The Art of Embarrassment

Silly mistakes make for great stories.

We’ve all been there.

From nowhere, you suddenly find yourself in a situation so uncomfortable — so cringe-inducing, so utterly and incomprehensibly awkward — that the skin on your face soars to an obscenely high temperature, all but melting completely off your head. And there‘s nothing you can do.

Other than laugh about it afterwards.

The truth of the matter is, no-one enjoys those blush-tastic moments, and yet — it has to be said — a certain soothing balm can be found in telling the tale afterwards. I’d almost go as far as to say recounting our ordeals to others once they’ve happened almost makes up for them happening in the first place. Almost…

At one time or another, we’ve all done something so stupendously stupid we immediately begged the planet to swallow us whole and excrete us out the other side. We’ve done it in the past, and we’ll do it again in the future. Some of us are even doing it in the present. I guarantee it.

We’ve all sent emails/texts/snapchats of a sensitive nature to the wrong person by mistake. We’ve all stumbled in the street then made it look like we did it on purpose. We’ve all wandered into the wrong public bathroom. (Though not all of us chose to wander back out again.)

We’ve all accidentally sprayed food into the face of a friend mid-conversation, broke wind at an inappropriate time and failed to remember the name of someone we worked with for seventeen years. And we have all, as schoolchildren, called our teacher ‘mom’ at least once; all the more embarrassing when the teacher is a guy.

One of the earliest memories I can recall of my cheeks being set aflame by humiliation was during a lesson at elementary school. The teacher was writing out some math problems on the blackboard; she was trying to show us how a simple sum could be phrased as a mathematical ‘story’, along the lines of ‘if there are fifteen pupils and three school buses…’ etc.

I wasn’t paying any attention whatsoever, far too busy daydreaming. So when the teacher called out my name and asked me to give an example of a ‘story’, I panicked and blurted out ‘Peter Pan’.

A couple of giggles rippled around the class at first, then a few more, until the entire room had erupted with laughter. There’s a good chance I’d have gotten away with it being an offhand remark — a joke at the teacher’s expense — if only the blood vessels in my face hadn’t betrayed me.

Sizzling fried egg all over my burning red hot face.

More recently in my internal treasure-trove of shame is Remembrance Day. I was at work, at my desk, in a large, open plan office. Earlier that morning, an email was circulated; at 11am we would be observing the two minutes silence. I read the memo, digested the information, then promptly forgot all about it. When 11 o’clock came around the entire office staff stopped whatever they were doing and lowered their heads in a respectful hush. Everyone, that is, apart from me.

Please, hear me out.

In my defense, this particular office was normally on the quiet side anyway; we often compared it to a library. And as I’d completely lost track of time, it’s not beyond the realms of compassionate understanding as to why - as everyone entered the bubble of silent contemplation - I was left outside, lost in my own personal sphere of complete and utter ignorance.

Looking back, if I’d continued to work at my desk for the following couple of minutes, I daresay anyone would have noticed. As it was, I needed to print something as a matter of urgency. I hit the print button, raised myself purposefully from my chair and glided away across the office, totally oblivious to the countless pairs of eyes stalking me.

As I neared the printers, I spotted the managing director of the company at a large meeting table with two important visitors. The three of them stared at me, open-mouthed, as I continued walking in their direction. One of them caught my eye, so I fired them a friendly nod before turning into the print room, thinking how unfriendly they were for not at least giving me a small smile in return.

Waiting for me inside the tray was a warm, freshly printed document. Now I know I mentioned before how important this particular document was, but perhaps I was exaggerating slightly. It was in fact the lunch menu for the local deli.

Hey, it was important at the time.

I grabbed my precious menu, made a 180, and stepped back into the office. By this stage, any reasonably self-aware person would have surely noticed something was amiss. Not me. Literally everyone in the office was either staring at me, or shifting in their seats uncomfortably, trying to stare at anything but me. And yet I continued, unperturbed and unaware.

I was about halfway back across the room when I spotted a friend — my lunch buddy, no less — on the edge of my field of vision. As I adjusted course to greet him, I saw his face contort into a confounding mixture of horror and bemusement.

And then it happened. I placed the menu down in front of him, clapped my hands together loudly and boomed the immortal words at the top of my voice: “So! Sandwiches?”

Well, that was too much for him.

The laugh he was stifling began to make it’s way past his teeth and out of his mouth; the air rushed out in fits and starts, like an old car engine spluttering back to life. I stared back into his pleading eyes, by now extremely puzzled. Suddenly, the lady at the next desk made a loud shushing noise. I looked up to see her angrily pressing her finger to her mouth, urging me to be quiet.

The penny finally, finally dropped. In that one nauseating instant I realized exactly what was going on.

That’s right. Laugh it up, stock image models.

The familiar paralyzing sense of dread began to flood my body. Pinpricks of sweat burst forth from every pore on my face. I was overcome with an immense desire to travel back in time, kidnap myself as newborn and raise him in a cave far from civilisation.

I looked around the room to see everyone glaring angrily in my direction. Far too ashamed to remain where I was, I slunk past a parade of solemn, disapproving heads and crept slowly back to my seat. The remaining thirty seconds of the two minute’s silence passed by all too quickly.

In each of the cases above, I had no-one to blame but myself. And therein lies the innocent beauty of it all.

There’s poetry to be found in the unpredictability of embarrassment — it has to be unpredictable to even exist at all, otherwise we’d simply learn from it and never put ourselves through it again.

You can’t force it of course — I have no time for people who enjoy embarrassing others on purpose; those who take pleasure in seeing people squirm and choose to actively make them feel uncomfortable. There’s no real joy to be had in hearing someone tell you how they humiliated someone else.

A much more benevolent world it would be if everyone was so well-adjusted they constantly compensated for any unintended faux-pas and strove to make each other feel totally at ease at all times. There’d be no more stomach-churning blunders, no more flustered flushes and no more head-slapping gaffes.

But then, in this brave new idyllic world, there’d be no embarrassing stories to share afterwards either.

And where‘s the fun in that?