by Nick Riggle
Have you heard the word “awesome” lately? It’s in our films, newsfeeds, and songs; it’s on our t-shirts, menus, and products. “Awesome sells” must rival “sex sells”—it shows up all over the marketplace, from the new Wendy’s S’Awesome Sauce and TV commercials for Crest toothpaste, Xfinity, and Wienerschnitzel to gift cards, all-purpose cleaners, and wet wipes. (For a collection of examples, see my “anthropology of awesome” Instagram account @onbeingawesome.) “Awesome” even shows up on Ann Coulter’s 2016 book In Trump We Trust, which is subtitled (ironically) “E Pluribus Awesome!”. At a time when conflict between the political left and right is intractable, both sides want to project the thought that our unity is not assured unless we are “awesome” together.
“Awesome” is clearly not being used in its traditional sense to mean awe-inspiring, or to summarize standard dictionary definitions, inspiring a feeling of reverence or respect, often combined with wonder, fear, or apprehension. Something seems awesome in the traditional sense when it makes us feel that the universe is so vast compared to our short lives and little selves—and it’s all just so wonderful, amazing, or overwhelming. We gasp in awe at a silver, dark starry sky, a stunning work of art, or a breathtaking scientific theory.
But we don’t want to be moved to awe by every beat we bump and every taco we taste, even though we are perfectly willing to say that some taco or tune is awesome. Eddie Izzard jokes,
I saw an advert for ‘Awesome Hotdogs, only $2.99!’ If they were awesome you’d be going, “I cannot…breathe…for the…way the sausage…is held by the bun…it’s speaking to me!”
When we aspire to be awesome we aren’t hoping to remind every person we meet that they are barely a blip on the universe’s infinite radar screen.
It is tempting to conclude that the word “awesome” on the contemporary tongue means little more than “good” or “I like that”. Of course, the word also has a familiar informal meaning, which dictionaries commonly claim is just extremely good or excellent. Although people do use the word this way, a little reflection suggests that there is something special about the contemporary use of “awesome”. Lots of things can be excellent without being awesome: bands, meals, sports teams, you. Consider a really good musical performance, for example. The performance might display excellence in a way that is to be enjoyed and appreciated but without the special element that makes us think that was awesome. Compare, for example, the live performances of a perfectly conducted orchestra (excellent) and the late American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger (awesome). The orchestra performs to perfection, requiring masterful, precise contributions from numerous experts (bravo!). Seeger, in clear contrast, often barely sang his songs and encouraged the crowd to join in on a collective performance, resulting in a concert hall full of strangers singing together, with Seeger strumming enthusiastically, awesomely, at the helm.
So what is going on with the contemporary use of “awesome”? We often use the word to pick out actions, people, and things that bring us together as individuals in expressive contexts. A sandwich is awesome when it inspires us to enthusiastically tell our friends about it, try to make it for guests at home, or post about it on social media—that is, when it moves us to create community around it. That’s why Pete Seeger and an outrageous burrito can both be awesome. When we abandon our habits and routines and, say, spark a genuine conversation with a perfect stranger, we create a social opening. If the stranger takes up our invitation and we connect and commune—that’s awesome. Being awesome is a matter of being good at creating and encouraging these social openings. Excellent performances, grand spectacles, and superhuman achievements might inspire the feeling of awe, but they aren’t awesome unless they connect us as expressive individuals and move us to appreciate one another.
But why have we adopted the word “awesome” to talk about people and things that create communities of individuals? When we experience real awe, our minds open up—to the world and to each other. Awe rejuvenates our attention, helping us see people and things for what they really are. And when we feel so wonderfully overwhelmed by the world, we want to reach out and band together. When we are moved to awe by a symphony, a novel, a landscape, or a painting, we often want to show others what we see so clearly, give it as a gift, or share it on social media. When awe moves us to reach out in these ways, we create social openings. In other words, awe makes us “awesome”.
The idea that awe makes us awesome is supported by recent empirical studies that show a connection between feeling awe and being awesome. In a recent study in the psychology journal Emotion, researchers Michelle Shiota and Alexander Danvers found a connection between experiencing awe and abandoning our normal scripts. Experiencing awe, unlike other positive emotions, reduces our tendency to rely on scripts and prototypes, priming us to see people and things as they really are. In another study, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman examined thousands of New York Times articles to see whether there were any patterns among the ones that were shared the most. They learned that articles with positive emotional content are more “viral” than ones with negative emotional content. Among the positive emotions, awe stood out as more strongly correlated with sharing. Researchers have also found a connection between the experience of awe and behavior linked to increased humility and cooperation.
If this is right, then “awesome” is a natural fit for discussions of social openings and expressive community building. In times of severe political and cultural division, our collective interest in the value of creating community motivated a shift in our use of the word. Now we don’t just use “awesome” to talk about awe-inspiring things. We use it to talk about the things that awe inspires: reaching out and connecting, sharing, and paying sympathetic attention. That’s pretty…amazing.
Nick Riggle is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego and the author of On Being Awesome: A Unified Theory of How Not to Suck (Penguin Books).