Last week I found myself in A Bit of a Situation. I’d gone to my local deli and picked up some bread (with tongs, calm down), but halfway through putting the loaf in the bag I remembered I’d actually already bought bread that morning. Rather than putting the bread back and calmly leaving the shop, I panicked, went into a paroxysm of guilt and bought a tub of houmous and a coffee I didn’t want. The combined cost of these was about double the loaf, but at the time it still seemed a reasonable price to pay to avoid any potential awkwardness. I couldn’t have the deli lady thinking I was a… a… bread-ditherer. You understand.
And you DO understand, that’s the wonderful thing. Twitter has confirmed it for me, in a thread of confessions that’s been trundling on since last Tuesday. It’s all quite lovely. Ridiculous, yes, but lovely.
I asked “What’s the biggest/most ridiculous thing you’ve ever bought purely out of awkwardness?”, and 90-plus replies have assured me I’m not alone in my guilt-houmous. Nor in the £100 dress I once bought at a pop-up sale because I was the only person there and I couldn’t think of a single way to leave except answering my phone to a fake emergency and climbing out of a window. From artisanal jewellery and hideous furniture and even cars, it seems loads of us are surrounded by stuff we only bought out of politeness, sympathy or an insurmountable sense of “well, I’m in too deep now!”
“20€ worth of olive tapenade from a family-run olive oil museum.”
“An ‘air guitar’... which was literally just an empty box.”
“A necklace with ‘Clare’ on purely to avoid the awkward conversation with a new acquaintance who called me Laura for a few months.”
Although spending money to save face might be part of our national psyche, those guilty, panicked purchases are also borne out of something else: kindness, and empathy
Butchers and fishmongers were common triggers – the panicky mental maths that ends with you accidentally buying three kilos of innards – and so are empty gift shops, sad-eyed stallholders and any sales opportunity/hostage situation dressed up as a “party”. Multiple people replied with the sobering: “my first marriage”. Still more chipped in to say “Brexit”, which feels almost too fitting to be funny.
Because it is a distinctly British trait, the polite panic purchase – or so everyone calling it “the most British thread ever!” claims.
Nobody knows quite what Britishness means anymore, do we? In the current climate our national identity feels as murky and scudded as oversteeped tea. But according to my Twitter followers there’s one thing we are all still comfortable branding ourselves, and that’s uncomfortable. Social ineptitude is our badge of honour, and we’ll wear it more readily than a union flag or bowler hat (which we didn’t want either, but the nice man in the shop had fetched it from the stockroom...).
Of course awkwardness isn’t always a charming thing, anymore than the stereotypical British bumbler isn’t always an innocent. Never mind escaping a craft fair without buying a £15 lavender pillow – when you feel awkward, simply existing in the world gets a little harder. The Pool’s Daisy suggests embarrassment could even be partly responsible for bottled water still crippling the planet. Meanwhile I’ve long felt that social awkwardness is the cause of at least 50 per cent of life’s day-to-day rudeness. Each time we blurt our coffee order over a barista’s friendly “how are you?”, each time we blank a colleague in the Pret queue, every time we fail to give someone our seat on the tube because they’re at the other end of the carriage and we did try to signal but another person thought we were waving at them and OH MY GOD – I like to believe the reason is more often self-consciousness than malice. The distinction might be lost in the moment, but you can rest assured us awkwards will spend at least an hour feeling bad about it afterwards.
But the flip side is that sometimes our awkwardness manifests itself as something sweeter and more selfless. Although spending money to save face might be part of our national psyche, those guilty, panicked purchases are also borne out of something else: kindness, and empathy. We’d rather buy “a £15 hipster magazine about cats” than risk briefly disappointing a stranger, and I think that’s kind of lovely.
Ridiculous, yes. But lovely.