I write to you today to bring an apparently harmless, social quirk to light. I want to look at the word “awkward” and all the meanings and uses it has come to bear amongst Americans in my generation. I do this because, in spite of this word’s apparent harmlessness, a closer examination of its use reveals a disconcerting habit we are all developing in how we confront confusion and discomfort. But before I get ahead of myself, I’d better clarify exactly what use of this word I’m talking about.
Picture yourself in the cafeteria on any given weekday. Let’s say its the lunch rush, and you’ve somehow wound up trying to get to the checkout with your burrito during that ten minute window when the entire population of Gustavus hits the checkout lines as well. While you squeeze your way through the shapeless mass of a line towards the lunch lady that is least likely to overcharge you, you run into a friend. Let’s call her Brenda, since no one in our generation has that name.
You and Brenda exchange niceties, and before long you mutually realize you aren’t moving anywhere fast, so Brenda decides to give you the low-down on her yesterday evening. “Well, we went to the bar,” she says “And we met up with some friends. It was fun but then people started talking about politics.”
“Oh, buzzkill,” you respond, careful not to lose your place in line to your absorbing conversation, “What were they talking about?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It was super awkward.” And that’s where she lets her story end.
It is this use of the word that has always made me uneasy, a use, I am sure, many of you have heard many times before. The word “awkward” is being employed to avoid being concerned, to avoid understanding an unconventional idea or participating in an unusual activity. What ought to be a term used to describe unreasonable or uncooperative behavior has now become a quick means of adopting close-mindedness validated by a lazy conformity.
Now, I don’t mean to knock the urge to conform. Conformity is natural. It’s a well meaning, albeit sometimes harmful extension of the desire to identify with people around us, but if ever there was an era during which people should be getting comfortable with the idea of being a little weird, it’s now.
If you buy into social darwinism, then you might say a society’s environment dictates which social traits are best suited to adapt. That being said, it seems as if we live in an era of environmental change, in more than one sense. It’s safe to say most Americans would know what you were talking about if you mentioned environmental change or degradation. Even more might react if you mention a changing economy or job market. Social conventions are going to have to change to meet a changing environment, and that’s not really news.
The Gustavus community has a number organizations dedicated to addressing social, environmental, and professional change. Hell, we even have an Environmental Studies department outfitting students with the knowledge and preparation needed to join a mounting public effort to confront environmental issues. But all the knowledge and professional intent in the world can’t trump an instinctual, adverse reaction to change.
No one can predict what the next, crucial, progressive invention will be, but it won’t be coming out of more of the same. It would be a shame to miss out on an opportunity to contribute to that kind of progress, but if you’re playing it safe, let’s face it: the leap of faith can be an awkward move.