Melissa Dahl ’07 (Journalism) didn’t necessarily go into journalism to break out of her childhood shyness, but when she’s working on stories such as what it’s like spending a week talking with strangers on the New York City subway – well, it certainly can’t hurt.
“I was a really shy kid,” Dahl said. “I recently read an essay about how having to go up and talk to people could make a difference. I read that and was like, I would love to be able to do that, because I was such a shy kid.”
Mission accomplished. Today, Dahl is the senior health and science editor at The Cut, a New York magazine section that focuses on human behavior and psychology. She’s also the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, which explores moments just like those that occur when a stranger approaches you on the subway. The book was published in February 2018, and Dahl returned to Sacramento State in the fall to speak about it.
Prior to working at New York, Dahl was a health writer and editor with MSNBC. She also worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Lodi News-Sentinel while attending Sacramento State, and was a member of the State Hornet student newspaper staff.
“At the Sacramento Bee, another writer gave me some advice: Find your niche. Find something you do better than anyone else,” Dahl said, adding that her focus at both The State Hornet and the Bee was feature writing. “I always was drawn toward stories about behavior, about why people do the things they do.”
When she became interested the concept of awkwardness, however, she was surprised to discover that very little research had actually been done on the topic.
“What I’ve always loved about this job is this idea that most questions I have about human behavior, I can just look in the literature and find stacks of papers on it,” Dahl said. “But these questions about, why do these things make me cringe, why does this make me feel awkward, what does that mean, what does that say about me, what does it say about other people and how other people are perceiving me – I could find satisfying answers to those.”
Dahl spent two years researching for the book, including meeting with neuroscientists in Germany. The “theory of awkwardness” referenced in the title, Dahl says, is that so-called awkward moments “illuminate the fact that there’s a difference between the way you think you’re presenting yourself to the world and the way other people are actually seeing you.”
Although it’s not unusual to hear someone – particularly a teenager or young adult – self-effacingly refer to themselves as “awkward,” Dahl’s book focuses on awkwardness not as a characteristic but instead as a feeling.
Consider Michael Scott, the bumbling boss on The Office portrayed by Steve Carell. Despite his constant inappropriate comments or actions, Dahl says, Scott never feels weird or self-conscious about what he has said or done. The awkwardness is how those words and actions make the people around him feel.
“I think we use the word as a stand-in for self-consciousness or social anxiety,” Dahl said. “I feel awkward all the time, but I don’t think I’m a particularly awkward person. I hope not.”
After moving frequently as a child, Dahl’s family settled in Sacramento when she was in high school. When it came time to apply for college, she chose Sacramento State in part because she wanted to remain in the area and in part because of the strength of its journalism program.
Joining The State Hornet her freshman year, she says, “changed everything for me.” It allowed her to put into practice all of the concepts she was learning in the classroom. It provided a collaborative environment in which she could grow and gain new skills. And it’s where she met people she still considers some of her closest friends.
The State Hornet, combined with her work at the Bee and the News-Sentinel, also provided her with the practical experience needed to succeed as a professional journalist.
“When I graduated, I already felt like, ‘I know how to do this,’ ” Dahl said. “I was 22 and I had worked in two newsrooms at that point. Right out of the gate, I felt like, ‘Oh, I got this.’”
For Sacramento State students aspiring to be journalists, joining The State Hornet is “mandatory,” Dahl said, and a way to not only learn about what you want to do but to actually start doing it.
“This is the place to make mistakes and try different things and hopefully, by the time you’ve graduated, you’ll have some experience under your belt.”