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Annalisa Is Awkward

What are we all so awkward about? Annalisa Dinnella explores this slippery emotion. Can she and a group of comedians outsmart awkwardness - and should they even be trying?

What are we all so awkward about? Annalisa Dinnella explores this slippery emotion. Can she and a group of comedians outsmart awkwardness - and should they even be trying?

Annalisa has 5% vision and regularly navigates the fog of other people’s awkwardness. Research from the disability charity Scope reveals that 67% of British people feel uncomfortable speaking to a disabled person. While Annalisa sees awkwardness as a daily - and sociologically fascinating - annoyance, she knows full well that the drip-drip effect of everyday awkwardness can be devastating.

Annalisa speaks to comedian and theatre-maker Jess Thom who uses her Tourettes as inspiration for her performances. Together, they discuss the best ways to dissect and diffuse the awkwardness people feel about disability. Annalisa also meets Cariad Lloyd whose podcast, Griefcast, drills into the silences surrounding death and grief. Psychiatrist Raj Persaud explores the potential dangers of not voicing our awkwardness and comedian Bethany Black explains why getting our language right can make all the difference.

Shouldering other people’s awkwardness is a fine art and daily habit for many of us, but is it healthy? Is it sustainable? Annalisa discovers what might happen if, rather than trying to run from awkwardness, we decide instead to turn around and embrace it.

Written and presented by Annalisa Dinnella
Produced by Alexandra Quinn
Executive Producer: Jo Rowntree
A Loftus Media production for BBC Radio 4

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Fri 18 Jan 2019 11:00

Transcript

Clip – Theresa may interview with Julie Etchingham 2017

Etchingham

What’s the naughtiest thing you ever did?

May

Oh goodness me, ummm, well, I suppose, gosh, you know I’m not quite sure….

 

Clip – ‘Moonlight’ Award moment 2017

I’m sorry, no, there’s a mistake. Moonlight you won best picture.

This is not a joke, I’m afraid they read the wrong thing…

 

Annalisa Dinnella

Awkward. It's an adjective with two W's. It's our favourite hashtag and emoji. It's arguably overused by millennials.

We all run a mile from awkward and yet we're also strangely drawn to it.

Clip – Fenton the dog 2011

Our most treasured moments in British comedy all have awkward in their DNA.

Clip – David Brent ‘the Office’

I have an exquisite fascination with awkward but also a cold sweat fear of it. My name is Anna Lisa Daniella and I have a degenerative psych condition which has left me with about five percent vision. For those of you who have never been identifiably disabled let me just flag this up for you. Awkwardness becomes a thing in your life that flaps about in the wind around you and gets in your way and in your face and in your hair and it's really irritating. It's a life draining, which is why in this program I'm going to try with the help of some of my favourite comedians to wrestle awkward to the ground. Shove it under a microscope and surgically remove its power over me. And because you're listening, also you.

You're welcome.

My first partner in awkwardness is comedian and actor Jess Thom.

Jess Thom

I have Tourette's syndrome, biscuit which means I have a mix of motor and vocal tics, biscuit my motor tics, biscuit include punching my chest, biscuit which you might be able to hear it's happening now biscuit now and now.

Biscuit, cats, sausage! Biscuit.

Dinnella

Is it okay to laugh at your ticks?

Thom

Yeah of course, I will often give permission actually when I meet people for the first time or during performances. I encourage people to respond naturally. Biscuit. And sometimes that will mean laughing sometimes that will mean wincing, biscuit. Sometimes that will mean ignoring them. Tourette’s in itself isn't funny. Biscuit. But some of the experiences I have as a result of Tourette's can be funny and some of the tics, biscuit, can be funny and surreal. Biscuit, in a way that the conscious part of me can only dream of.

Dinnella

The reason that I want to make this documentary is because I have a degenerative sight condition. Yes it's inconvenient not being able to see. There's definitely a sense of loss, but the worst part by just immeasurably, the hardest hands down part of becoming disabled, is managing other people's emotions.

Thom

There's an amazing quote from a disabled activist called Stella Young in a TED talk she did on inspiration porn, where she says I'm here to tell you that we've been lied to about disability. We've been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing and to live with disability makes you exceptional. It's not a bad thing and it doesn't make you exceptional. She absolutely nails it on the head in terms of where awkwardness sort of stems from and moves in and out of because there was this idea that to have an impairment, to have a body or mind work differently. There is an inherently tragic sad, bad thing. Biscuit. Hedgehog.

Dinnella

Yeah. So I want to ask you about specific instances of awkwardness that you have experienced because of your Tourette’s.

Thom

Hedgehog. Biscuit. Okay. I think that awkwardness is something that we learn rather than something that's instinctive, because children really aren’t awkward in that way at all, so often on buses children who look at me ‘Why is that woman in a wheelchair’, ‘why is she saying biscuit’. Children laughing, children copying my tics - actually toddlers just think I'm doing it purely for their own amusement and respond in a really natural way which is very joyful and will often start a game. But by and large the most awkward moment are adults like them crushing that, and not only crushing that but sending the message that difference is bad. That disability is bad.

Dinnella

I've had personal experience of exactly that. Recently I was walking down the road most pain and I overheard the little girl say to her Mommy why is that lady holding a white stick and the mummy went ‘Shhh’. And that says to the little girl. This is shameful. And at the time I just walked past because I just didn't really feel it was my place to kind of run over and go it's okay. I'll tell you all about my white stick but it just made me feel so sad. Please don't shush your child it’s perfectly okay to ask. I mean, she's never seen a white stick before and she needs to understand what it’s all about.

Thom

Exactly, biscuit if It's okay if we point out a dog or someone in a hat or a bus to children, then of course they're going to be curious if someone is moving about on wheels, like wheels are wicked. Like why are they good on buses and not for people.

Dinnella

Wheels are wicked. And yet the search from disability charity Scope tells us that 67 percent of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to a disabled person. If this research is anything to go by then that means that when I'm out using my white cane more than half the strangers I encounter will find me awkward. Imagine that.

 

Male Voice

Hi, Welcome to the castle, and you’re here to climb today, yup….

Dinnella

I’m at a climbing wall in North London about to be assisted by my friend Red Szell. He’s totally blind.

Red Szell

I think you’re being very brave I know you hate heights and this wall goes up at 90 degrees, it’s steep….

Dinnella

Red is hardcore. He has scaled the Old Man of Hoy, a 137-metre seastack in the middle of the north sea and yet he’s happier up a cliff face than he is walking into a pub with friends.

Szell

I guess I want to avoid awkwardness - the having to explain to other people what I can do and what I can’t do and have them fussing around me.

Dinnella (at wall)

I don’t….shouldn’t someone who can see just check what you’re doing?

Szell (at wall)

I’ve climbed an awful lot of things, and I’m still here…..

Dinnella (at wall)

You’re right, you’re right….

Dinnella

If I could give you an awkwardness zapper or give you a bit of your sight back…? Which would you rather?

Szell

Awkwardness Zapper.

Dinnella

Really? Really, really?

Szell

Yes, to be honest I, my blindness has become so much part of me I think it would rather flip my head to go back to being even partially sighted. And if I could just have an awkwardness zapper that could make people understand more what blindness is about rather than being afraid of their own perceptions of blindness I would be a very happy man.

Szell (at wall)

Ok, you ready? There we go. Just walk down with your feet as if you’re abseiling down.

Dinnella (at wall)

You got quite a lot of my weight then, I’m sorry

Szell (at wall)

You’re very light, so..

Dinnella (at wall)

Ah, wow!

 

Dr Raj Persaud

Hello.

Dinnella

Hi.

Persaud

Hi, Hi I'm Raj. Im Raj Persaud, I'm your psychiatrist for the morning.

Dinnella

Ah just what I need, I’ve been waiting for you all my life.

Persaud

Sorry I thought I’d plunge straight in there with the awkward, the awkward moment right at the beginning because that’s maximum awkwardness when people first meet actually.

Dinnella

Yeah yeah. It is for me because I always have to stick my hand straight out because if you stick your hand out I won't be able to see it and then you're just gonna think that I'm being really rude.

Persaud

Oh Okay. Yeah right, Oh Okay. Yes.

Dinnella

Yeah, I have to get in there first.

Persaud

This is very interesting because there's a sense in which there's a kind of almost a branch of sociology that became devoted to the study of awkwardness which seems a bit weird. How do we understand what the implicit social rules are, that govern our behaviour. They’re so implicit there so almost invisible yet we all obey them either massively powerful that the only way to get at them. Because you couldn't use an MRI brain scanner or a microscope. What's the tool you would use to illuminate the social walls that actually govern our lives.

Dinnella

In the 1970s sociologists began using breaching experiments as a tool to measure awkwardness.

Persaud

You breached the social rule on purpose. So a classic one people would go into the Metro the underground railway tube and there'd be only one person sitting in the carriage. You would go and sit next to that person and if that led to awkwardness or discomfort with the person got off the tube stop immediately you had discovered a social rule. They would often do things like they would violate conversational rules. They would put the word ‘hello’ at the end of a conversation just to see what would happen. So what's interesting is how we seem to almost at an unconscious level, feel out the social rules of any situation and maybe what the whole transition from childhood to adulthood is actually all about, is as a parent you explaining to your kids what the rules are. You do it all the time. What was fascinating about the breaching experiments is the idea that going on at such an unconscious level that we take them for granted.

 

Dinnella

I feel a little bit like the awkwardness that is generated by individuals with disabilities is because we are breaching a social norm and that's why people might respond with discomfort. Would you say that that could be an explanation for why there is such a link between awkwardness and disability.

Persaud

Yes and at a even more profound level, It also leads to strange reactions, people may run away or people may be rude, so I agree with you that people are made to feel uncomfortable. The key question is how do we do that.

If you go back to the famous civil rights moment with Martin Luther King trying to campaign that buses should not be segregated in the south and people critiqued Martin Luther King back in the 60s and said Why do you want to do that black people and white people don't want to sit next to each other it's going to be, they didn’t use exactly this word, awkward. But he argued that he wanted people to get used to it and overcome the awkwardness and when it became a norm then they'd be more comfortable with it.

Dinnella

Yeah I mean I think that links directly to why representation is so important because if all different disabilities were represented more widely then people wouldn't feel so panicked somehow.

Persaud

I agree but we collide with another point with our politically correct moment in history. We want people to engage with this experience. Do we want them to be honest? Do we want, when the first Asian family moves in to some northern town, for the white neighbours to say, it makes us feel awkward, we've never had Asians living in this street before. Isn't it better maybe that they owned up to the awkwardness rather than be silent about it.

Dinnella

I personally completely would prefer anything spoken than unspoken because anything unspoken is tremendously awkward.

 

Clip – Faulty Towers

Basil Fawlty

Listen, don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.

So, it's all forgotten now and let's hear no more about it. So that’s two eggs mayonnaise, a prawn goebbels, a herman goering, and four colditz salads.

Wait a moment, I got a bit confused here.

I got a bit confused 'cause everyone keeps mentioning the war.

So, could you what's the matter?

Guest

It's all right.

Fawlty

Is there something wrong?

Guest

Will you stop talking about the war?

Fawlty

Me? You started it!

Guest

We did not start it.

Fawlty

Yes, you did, you invaded Poland.

 

Dinnella

We have all sat on both ends of the awkwardness seesaw. There are many situations in which I feel lost for words. For example, if somebody close to me is grieving, I worry about saying we're doing the wrong thing to the extent that I'm probably being really awkward.

‘Grief cast’ a podcast by comedian Cariad Lloyd with a huge following, has broken down our British resistance to death chat and created a joyful welcoming space for people to express loss.

Dinnella

Cariad is familiar with the silences around death. Her father died when she was fifteen.

Cariad Lloyd

People don't know what to say a lot of time and I know I'm a big believer in giving it a try. Like I you know I don't mind the people who even you know awkwardly said ‘well you know he would have hated to been ill for a long time’ because he was diagnosed in February and dead by the April. And even though inwardly I think well I wouldn't have minded an extra month. Outwardly it's like I'd rather you try to say something. Yeah. I also think people are very bad at being wrong. We're very bad at saying I didn't know that. And I think I said something it was bit inappropriate I’m really sorry.

Dinnella

Or they just go home and carry it for decades. Yeah. I remember my mom still talking about the time when she accidentally asked somebody where their baby was and the person had had a miscarriage. She still talks about it like 30 years later.

Lloyd

We talk about this a lot on the show that the worst thing has happened. They've lost someone, someone's died. So you accidently saying well you know ‘Where's your baby’ or ‘what are you doing for Father's Day’. That's not the worst thing that's happened to that happened. Yeah. So you're thinking oh no how embarrassing. Like you really think that's what I'm worried about. Like that's not what I'm worried about. My dad's dead.

Dinnella

How do you diffuse it? What's in your awkwardness busting toolkit?

Lloyd

I'll just let say what's happened. I remember being in university and being like, so you know we've been really flirting and then it seemed like we were gonna kiss but we didn't kiss. So I just want to talk about it. Oh you know like we had a row and then you avoided it and it feels like all day we've talked about everything but the row and actually perhaps we're not being very good friends at the moment. Like I'm just like call it. Because we're all working so hard to avoid the thing we're talking about. And I find that tiring. That's what I've had to learn the hard way some people want the awkwardness to continue. Because they would rather be awkward than change or apologise. But just say sorry, start from sorry. It’s so much easier.

 

Bethany Black

This promoter who I've never met before at a gig and came up to me and rather than saying ‘what pronouns do you prefer’ went ‘Hello Bethany, just so this doesn't get awkward, are you a he, a she or an it’.

Dinnella

Bethany Black is one of my favourite comedians. She's also transgender.

Black

Yh ‘It’. And I went What. And he repeated himself like he hadn't done anything wrong and I went, ‘why on earth would you ask that?’. He went, ‘I was desperately trying to be nice. And I think you should be nice to me because of that, because I was only trying’ and I was like yeah but you failed really spectacularly. That was never an appropriate thing to ask anybody if you want to ask somebody, you say ‘what pronouns do you prefer’. You don't do that. And I was I like, I'm not talking to you. I'm not having this. And I just left him to stew with his own awkwardness over this. His own disappointment over this and then over the next three or four days I received a Facebook message and then I received an email. And then he somehow got hold of my phone and because I got a text message off him each time demanding that I should actually hear him out about how he is really a genuinely nice person and he didn't want to upset me.

Dinnella

The only thing I worry about with the language stuff is that it would create maybe longer silences, because people are too scared to speak because they might say the wrong thing. And it's the sense of you're allowed to make mistakes. That's how you learn.

Black

Yeah absolutely. That's yeah. And that is the thing that I've been very very key sort of saying is that you know you can make jokes about things.

Dinnella

I think it's very true. And it's interesting I think the low level awkwardness so much of that I think comes from people desperately trying to appear considerate.

Black

Yeah.

Dinnella

It's like Basil Fawlty, don’t mention the war, don’t mention the war.

Black

Yeah, Absolutely.

Dinnella

Don't look inconsiderate, Don't look inconsiderate, Don't look inconsiderate and then something terrible comes out your mouth because you're trying so hard.

Black

Trying so hard and you just go, Yeah. Yeah. Or like people will come up to me after a gig and go ‘so you were born a man then?’ or ‘we've been to Thailand you know’ and that is often done entirely devoid of context. I always, well to the ‘born a man’ thing I always say no I was born a baby. No one was born a man.

Dinnella

But those are forgivable aren’t they, like those, they're trying.

Black

They're trying.

Dinnella

And it's not ideal. But you know…

Black

It's not ideal but it is people really trying their best. And with things like that, It depends on the sort of mood I'm in because the other thing is that whilst that may be the one and only time that they've ever done that. The one and only time that they've ever found themselves in that situation where they’ve gone and done that and they expect you to be ultra-forgiving to it, that is not the first time that I've been on the receiving end of that. For me it might not be the first time even that day, that somebody has said that to me. Some days I'm just tired and some days I've just got to fight the battles that I can. Some days I pick too many battles and I have to put some back.

Dinnella

Bethany makes a good point. Shouldering other people's discomfort for them is a fine art. But is it healthy? Is it sustainable? What would happen if those of us on the awkward front line those of us tap dancing through pain just decided one day to stop.

Clip – Hannah Gadsby ‘Nanette’

To the men in the room who feel I may have been persecuting them - well spotted.

Dinnella

Australian stand up Hannah Gatsby used comedy to diffuse tension around her sexuality until she decided one day to stop.

Clip – Hannah Gadsby ‘Nanette’ “

I’ve built a career out of self-deprecating humour. That's what I've built my career on and I don't want to do that anymore, because do you understand [applause] do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins. It's not humility. It's humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak in order to seek permission to speak and I simply will not do that anymore not to myself or anybody who identifies as me.

Dinnella

Hannah's small one woman show ‘Nanette’ was picked up as a Netflix special. Her stunning electric confrontation of awkwardness has made her one of the most famous people in the world.

Clip – Hannah Gadsby ‘Nanette’

And this tension it's yours. I am not helping you anymore. You need to learn what this feels like because this, this tension is what not normals carry inside of them, all of the time because it is dangerous to be different.

 

Dinnella

With the idea of giving someone back their awkwardness. I'm trying to think of an occasion where I might have done that and it's had a sort of surprisingly powerful result that I wasn't expecting. So for example sometimes when I'm holding my white cane and I'm standing at a pedestrian crossing. Sometimes people just grab me and just manhandle me. They don't ask me first and I, for a long time just allowed people to do that to me because I felt, even though they were violating my own space, I felt that they were doing, they were trying, and I felt a sort of need to look after them and I felt that if I questioned them I would upset them. And one day I just decided that it's not my job to look after how these people feel and that they are violating my personal space and that they should ask first. And so a man just grabbed me and I just stopped. I didn't move and I looked to him and I said ‘please ask me before touching me’. And he just ran. He just ran like a million miles per hour in the opposite direction and it felt like there was something a bit bigger at play. It felt like, he was sort of handing me this ball of fire and I was kind of lobbing it right back at him. Does that make sense from a professional psychological point of view?

Persaud

Well it depends on your goal. If your goal was to get him to stop doing what he was doing, you achieved your goal, however he ran away. I get the feeling, with the fact that we're having the conversation suggests you didn't want him to run away, you just wanted him to stop doing what he was doing, so I would argue there's a script here and we could work on the script and the script was the language that you used. You could have said something, you could have apologized, English are always apologizing, of course, you could’ve  apologised and said ‘I'm really sorry about this, but I know you're doing your best to be helpful but it can be a bit tricky when people just you know hold me without checking with me. It's a bit unnerving.’ So there's a kind of way of looking after him as well as looking after yourself. It's up to you. There's extra what we call emotional labour involved in this constant attempt to look after other people and that's kind of going back to the strain you discussed of being who you are and having to deal with people's reaction.

Dinnella

Yeah, I mean that relates really beautifully to this leaning into the awkwardness leaning into the cringe relates into this idea of tolerating your own vulnerability if you can stand to be seen to be imperfect, that gives you power.

Persaud

Yes, but it also I would argue is even deeper than that. We spend a lot of time in pubs, in middle class dinner parties declaiming like we're experts on Brexit or whatever, and the more awkward but truly intellectual respectable thing is to own up to our ignorance and say I don't get it. Explain it to me. I've never understood this. But who ever does that? When have you ever opened a newspaper with an editorial from a national newspaper where the editorials says we don't understand this. Can someone explain it to us. No. Everyone always has to know everything all the time.

Dinnella

So in some senses your prescription for the cure for awkwardness is embracing your limitations.

Persaud

Yes. Socrates at the famous trial where he's tried for impiety and arrogance said I don't think I know anything. But that's what makes him the wisest man in Greece. He knows when he doesn't know.

 

Dinnella

I came into this project looking for ways to dismantle awkwardness. I wanted to make it go away so I could swan around awkward free like a normal person. But if those of us living through experiences that others find too frightening to talk about continue to see it as our job to protect them. If we oddities continue to make ourselves smaller, funnier and more agreeable in order to be allowed to engage, what message are we sending others and ourselves?

Jess Thom with her arts company ‘Tourette's Hero’, Cariad Lloyd with ‘GriefCast’, Bethany Black and Hannah Gatsby, have reached millions across the world by finding humour and meaning in our social silences. Speaking their awkwardness has released the seeds of the most high-speed high voltage human connection imaginable. And these moments of connection are vital for all of us because it can sometimes get dark out there.

Jess Thom.

Thom

I had an experience on a bus recently biscuit, that wasn't about my tics at all when it was about the fact that I was a wheelchair user and that was different because it was a direct hate crime. It was absolutely not about awkwardness. And there was 10 minutes of the most horrendous abuse, the least personal being that I smelt of shit, because I was disabled and couldn't wipe my bum which I actually also can do, biscuit. I mean, I'm not saying it's always like totally un-mess free but it’s generally alright. Biscuit cats sausage. And one of the things that I think I found most difficult about that it wasn't the actual experience of it itself. She got off, she threw some stuff at me, whatever, but then afterwards there was this, there was this massive silence. Nobody else on the bus acknowledged what had happened and it's like, I felt like I was just like absolutely thrown, as someone who is used to advocating for them self. Who says you know you can always create change. What I did in that situation was not adjust the situation, but was totally adjust to it.

Dinnella

Well you couldn’t really if someone’s shouting at you and throwing bottles at you.

Thom

Yeah exactly. Exactly. But there is also that risk that you get good at adapting to rubbish.

And that was absolute rubbish. And ofcourse it was natural escape that I would internalize that, that I would feel shame, that I would take on board other people's responses and feel like I would, do probably what lots of other people are on the bus was. Was this like OK. She probably didn't mean it was probably not that bad. It was probably like she was having a bad day, I'll just get over it is just words. All of that. All of that just eats, and actually what I needed someone to say was, that was horrible, are you okay?

Dinnella

Yeah. It sounds to me like what was eating was the silence.

Thom

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dinnella

Nobody knowing what to say.

Thom

But that that is where awkwardness is at its most damaging. That is the awkwardness that will clutter up our minds. Clutter up us as a society. Do damage. It's not that shit things happen. It's not that people have horrible experiences, it's not that people are dealing with bodies that work differently and that sometimes that can be hard and painful and difficult. The awkwardness, the silence, the lack of solidarity, the lack of humanity, the lack of empathy, those are the things that are ultimately destructive.

I used to think that change was sort of a long drawn out messy difficult process. Actually, one of the things that I've learned through ‘Tourette’s Hero’ biscuit, is that it can happen very quickly and it often starts with a shared laugh, a question or conversation. And I think those are the things that we need to get better, keep looking to make positive changes in our own and in other people's lives. Sausage!

 

Broadcast