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.
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