I went to the gym by myself for the first time last week. My partner had taken me a few times before to show me how to use some of the equipment, but I decided to arm myself with a water bottle and an iPod and brave it alone this time.
The place was packed with gym buffs, so I made a conscious effort to act like I belonged. I ran on the treadmill for a while, avoiding eye contact with the people working-out directly in front of me, before wobbling over to one of the available rowing machines. I bent my knees, reached for the oar, and pulled back with my legs. I repeated this motion for about three or four minutes, surprised at how easy I was finding it. 'Wow,' I said to myself, 'I must be stronger than I thought.' It was then that a fellow gym buff knelt beside me and told me that I wasn't actually pulling with any resistance.
I forgot about the whole incident until the next day when I was driving to work. Cruising down the M77 it suddenly popped into my head and I let out an audible groan as I cringed with embarrassment. I briefly considered cancelling my gym membership but it's not the first time I've made a complete fool of myself in public and it won't be the last.
Once on the bus to university I sat my half-eaten banana on the seat next to me while I rummaged through my rucksack. As the bus took off, the banana slid off the seat and into the handbag of the unsuspecting woman seated directly in front of me. I instantly turned bright red, and spent the rest of the journey cringing as I considered how I was going to casually introduce myself and my half-eaten banana to this woman.
Embarrassment evolves, for the most part, from fear. It arises when we believe that what we have done violates social norms; when we anticipate negative evaluation by others; when the image of ourselves we wish to project to society is undermined.
Equally, however, we can feel self-conscious when good things happen to us. When we are praised for our appearance, or when our friends sing 'happy birthday' to us in a busy restaurant, we blush and sink further into our chairs even though this attention is positive. John Sabini, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote that embarrassment is like to arise, not solely from fear, but when a person can no longer anticipate how a social interaction will go.
We will do virtually anything to avoid embarrassing situations. We forgo visiting our GP, put off claiming any debt that we are owed by a friend, and sit in silence instead of asking questions in a meeting – all to save face.
But embarrassment is actually a good thing. By expressing embarrassment we demonstrate our commitment to social order and our respect for others. When we admit that we feel embarrassed we make friends out of strangers, even if it's just for a moment.
When I eventually got round to bashfully telling the woman on the bus about the half-eaten banana sitting in her bag she laughed it off, and even asked me if I wanted it back or if she should just bin it for me outside. Embarrassment fosters empathy, a kind of I've-been-there-too feeling, which, in turn, engenders compassion.
Christine Rosen has written a piece called 'The Death of Embarrassment' in which she laments the decline of this emotion in modern society. Things that would once have been cause to shield the children's eyes and alert the church elders are now regarded with little more than a shrug. To Rosen, public displays of affection and over-sharing about our personal hygiene and problems are symptoms of a society suffering from an embarrassment deficit.
Healthy boundaries which are respected make for a harmonious social environment. When we over-share, or display too much public affection for our partners, we either don't realise or don't care how we're making other people feel. That's not to say that Rosen is harking back to the good ol' days of social repression, but rather petitioning for a balance between exercising our social freedoms and causing discomfort or offence to others.
Personally, I have no fear of the death of embarrassment. I have an archive of embarrassing moments that are a testament to that claim. We are wired for empathy. Embarrassment, at the cost of a little dignity, is another way by which we connect with and feel for one another. That's not so bad. It's when we stop caring that's the real tragedy.