A few days into my first job, a colleague walked into my team’s office to complain about a “situation” with the toilet. I won’t go into the messy details; let’s just say that someone’s potty-training must have been a little askew.
I have no idea why (I still don’t know who had done the deed) but in the middle of her rant, I felt as if a small flame had kindled under my skin. Soon, waves of fire were rising from my chest to the crown of my head; my throat and my cheeks soon became mottled with a livid pink, while my ears were as red as radishes. No one actually accused me of the misdemeanour – but their eyes said everything.
They weren’t to know that I could flare up at the drop of a hat. In fact, looking back, it feels that I spent the whole of my teens and my 20s in a state of permanent embarrassment.
Feelings of excruciating embarrassment may be crucial for your wellbeing in the long term
Why do these feelings afflict us so acutely? And why did human beings evolve to display our discomfort so visibly? In my case, my reddening cheeks only caused me to seem guilty when I was actually innocent.
Why did our cheeks evolve to redden in such a visible way to others? Even Darwin was perplexed (Credit: Getty Images)
Charles Darwin was at a loss to find any silver lining to our embarrassment. “It makes the blusher suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least service to either of them,” he wrote. Yet evolutionary psychologists today are finding that those feelings of excruciating embarrassment may be crucial for your wellbeing in the long term.
Embarrassment is most likely following the potential exposure of something private, rather than a mishap or faux pas
One theory is that it’s a natural reaction to the fear of being “found out”. The psychologist Ray Crozier at Cardiff University has interviewed many people about the situations that cause them to turn red, and he found it most typically involves the potential exposure of something private – such as a pregnant woman, who flushes a deep crimson when the subject of babies pops up in a conversation – rather than a mishap or faux pas. Here the blush may be a physiological reaction to the shock that your secret could be about to become public, even if it’s something to be celebrated. “Exposure seemed to be a very common theme that runs through the different accounts I was collecting,” he says.
Yet those situations feel very different from the excruciating scenes where you wish the ground would just swallow you up – that time you accidentally called your teacher or boss “mummy”, for instance (if that’s you, you have my sympathies). As Darwin pointed out, the blushing only seems to amplify our discomfort. In reality, the opposite may be true.
A fall can of course be embarrassing, but the feeling is most likely to be provoked by the possibility of revealing something private (Credit: iStock)
Rankled chimps will stare at a minion. A little like my experience in the office, they are trying to psych out the perpetrator
Some clues come from the animal kingdom and the ways that subordinate primates deal with conflict. Mark Leary at Duke University points out that rather than immediately lashing out, high-ranking chimps will often just stare at their minions when they are rankled – a way of telling them to “get out of my space”, “leave my food alone”, or “defer to me”. What’s particularly interesting, however, is the way the subordinate then attempts to diffuse the situation, using actions that closely mirrors our behaviour during blushing: they break eye contact, just like you or I might, and they hang their head as if in “shame”.
“Thirdly, it often involves a silly, mirthless grin, which looks just like an embarrassed smile in human beings,” Leary says. All of the actions appear to say “sorry” and to signal the fact that we want to avoid more direct confrontation.
The upside is that blushing can make you more likeable
Humans may have carried this behaviour forward, Leary says, with our blushes acting as another “non-verbal apology” to diffuse an awkward situation. It may even explain why the simple thought of a misdeed can make your cheeks redden – as I found during my office’s toilet crisis. “Even if you are innocent, it may not hurt to convey discomfort at being accused – to say ‘I'm sorry that I have inadvertently given you a reason to suspect me’,” explains Leary.
Perhaps I was just unconsciously pre-empting any aggression. Leary thinks that similar reasoning may even explain why we blush when we know people are looking at us (such as when we speak up in a meeting), or even when we are praised; the reddening face is a way of showing that we want to avoid the unwanted attention. (It also makes us look less egotistical, so you are not challenging others’ authority.) And if you find yourself blushing at someone else’s misdeed – such as your father’s farting in public – it’s an unspoken signal that you recognise their mistake, and that you yourself are uncomfortable with breaking the rules.
As Claudia Hammond has explained on BBC Future previously, blushing can’t be faked, meaning it’s one of the few signals of honesty that we can trust without suspicion. The consequence is that people who blush tend to be considered more warmly than people who don’t.
Embarrassment may be a sign of altruism and cooperation
Embarrassment may even be taken as a sign that you are a more altruistic person. While at the University of California, Berkeley, Matthew Feinberg filmed people recalling a mishap from their past, and a panel then judged them on how embarrassed they appeared. It turned out that the more easily flustered they were, the more they reported altruistic views in a subsequent survey. They were also more likely to play honestly in a game with a cash prize.
In a subsequent experiment, Feinberg showed participants pictures of people with embarrassed expressions, and asked them a series of questions, such as; “If this person were a fellow student, how likely is it that you would ask her to join a study group that you were a part of?” People who looked a little flustered were more likely to be included than those who looked cool and calm.
Amazingly, red-faced awkwardness may boost your sex appeal
Amazingly, red-faced awkwardness may boost your sex appeal when faced with someone you fancy. “If they are looking for a long-term partner, it could show that you are prosocial, cooperative – someone who isn’t going to cheat,” says Feinberg, who is now at the University of Toronto. “So people might find embarrassment attractive in that way.” It may be a different story, he says, if they are just looking for a short-term relationship, where they will tend to be attracted to flashier and more confident mates – think of the swish, unflappable Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) compared to the bumbling Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in Bridget Jones’ Diary.
If that knowledge still doesn’t help to take the sting out of your humiliation, you could remember that you are probably suffering from the “spotlight” effect: we always over-estimate the amount of attention we’re getting and this is particularly true when we feel embarrassed. To put it bluntly, we’re not nearly as interesting as we would like to think we are.
As it is, I’ve learnt to compare those moments of acute embarrassment to the fever that comes with flu – temporarily uncomfortable, but necessary for our long-term wellbeing. “We really don’t want to have these feelings, and we go out of our way to suppress and regulate them,” says Feinberg. “But although embarrassment is unpleasant, it is serving a purpose.”
I’m sure we all know some people who never show any shame – and would you really want to be like them? The only thing worse than feeling embarrassed may be to never feel it at all.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.