On paper, there’s no reason The Office should be one of the most beloved situational comedies of all time. It’s a remake of a British show. It’s about, essentially, a cubical farm in smalltown PA. And it’s suuuuuuuuper awkward. Too awkward for some, but not for most of us, apparently, because it ran for 201 episodes over 9 seasons and won almost 30 awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes. And despite having been off the air for almost six years, it remains popular on streaming services and is enjoying an unexpected popularity among high school students.
The Office thrives on awkwardness – and no one is more awkward than Michael Scott, the regional manager played by Steve Carrell. In one of our first interactions with Michael, we learn how highly he thinks of himself – he is the World’s Best Boss, and he proved it by buying himself his own mug.
This scene is cringeworthy. We see it and immediately feel awkward.
Of course, Michael isn’t the only awkward character in the show. In fact, it seems like most of DunderMifflin’s employees are pretty clueless how they come off in the real world. Only a few – Stanley, Pam and Jim – are self-aware enough to turn to camera and give us that knowing look, letting us cringe along with them.
We love to laugh along with Pam and Jim in part because we want to be in on the joke. But I think a big part of the reason the show is so popular is that low-key anxiety we feel that maybe we’re NOT Stanley or Jim. Maybe we’re Angela or Dwight or Michael.
Maybe we’re the person who doesn’t know how they come across to others. And maybe we need to laugh about it a little.
We don’t, as a rule, like awkward situations in real life.
It’s not knowing what to say to someone when their loved one has just died. Or running into an ex at the store. Or really wanting to become friends with that co-worker but not wanting to risk asking them to grab a drink after work.
Awkwardness is what happens when we see ourselves through someone else’s eyes, the moment we realize there’s a gap between how we see ourselves in our head and how that person experiences us. We think we’re the world’s best boss, but everyone else experiences us as an inept idiot.
Now a question: why were we designed to feel awkward? Why is that an available emotional response to a situation? Since when we feel awkward, our first impulse is to deflect, dismiss or hide, why do we even feel it at all?
Awkwardness is a gift.
If we’re willing to stay in the awkward, we can learn to see hidden truths about ourselves – hidden from us, of course. Because while we are all masters of self-deception, we can’t hide the truth from others, or from God.