Channelling my inner Jane Fonda, I recently decided to partake in some mid-commute step aerobics and walk up an escalator for once – a rare outing for my quads. Pleased with myself, I set off on the left, at pace. Just a few steps in, I missed one, falling upwards and nearly KO-ing the person next to me with my laptop bag. I grazed both shins on those grooved elevator steps, blood blossoming through my newly laddered tights. For a hot minute, I was lying down, riding the elevator like a bodyboard before an octopus of arms came towards me to help me up, courtesy of kind commuters – which of course made me feel even more bashful. Looking around, I realised the hundred or so people on the escalator opposite had their faces trained towards my awkwardly sprawled body. I could feel the snickers beneath the masks. My cheeks got even hotter under my own as the very specific kind of embarrassment that comes from falling in public spread through me, like my already deepening scarlet shin bruises.
The bruises have now gone but the embarrassment lingers. Why does it feel so humiliating when we fall over or trip in public?
"Walking is perceived as a very simple task. Falls are associated with those who are weak, frail, ill, ageing, impaired, uncoordinated, clumsy, drunk," says movement and kinesiology expert Dr Shirley Rietdyk. "It is likely that most people would prefer to be perceived as vibrant and healthy, and falls are not associated with health and vibrancy. We may perceive that others are judging us as incompetent when we fall."
It doesn't help that when we trip in public, sniggers and stares like those I witnessed when falling up the escalator are common. Bella, 29, thinks she uses laughter to mask shock in such circumstances. "Over Christmas, we went out for a short walk to get some fresh air with my 85-year-old grandmother in the countryside near her house, and she slipped down on some mud," she says. "It was obviously awful but I burst out laughing automatically – I couldn't control it. Of course, it wasn’t a funny situation at all (despite the slapstick humour of someone getting covered in mud). She was fine, thank goodness, and even laughed at herself once she had gotten up."
Social media videos – like the faceplant-prone milk crate challenge of 2021 – echo this kind of autopilot humour response. Indeed, Lele Pons kickstarted her career by falling over. "Nothing funnier than seeing someone fall in public," says one TikToker. "Falling in public is only funny when it's not you," says another, though many admit the perceived immaturity of that response. #FallingOver has generated 47.3 million views on TikTok to date, and 'falling over memes' is one of the top autofill suggestions when you type 'falling over' into Google.
On the flip side, some specialists theorise that laughter reactions to stressors are actually indicators of 'mature' defence mechanisms (I was surprised, too). "We're signalling ourselves that whatever horrible thing we've just encountered isn't really as horrible as it appears, something we often desperately want to believe," writes physician and medical author Alex Lickerman, who equates this kind of laughter to a trauma response. If this is to be believed, laughter in such instances actually comes from a desire to gloss over rather than a place of nastiness or ill intent. As such, we need not be so embarrassed by the laughter. Perhaps no one finds it genuinely funny after all.
That's not to say that falling down or tripping over is not traumatic in itself. The fact that falls are a major public health problem is often overlooked. According to the World Health Organization, globally, falls are the second leading cause of unintentional injury or death, after road traffic injuries. They aren't really a laughing matter. The highest death rates are among those over 65 – but this does not mean that young people aren't falling, too.
"If you talk to older adults, a number of them will self-identify as frequent fallers but then they tell me that they fell a lot when they were younger as well," says Rietdyk, prompting her to ask: "Is there some sort of underlying mechanism that predisposes someone to falling that continues throughout the lifespan?" Rietdyk, a professor at Purdue University in Indiana, was intrigued by the number of undergraduates who came to her with stories about falling over. In 2021 she began a 16-week observation study to examine the frequency and circumstance of falls by undergraduate students. In said study (among other things) she observed that several female participants experienced nine or more falls in a single term. All the more reason not to be so embarrassed – seemingly, lots of us trip and fall all the time.
More research is required but Rietdyk points me towards a 2017 study which indicates that falls are apparently on the rise, specifically in young women between 20 and 29 years old. This group had a 25% increase in fall-related fractures in the 10-year period from 2000 to 2010; in males of the same age, the increase was just 5%. More recently, the pandemic could have led to an increase in falls (though polls have only been conducted in older populations – go figure). "If people have become less active (e.g. not going to the gym to avoid closed spaces, avoiding team/contact sports) [during the pandemic], they may become de-conditioned, which in turn increases fall risk," says Rietdyk.
Either way, younger women appear to be falling or tripping with more frequency and panache than we're given credit for – which is no doubt leaving plenty of red faces, like mine, dotted around the globe. Rietdyk has observed that younger people are less likely to report trips that harm them, even "denying fall-related problems altogether", which might be due to the accompanying embarrassment. This was certainly the case for me: I remember the cringey aftermath of the fall rather than the fall itself or my injuries. "In my observations of students falling on campus, after the fall many young adults will first look around to see who saw them fall," adds Rietdyk.
It's important to note those with disabilities who may be more prone to falling or tripping, too. Rietdyk's 2021 study found a positive correlation between those taking prescription medicines and falling over; another 2021 study similarly highlights issues with falls among people with intellectual disabilities (ID), citing risk factors such as "decreasing physical ability, epilepsy, paretic conditions, impulsiveness, previous falls, incontinence and non-use of assistive equipment". Whenever we stifle a snigger or stare when someone trips in public, we would all do well to remember that many disabilities aren't visible and a discreet helping hand might be the way to approach the situation – not the social media-normalised, slapstick response. If, collectively, we no longer laughed, the culture of embarrassment might eventually dissipate altogether.
Alternatively, us frequent fallers could simply try to embrace and own the ungracefulness of tripping as best we can. When I fell that day in the station, I attempted to meet the snickerers head on. "I can't stand it when that happens!" I said, which seemed to help me feel a bit better, if nothing else. Or, if in doubt, freak them out, as viral TikToker Lawrence Layton suggests: "Just get up, and say 'I'm sorry – it's just been so long since I inhabited a body'."