Easy mistake to make, right? Repeatedly saying, “Excuse me, excuse me,” I squeeze past all the people standing in my train carriage and say to the woman in my seat, “Excuse me, you’re in my seat – my ticket says D32.” And she points out that we are in carriage C, not D. By then, I’m way too red-faced to squeeze past any more people, so I have to spend the next 25 minutes standing next to her.
When I asked people to tell me the last time they were embarrassed, all the classics came up. There were the inappropriate/mistaken manners ones: “I texted two kisses to the headmaster.” Then there were the pratfall/trip/accident ones: “Last weekend, I got my foot caught climbing over a rope, trying to get my son off a bouncy castle on the beach. So many other parents watching!” And: “As I stepped on to the bus, the driver closed the doors on my head with me looking at everyone on the bus. When I got to the office, I realised I had two black lines on the sides of my face.” And also, there are the public-exposure ones, which star the knickers-tucked-into-skirt scenario, but also forgetting your lines on stage and this: “I realised my headphones weren’t plugged in my phone, so the Tube carriage was listening to my recorded affirmations for a positive day. They’re recorded in my own voice with a Gloria Gaynor background.”
But why do we care so much, especially if we’re never going to see these people again? The key factor in embarrassment and in all these stories is the audience, says neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of The Happy Brain. Because embarrassment, he tells me, is an “ingrained deeply seated fear of rejection” and so a social emotion – ie, we only feel it in relation to other people, like grief and guilt.
The reason memories of embarrassment linger for years is that each episode is, in effect, a traumatic memory
A social emotion “depends on the thoughts, feelings or actions of other people, whether we experience them direct, remember them, anticipate them or even imagine them". So, even when we have no idea what people are thinking, when we forget our lines on stage or trip, we assume they’re thinking the worst.
But the reason embarrassment feels so, so, so bad is it’s a survival trait, a visceral reaction we cannot help that happens almost before we’ve thought or seen any reaction. “Embarrassment evolved because we are such social creatures and our survival depended on the group. If you’re rejected or the group finds you lacking, that endangered your survival,” says Burnett. The reason the phrase "I wanted the ground to swallow me up" has become such cliché is that, in evolutionary terms, social death is actual death. “If you are embarrassed, it means other people looked at you and found you wanting, then your status goes down, and that’s bad for your general prospects of survival.”
The areas of the brain that light up when you experience embarrassment are similar to that of social rejection and actual pain. If you tend to blush when you feel embarrassed, however awful it feels to go red, in evolutionary terms it would have helped you survive. “Because we are such a social species, it’s useful to communicate our emotions to other people directly and visibly,” says Burnett. What redness is communicating is “I realise I have done something wrong, and I want to be part of the group again".
The reason memories of embarrassment linger for years – everyone seems to remember at least one major teenage cringe – is that each episode is, in effect, a traumatic memory. Like the person who still remembers as if it was yesterday, though it was November, when she didn’t know the answer to a question on live radio and so went quiet. In the same way that mussels are unappealing after they’ve given you food poisoning, embarrassment is telling your brain “do not forget this moment – this is not something we ever want to repeat,” says Burnett.
The only trouble is, we know we will repeat our mistakes – we will trip, blurt, tuck our skirt in our knickers, call our child's teacher "darling". But, next time, maybe just knowing why you get embarrassed will help your logical brain kick in earlier, so although it still feels as if you're going to die, you know you won't.