Some people are empathetic oofers, and some people are intrinsic oofers. (“Oof” as in the sound one makes when told a story about someone’s unintentional, but unfortunate gaffe.) Empathetic oofers, like myself, only experience awkwardness if they think someone else around them might be feeling awkward. Intrinsic oofers can feel awkward, or cringe, or other related things, even if they know for sure nobody else around them feels that way.
Empathetic oofers do this thing that drives intrinsic oofers crazy. The way we deal with awkward situations is creating common knowledge about how we feel about the awkwardness inducing situation, and asking others to do the same. An overly simplified model of this explains why that strategy makes sense if everybody in the room is an empathetic oofer.
If Alice and Bob are the only ones in the room, and they are both empathetic oofers, and they both know that the other is an empathetic oofer, but they do not know that they both know, then they will both feel awkward.
Alice will know that Bob will only feel awkward if he does not know that Alice does not feel awkward, but she does not know if Bob knows that Alice is also an empathetic oofer, so she does not know that Bob does not feel awkward, and so she in fact feels awkward. The same argument switching “Alice” and “Bob” shows that Bob feels awkward.
Now suppose that Alice and Bob are the only ones in the room, they both know that the other is an empathetic oofer, and they both know that they both know. Like before, Alice knows that Bob will only feel awkward if he does not know that Alice does not feel awkward, but she also knows that Bob knows that Alice will not feel awkward unless she does not know that Bob does not feel awkward, so she doesn’t have to worry about Bob worrying that she might feel awkward for some other reason, but since they don’t have common knowledge, she doesn’t know if Bob knows that he doesn’t have to worry about that! This means she doesn’t know that Bob doesn’t feel awkward, and so she feels awkward.
This reasoning gets hard to write about in English, but I promise the recursion goes all the way up the chain if they have common knowledge, and ends up bottoming out in neither of them feeling awkward, and both of them knowing that neither of them feel awkward, and knowing that they know, etc.
This is why empathetic oofers are tempted to say things like:
“Oh hey, you know, I’m worried you might feel awkward about the thing. I don’t feel awkward about it exactly, except insofar as I am worried that you feel awkward about it.”
If their interlocutor is also an empathetic oofer, they will probably reply something like:
“Oh thank god! I was worried that you felt awkward about the thing! I don’t feel awkward about the thing… that is… unless you actually secretly do…”
In real life, this doesn’t actually go all the way through to establishing all of the infinite steps of recursion required for common knowledge, but that’s probably fine, because I can barely keep three levels straight in my head, and I can’t write well about more than one.
I swear to you, dear intrinsically oofing reader, that among my fellow empathetic oofers, this trick actually works. We actually get to just stop feeling awkward after assuring each other that we are both empathetic oofers and that we both know that we both are. In fact, as empathetic oofer friends become more confident in their common knowledge that they are both empathetic oofers, the verbal exchanges become less and less important, and they get more and more comfy doing or saying absurdly awkwardness-inducing things in front of each other.
Now, I imagine, although I cannot know for sure, that this seems totally insane to intrinsic oofers. My instrinsic oofer friends do not feel awkward because they are worried that I might feel awkward, they feel awkward because of that extremely awkward thing I just said!
How could me saying:
“Hey, I’m worried that you might feel awkward about this awkward thing I just said.”
Possibly help in this situation? Why would I call attention to it? Why wouldn’t I just let it slowly fade from our memories like a sane person?
Well, this is why, because creating common knowledge really does get rid of awkwardness if your interlocuter is also an empathetic oofer, and empathetic oofers exist. We also tend to disproportionately hangout with each other, because it means we get to use this one crazy trick to bypass 90% of the discomfort of hanging out.
Before I had this model, I didn’t really understand why this trick sometimes completely backfires. So I hope that my empathetic oofer friends will get some understanding out of it as well. This is why some people conclude you must be insane when you try to make common knowledge about how everyone feels about the awkwardness-inducing thing that just happened.
And of course, instrinsic oofers can seem insane to empathetic oofers as well. Think of the annoyance you might experience watching an episode of Seinfeld or some other sitcom, in which a whole unfortunate kerfuffle could have been completely avoided if only one person had managed the courage to talk openly about the thing. Now imagine that one of the characters was about to get the braves to shout out that the emperor has no clothes, but another character stopped them, or worse, covered their ears and started shouting “lalalala”. That’s what intrinsic oofers seem like to empathetic oofers ALL THE TIME.
But remember, my fellow empathetic oofers, the reason your intrinsically oofing friend is covering their ears is not that they are cowards or that they love feeling awkward, it’s that our one crazy trick genuinely does not work for them. In fact, it makes them feel even more awkward. Their best strategy for dealing with awkwardness is (I think) trying to not pay it too much attention, and by trying to create common knowledge, you are making that impossible.
I’m not sure how real this taxonomy is, and of course everybody is a bit of each, but I can definitely tell which of my close friends is which, or at least it seems like I can. Maybe a more fine grained way of talking about things would have different people experiencing empathetic vs intrinsic oof about different things, or in different circumstances.
I don’t have any good advice for how to bridge the gap yet, but realizing that there is a gap, and that some people really are on the other side of it, is usually a good first step. Making common knowledge about which side of the gap you are on might be a good move too… at least if you’re an empathetic oofer, that is.