Cringe Culture

Published: April 19th, 2019
Last modified: February 24th, 2021

We are social animals. We rely on norms set by others to know how to behave. Shame actually serves a vital role in keeping us within the boundaries of acceptable so that we are not made outcasts. After all, in previous eras, outcasts were likely to die. Exile was a fate equal to death. It is understandable that we wish to avoid any behaviors that might mark us as socially unacceptable, and we rely heavily on demonstration from others to do this.

Cringe is the consumption of other people’s embarrassment, or, what we think they should be embarrassed of. It doesn’t matter if the victim is actually ashamed of their action; in fact, many cringe is considered better if the victim is unaware or unconcerned of social judgement. Cringe is passing judgement on other people’s actions based on our own standards, without any context for their reasons. We simply see someone “doing something weird” and immediately mock them in an effort to force them to change.

I used to be addicted to cringe content. I actively sought out places like Encyclopedia Dramatica and r/Cringetopia, places on the internet that are full of bigotry and hate speech. It made me feel better about myself to consume a freakshow gallery of weirdos.

Calling someone, or something they do, “cringey” is a form of bullying. It’s de-humanizing. It makes tremendous assumptions about the victim based on a single habit, hobby, image, or statement. It gradually causes us see these people as crucially different, or less valuable, than ourselves. And it can dramatically increase your own shame and self-loathing. For example, if you look at furry cringe, you might just be a closeted furry trying to give yourself reasons to avoid that part of yourself.

Online and in reality TV, the angle is always “spreading awareness” of a mental health issue. That’s not why we watch it. We watch it to go, “Oh my good, look at that weird, crazy stuff. I’m so glad I’m better than that.”

Cringe makes judgements on someone’s entire character based on individual actions. This narrative has affected anyone within ANY kind of minority group. The “cringey” behavior is framed as choice… the wrong choice. The narrative can often be boiled down to: “These people are bad because they CHOOSE to be like this. Why can’t they just CHOOSE the right thing, which is to stop being like this? They must have no self control, poor morals, or a mental health disorder. They must just be bad, wrong people.”

Consider instead: “That one behavior that this other person did just challenged my personal morals or concept of how society should work.” It doesn’t mean you suddenly have to tolerate behaviors that upset you. You can still make the choice to avoid that person, or ask them not to do a particular thing around you. It’s the mental framing of judging a whole person based on an action that you don’t like.

If you catch yourself saying “yikes,” to something, take a moment to re-evaluate. Many times our “yikes” reaction is purely knee-jerk. It comes out before our thoughts have even caught up with us because it has been programmed into us by a society that rejects differences. It can take a lot of time and dedication to build in a mental stop sign to pause and evaluate that reaction.

One of the more meaningful pieces of media I’ve encountered on this topic is Brené Brown’s “The power of vulnerability” TED Talk:

And also check out this VSauce video on The Science of Awkwardness, which talks about “Protagonist Syndrome”, something that affects many of us that consume cringe content:


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