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Imagine you’re alone in one of those liminal, reality-meets-reverie spaces after a certain hour of the night — think IHOP, Denny’s, or any other 24/7 fast-food establishment with eerie fluorescent lighting — when a voice behind you utters two fateful words:
Your heart skips a beat as you freeze, bracing for what’s to come: either a friendly emotional check-in or a vicious blow to the head. The catch? You have no idea which. What gives?
Such is the Schrödinger-esque reality of life in a world where “vibe check,” the Lernaean Hydra of 21st century vernacular, has developed more shades of meaning than there are hues of healing crystals, essential oils, and other purported recipes for good vibes. From compassionate to violent to purely bizarre, the phrase’s dizzying array of connotations merits analysis. Put simply, “vibe check” needs its vibes checked.
Urban Dictionary’s original 2011 definition of “vibe check,” though gently critical of bohemian pseudoscience, is innocuous enough: “A process by which a group or individual obtains a subjective assessment of the mental and emotional state of another person, place or thing. Not anchored in or limited to science, psychology or sociology. Grounded in a belief in pachouli [sic], sage, or karma and sometimes veggie burgers.”
Over eight years later, a viral Tumblr comic redefined the process in question, depicting one stick figure yelling “vibe check!” to another before whacking its companion over the head with a baseball bat. The post garnered over 30,000 notes and inspired a bevy of spinoffs linking “vibe check” to scenes of violence from (simulated) medieval warfare, Greek mythology, and famous assassinations, to name a few.
This recent interpretation of “vibe check” marks an undeniable shift from selflessness to self-interest. A term born out of genuine care for loved ones’ emotional well-being has evolved to represent an unsettling endorsement of physical aggression as a way to eliminate bad vibes.
Given society’s current political and social polarization, negative feelings are hard to escape. It’s no wonder people are all too eager to get rid of them by embracing a tool unique to our generation: social media. But is resorting to violence, if only in memes, the best solution? Will the proliferation of ironic “vibe check” images ultimately generate more bad vibes, trapping us in a hellish feedback loop of vibe checks?
On the other hand, it’s also possible to view the phrase not literally but as a metaphor for catharsis and empowerment. A figurative “vibe check” enables its proponents to concretize their fears in the form of a meme and vanquish them with a single swing of a baseball bat. Instead of silently enduring an onslaught of bad vibes, people are taking matters into their own hands.
ShindanMaker, which describes itself as “a site to post fun fortune-telling tests,” offers a test titled, simply, “Vibe Check.” After a user enters their name, the website displays the text “Vibe check passed” along with randomly generated values from zero to 10 for six traits: “Soft,” “Baby,” “Cursed,” “Feral,” “Clown,” and “Gremlin.” (Ah, yes, the six fundamental components of the human personality.) Despite — or because of — its nonsensical outcome, over a million people have taken the test. The masses seeking meaning in their results’ complete lack thereof have reached the pinnacle of surrealist escapism.
Maybe it’s best to treat the conflicting definitions of “vibe check” like yin and yang: opposing principles that coexist in harmony. So why not get the best of both? Extend love and empathy to those near your heart, but don’t hesitate to forcefully banish any negative thoughts that are getting you down. And, of course, enjoy the ensuing good vibes.
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