradiction.
Cringe fits the logic of absurdity. Just as the absurd for Camus is the unbridgeable gap between our life and the universe, cringe is also a gap, but one between who we think we are and who others think we are. Equally, just as the meaninglessness and indifference of the universe can make us despair, so too can cringeworthy moments; yet both the absurd and cringe can become comedic. Indeed, this is why cringe comedy is so popular. By confronting our painfully awkward experiences and being self-deprecating about ourselves, we can turn our pain and shame into laughter and empathy. This can then have ripple effects on how others relate to themselves. Creating imaginary cringeworthy scenarios, like on Peep Show or Curb Your Enthusiasm, can also help to bring into focus the ridiculousness of our shared humanity. Elevating cringe to the level of comedy makes awkwardness less serious (it was never serious to begin with).
Dahl states “Most of us build our lives so that we experience as little embarrassment as possible”. But by doing so, we are bound to feel an even worse sting when an embarrassing moment should occur. As we can learn from exposure therapy, the more you face a challenging situation, the less uncomfortable it feels. Moreover, being aversive to cringe and hating it means you will miss out on its benefits. As Dahl writes:
If these moments help us see ourselves from someone else’s point of view, then overly self-conscious people like myself should be grateful for them; in an instant, we’re freed from our own narrow perspective of ourselves. Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes reminds you that there is more than one way to see the world, and there’s also more than one way to see yourself.
Cringe, then, is an emotion that can allow us to better understand the unique human situation of self-perception conflicting with other-perception. The crumbling of our strong sense of who we are, when we feel cringe, can be unsettling, but it is also a reason to point and laugh at ourselves (compassionately, not contemptuously). We should realise and embrace the fact that we are all fools in the end.
Another reason why I think cringe has an existential element is that inauthenticity seems to be commonly involved with it. We cringe when we or someone else puts on a façade and tries really hard to impress others with this image (of being ‘cool’, edgy, macho, smart, profound, etc.). Cringe arises when the persona or front of someone is exposed. The nakedness of inauthenticity does, indeed, invite shaming and laughter. It is no surprise that our most cringeworthy moments are concentrated in our youth, when we are likely to be less secure in who we are and with a strong desire for social approval from one’s peers. This insecurity and impulse to conform don’t disappear in adulthood, but generally, the value of honest self-expression is learned and people become more comfortable with themselves with age; the older we get, the more we learn the price of being inauthentic (cringe is just one downside).
Our need for acceptance from others can compel us to act and present ourselves in ways that are misaligned with our authentic self. We then cringe as we reflect on ourselves in the past because of this mismatch between who we know we are naturally and who we were desperately trying to be.
I suggested earlier cringe is distinctly human because of the level of self-awareness we have. According to the Norwegian philosopher Peter Wessel Zapfe, humans have an overly evolved intellect; we have too much consciousness. Zapffe thinks humans are an evolutionary misstep, and the cost of being aware of so much is that we come to understand the meaninglessness of existence and the disturbing breadth of suffering on the planet. Under his pessimistic worldview, we could say that the ability to cringe is, likewise, a painful level of awareness. “If cringing comes from a shock of self-consciousness, then I think those of us who cringe more than others might have at least a moderate version of social anxiety,” says Dahl. This is probably true. Yet we all fear being judged in social situations, to one degree or another. No one is immune to some level of cringe.
As a species, we have become so self-aware that we are destined to feel ashamed of ourselves, throughout our lives – and there is no way to escape this state. However, as I have also tried to argue, redemption is possible: we can find it in compassionate cringe, self-acceptance, and humour. The awkward ape must also be the ape that says “yes” to cringe and laughs defiantly.