Awkward moments are plentiful in everyday life: saying 'you too' to the waiter who's just told you to enjoy your meal, sitting in strained silence with a new acquaintance, the echoing abyss that opens after somebody (you) tells a weird joke. Awkwardness isn't the same as embarrassment, guilt, or other negative social emotions, but it's a very common experience, and it happens to virtually all of us. So what makes an awkward moment truly, excruciatingly awkward, and why does it feel so horrible to go through it — especially when you look back on it hours or even years later?
The word "awkward" itself has a strange history; it originally meant "back-handed" or "back-to-front" in Old Norse, but has been used for people who were physically clumsy in English since the 1500s. The feeling itself is likely extremely ancient. While awkwardness can produce a lot of humor — an entire genre of films and TV shows plays on our empathy and pain when seeing awkward moments onscreen — it's also a complex social emotion with a lot going on under the surface. If you experience awkward moments a lot, or just want insight into why you hate stretched-out silences so much, read on; it's not just you.