Embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort we experience when some aspect of ourselves is threatened to be witnessed or revealed to others. We feel embarrassment when we’ve done something that we think will make us be seen differently than we wish to be seen. In this sense, embarrassment needs an audience. The feeling tells us when we have broken a ‘social norm’ and inherently requires a social setting; you fall in public and want nothing more than to lay there and wait for the ground to simply swallow you up, you ask someone to repeat themselves but still can’t hear them, you push a pull door! We get embarrassed all the time and often the tiniest inconvenience brings on the dreaded feeling.
It’s one thing to be embarrassed when you yourself have done something cringeworthy in front of people, but why do we cringe so hard when we witness other people do something embarrassing?
Second-hand embarrassment describes the cringe you feel when seeing another person embarrass themselves. This feeling is usually directed towards people you don’t particularly know and often have never met in real life. A co-worker attempts karaoke on a night out after a few too many drinks, a couple on your train decides this is a good time for a shouting match -
you start to sweat, you want to slither into the abyss and pretend you never witnessed what you have seen. You’re embarrassed that someone else has done something so cringe-worthy.
Just like when you feel personal embarrassment, the second-hand emotion too requires an audience. This time you yourself are the on-looker, or at least one of them. The second-hand emotion can have a huge physical effect on people; the uncontrollable skin crawl, the blushed heat rushing to your cheeks, the sweat that accumulates as your body heats up and turns a bright shade of red. You’re embarrassed for the person in question, but you also empathise with them - you have the awareness that this could very well be you in that same situation.
Our experience of second-hand embarrassment is related directly to our ability to empathise. Empathy is a vital human emotion that enables positive, social interactions. As humans, socialising is vital in growing communities and having the ability to live harmoniously within them. Empathy allows you to acknowledge, understand and relate to other people and what they’re going through. Often empathy means we mirror other people's emotions, we feel sadness when a friend is going through a hard time and in the case of second-hand embarrassment, we feel a twinge of cringe on another’s behalf.
It is necessary for humans to understand how someone else feels because it determines how we treat and cooperate with one another. Without empathy, and therefore cringe, the human race as we know it today would probably look very different. The earliest humans, instead of coming together to support one another and build communities which would quickly grow into Earth’s first great civilisations, would have instead been in constant conflict. With no empathy, with no understanding for the feelings of others, these ancient people would never have settled, never joined together to work for the greater good of progressing the human race. They would be too busy being selfish and incessantly prioritising themselves, and their own emotions, over others.
Empathy is so incredibly important to the progression of the human race that it is hardwired into our brains. In the same way that parts of our brains are activated when watching someone sustain a physical injury, prompting us to not follow in the footsteps of said injured person, cringing is a real physiological response to witnessing other people’s pain.
Science shows that when we witness someone make a fool of themselves, neural pathways are activated in the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula regions. Simply put, these are the regions of our brain that experience the ‘social pain’ of others. They allow us to empathise, understand and share pain as well as prepare ourselves to handle or, even better, avoid similar embarrassing situations.
A rather poetically titled study, ‘Your Flaws Are My Pain’, found that because of these strong physiological responses, people often feel embarrassed on behalf of others more so than they feel embarrassed for themselves. As humans we can’t be completely selfless though: The study shows that at least some of the cringe we feel likely comes from envisioning yourself in the place of the embarrassed person. The study also suggested that when someone does something cringeworthy and they know it was a bit embarrassing, we empathetically experience their embarrassment. But when someone is oblivious to their embarrassing act, or does not find it embarrassing, you then feel embarrassed for judging the situation as cringeworthy.
Another possible reason as to why we cringe so hard at others' embarrassing encounters could be their situation reminding us of a time we did something humiliating. This allows us to re-feel our own embarrassment on top of the empathic embarrassment we’re already feeling - a double cringe if you like.
For some people, experiencing second-hand embarrassment is not a regular occurrence. It goes without saying, we hope, that people who don’t cringe on the daily aren’t psychopaths incapable of feeling empathy. Second-hand embarrassment and empathy are felt on a spectrum. Those lucky people who don’t double over and cringe at the drop of a hat are simply on the other end of the spectrum to those who do. Possibly their environment didn’t develop their empathy in childhood as much as those who do cringe on the regular, but it could also be that they have simply learned how to have healthy boundaries with their sense of self.
The only way to cope with second-hand embarrassment is to recognise when we’re experiencing it - that can’t be done without first understanding the feeling. So, now we know why we cringe, we can start to embrace it and learn how to handle the effects it has on us.
When you spot an embarrassing happening and feel the familiar sensation begin to take hold, stop and notice you are having the experience. Take a breath and remind yourself that your cringe makes sense biologically, it’s science happening in action. Remember this is about someone else, though you feel embarrassed, it’s not about you. Instead of thinking or saying something judgmental about the person, “they’re making a fool of themselves - how embarrassing”, replace it with something more positive, “how brave, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that”.
There are also some more scientific solutions to cringing that we can look to for help. Since second hand embarrassment is brought on by pain centers in our brain, it is likely that our bodies are producing a stress hormone called cortisol. Some research suggests that it is possible to combat cortisol with oxytocin. If you’re experiencing a serious cringe, there are a few physiological exercises to pump out some oxytocin and kick the embarrassment; put your hand over your heart (skin on skin), and recall a memory with a friend, family member or pet where you felt loved and hold that memory in your mind for a minute. Ask someone for a nice, long hug (chest to chest is best), take 10 deep breaths (in for four seconds, out for seven seconds) to regulate your breathing and calm your body and mind.
Perhaps the best cure for cringe is the very thing that causes it. If you notice someone in an embarrassing situation - maybe a co-worker messed up a big work presentation or someone dropped their shopping all over the floor - offer to help them! Show them empathy.
While you might feel like you'll die of embarrassment when you see someone fall over in public, you should take comfort in the idea that all it means is you're at least a little bit empathetic - embrace the cringe! It means you're a kind, understanding person that can adequately understand and sympathise with other people and their emotions.