Today I conducted a meeting. I had done my research, sounded professional, and seemed to keep the audience engaged. I was feeling pretty good about it. Then I noticed that I was wearing my cardigan inside out.
Now I know that I’m not alone in experiencing a scenario like this. It may not necessarily be wearing clothing that is inside out, or back to front (which alas, I have actually also experienced), but at some stage, I can almost guarantee that you too have committed an embarrassing workplace faux-pas.
Embarrassment is most often an isolating feeling – one that works to separate us from our peers by reinforcing to us how different we are from them, eliciting feelings of awkwardness and sometimes even shame. It most likely has developed across our evolution as a tool to ensure conformity and cohesion across the species and is extremely successful at this – after-all, if an action we take causes us embarrassment to ourselves, we are less likely to perform that action again.
Yet, with all the feelings of discomfort and temporary panic that can come with embarrassment, many positives can also be identified. A 2011 study by UC Berkeley suggests that people who are easily embarrassed (as identified by cues such as facial blushing) are more trustworthy and genuine, and viewed favourably by others. An outline of the study can be found here http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/09/28/easily-embarrassed/ .
"It’s important to recognise that embarrassment is a HUMAN response. With the exception of a few only (and I mean a diagnosable few), we ALL experience it to varying degrees"
Without completing any additional research but having a background in psychology, I would suggest that a very simple explanation for this may be that as both individuals and a group, we find the experience of embarrassment highly relatable, and therefore when we observe somebody feeling embarrassed we are able to instantly (and perhaps even subconsciously) empathise with them.
In terms of workplace relations, a quick office faux-pas can actually elicit comradery and morale amongst team members – consider the last time you saw your superior made a blooper: I’m guessing that the initial reaction from you and your colleagues was one of laughter, followed by some empathic blushing and remarks such as “I’m so glad that wasn’t me”. Because you were able to relate to the feelings of embarrassment that the ‘ill-fated faux-pasist’ made, you saw them (for at least one instant) as a HUMAN rather than simply their work title.
It’s important to recognise that embarrassment is a HUMAN response. With the exception of a few only (and I mean a diagnosable few), we ALL experience it to varying degrees. And it is FLEETING in nature. For some of us, following the initial acute phase, embarrassment can actually be a great source of laughter and positivity – I for one regularly use my past embarrassments as fodder for conversation amongst friends (or blog articles).
So how do we get past our own workplace faux-pas to save face and keep an air of dignity?
Well, most of the time the best way through is to avoid fighting it – just wear your temporary blush with pride and laugh with your colleagues, remembering that it is a fleeting moment and others are most likely empathically ‘feeling your pain’. And if that fails, just move on quickly and don’t look back – after all, it will pass and in the meantime ... denial is a great river to swim in!