I’ve had plenty of pauses, moments, and silences to develop a theory on what exactly makes an awkward moment so turtle-y. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have developed this theory, but I am the first person to write about it in this blog. And that's the important thing, really.
Much like Edison, I didn't instantly invent this particular light bulb of an idea. My first theory was that awkwardness is caused by a difference between what a relationship should be ideally, and what the relationship actually is in reality. But that wasn't quite right. So long as there is common knowledge that the relationship is less than ideal, the interaction will not be awkward. For example, not being able to stand the sight of your former BFF might be less than ideal (BFF stands for Best Friend Forever, for the zero of you that might not be as up-to-date as I am on slang). However, if you’re both 100% certain that you’re better without that back-stabber in your life, and you run into each other at the grocery store, you can just say hi and get on with your shopping trip. It might be painful, but it won’t be awkward.
It will be awkward though when you are not quite 100% what the other party’s definition and idea of what your relationship is. (Any relationship: close friends, work colleagues, former students, people-who-recognize-each-other-but-can't-remember-each-other's-names-though-Jan-or-Janet-sounds-right) For example, seeing that no-longer-cared-for friend is uncomfortable only when you’re 99% sure, not 100% sure, they feel the same. On the 1% chance that they have nothing but fond memories of you, you must still stop and chat, wishing you had faked your absorption in the nutrition facts of frosted sugar cookies a little better, and 99%, but not 100%, certain that they feel the same way.
Think of any situation in the past day/week/month that reeked of awkwardness - chances are that you weren’t absolutely certain which relationship plane to operate on. When there is some ambiguity on which relationship level you should be operating on, you have to perform quick mental calculus on the cost/benefit/risks of choosing the wrong level or type. For example, are you friendly-enough acquaintances with a co-worker to chat with them during lunch? False negative, and they might be slightly hurt that you sat on the opposite end of the table and ate your lunch whilst studying the worker discrimination posters in silence. False positive, and they might wish they could eat their left-over macaroni in peace. (I can’t be the only person who overthinks like this, right? Right?!)
I think this theory explains why things like exchanging money, fighting, mentioning-that-that-one-thing-that-you-are-so-not-biting-your-tongue-on-anymore tend to increase the awkward factor. All those things might have changed how the other person defined the relationship but you don’t really know how or how much the definition has been changed. Therefore finding the happy medium between all the possible levels they could think the relationship is on has just gotten that much more difficult.
As a side note, I believe this also explains why alcohol makes things less awkward. You can’t get into the rabbit hole of thinking about what they think that you think that they think. Instead, you’re just kind of proud of your ability to talk in sentences. At least, that is what I would assume it's like being intoxicated, I wouldn't know, of course.
As another side note, don't you just love how the word awkward actually looks awkward? It's a cool word.