As a writer I am well acquainted with the full body cringe. That little voice in your head that squeals "no no no no no" while the rest of your body seizes up or lurches into a fluid rendition of the worm. There is simply no escaping it, after all is there anything more cringeworthy than sharing your mediocre opinions and thoughts with strangers on the internet? Carrie Bradshaw slander exists for a reason.
Just as there's no escaping the memory of that one time you sang a cover of Maroon 5 She Will Be Loved during school assembly or another where you were caught by your hot older family friend using the table water to wash your hands at dinner because you didn't know where the toilet was, the experience of being cringed-out on TikTok is unavoidable.
Cringe humour holds currency on the platform and it's growing more and more popular, whether that's through the beloved Chicken Shop Date interviews with Amelia Dimoldenberg or the videos from Veronika Slowikowska AKA @veronika_iscool. After an age of polished clean girls and aloof cool girls, we're ready to embrace life's clumsy and embarrassing moments, even if it makes us grind our teeth.
But it's more nuanced than that. This trend on the internet is not simply another repeat of the earnest 2010s humour, like epic fail memes or awkward turtles and finger moustaches. It's steeped in so many layers of irony, and it's much more self-conscious – are we greenlighting being cringe or poking fun at it? It's anyone's guess.
For this reason, the rise of deliberately embarrassing and ultimately shameless content on TikTok has been dubbed meta-cringe – because we know how much TikTok loves to slap random labels on niche trends. Everything is soaked in absurdity which really speaks to our time, and like the masochists we are, we sit through the videos commenting things like "that was excruciating, thank you!"
Because of this, I think our definition of cringe is changing too. Although it's a subjective term, we're more willing to accept older examples of what it means to be cringe, say the millennial pause or Julia Fox's candid tour of her very normal, no-frills New York City apartment. We're willing to wear these endearing examples of socially awkwardness and faux pas as a badge of honour, as a way of going against the pressure to be glossy and self-serious. Being vulnerable and earnest and engaged and willing to put yourself on the line is good, it's relatable, it's fun.
But since cringe simply means how out of touch you are, I would argue there's a new wave of social crimes to fill that void. For example, ever since Portia happened in The White Lotus, the spotlight is on cringey Gen Z body language and habits for once. After being terrorised by the word cheugy for two years, millennials can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Here's a list of things I have found cringe on the internet recently: the joyless nit-picking and overanalysis of fashion trends (guilty), people who comment "it's not giving", armchair experts, anything with my name in the byline. Maybe one day I will be both cringe and free.