September 18, 2021

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What Makes You Cringe?

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

What makes you cringe? An awkward conversation? A dad joke? Shameless self-promotion on social media? A trashy TV show? A Boomer trying to be young and hip? An old photo of yourself wearing an outdated fashion?

Why does cringe seem to be everywhere these days? Why is cringe — the embarrassment, the ick, the horror — often fun, even pleasurable?

In “That’s So Cringe!”, Alex Williams writes:

Well, that was awkward. A few weeks ago, a relationship guru named Derrick Jaxn attracted millions of views with an Instagram video — now deleted — detailing numerous relationships with women other than his wife. “All of it,” he said in the video, “falls under the umbrella of inappropriate, cheating, affairs, stepping out.” Meanwhile, his wife, Da’Naia Jackson, sat beside him in support.

In the flurry of chatter that followed, the Twitter jury found Mr. Jaxn guilty of cringe in the first degree, a combination outrage and ick. “Derrick Jaxn’s reaction video to his confession is a wonderful mixture of cringe, shock and utter hilarity,” tweeted one user.

Mr. Jaxn finds himself in good company of late. New York Magazine has found cringe in the New York mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s call to increase funding for the city police department’s Asian Hate Crime Task Force. Slate has cringed at the European Instagram influencers who painted New York as a playland at the height of the pandemic. Royalists on Twitter, meanwhile, have invoked Piers Morgan’s sneering term for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — “Ginge and Cringe” — following their Oprah interview.

A forum devoted to cringe content has millions of followers on Reddit. Headline writers from the traditional news media toss the word around with abandon.

Cringe is a verb, adjective and noun (as in the viral meme “Bro! You Just Posted Cringe!”). It is everywhere.

And no wonder. As Merriam-Webster defines it, to cringe means either to recoil in fear or to show embarrassment or disgust — all appropriate responses, perhaps, with both sides in the country’s political and cultural divide regarding each other with increasing horror, shameless self-promotion on social media running at peak levels, and swaths of the population continuously redefining “appropriate” as part of a larger reappraisal of our cultural past.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • What makes you cringe? Share a memorable moment or experience of when you felt embarrassment, disgust or awkwardness. Use vivid language and details to make the reader truly experience your cringe.

  • Have you ever said or done something that made others cringe? How did it make you feel?

  • How would you define “cringe” for someone who has never used the word, particularly in its current cultural context? What examples described by Mr. Williams do you find most cringey and why? Are there any aspects of this feeling you think the author missed?

  • Mr. Williams writes that the use of the term has exploded in recent years. What do you think explains the popularity of cringe? What does it say about our current cultural moment?

  • The article concludes:

But maybe the spread of “cringe” in 21st-century America is not a sign of a culture in a death spiral, but something more healing. In recent weeks, the news media has invoked the term to describe the exploitation of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan two decades ago, as well as the fat-shaming jokes on “Friends” and transphobic wisecracks on “Sex and the City.”

As “cringe” implies, we may recoil at the uglier parts of our past. But as it also implies, at least we recognize them as such.

Do you agree? Do you think the rise of cringe is a sign of social decline or possibly social healing — a growing recognition of the uglier parts of our past? Is cringe a good thing?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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