The other day, I bought a cheap bouquet of bright pink sunflowers — I spotted them while en route to a birthday party, and they were too irresistible to pass up. The store was empty except for me and a couple employees, so when the person who checked me out handed me my change, I decided to actually take a few seconds to put it away properly in my wallet. There was no one behind me; I was in no rush — the pressure was off.
So why, just five seconds later, did I feel like I was sweating under a bare light bulb in an interrogation room? Maybe it was because the guys behind the counter seemed to be staring at me, waiting. Each second felt like it stretched on for two weeks. It didn’t help that I was using a too-full card holder instead of a wallet, and couldn’t slide the cash in easily. Days (milliseconds) later, I gave up on the whole thing. Shoving the bills and loose change into my pocket, I grabbed the bouquet and rushed out into the cold night and onto a sidewalk teeming with people. Were they judging me too?
It wasn’t until much later on, when I was at the party, that I had the chance to smooth out the crumpled cash and fold it into my card case for real. Then I felt frustrated with myself all over again: I’m a grown adult. What is so embarrassing about putting away change in front of people?
Something is: Getting flustered while dealing with change in a checkout line is a near-universal experience. Other things that shouldn’t be embarrassing, but are, include: walking out of a grocery store without buying anything; walking toward someone you know, when you’ve both spotted each other but are slightly too far away to casually say hi; opening presents in front of anyone; coughing to clear your throat, and then realizing you really have to cough again. (Of course, during the pandemic, coughing carries more social stigma than before. But pre-pandemic, having to let loose a succession of coughs in, say, math class made me want to hide under my desk.)
Those are the common ones, but many people have unique and often specifically petty, personal embarrassments as well. I run outdoors most mornings, often on the city sidewalks, and I always feel a twinge of self-consciousness when other people are around and I’ve finished my warm-up walk and start running. It’s as if, by picking up my pace, I’m screaming, “Here I am, going for my run!!!” It makes me cringe, but I guarantee no one else even notices. Even if they did, there’s nothing unusual about starting to jog. I’m in workout clothes — surely they understand what’s happening.
The type of embarrassment you might feel when you realize something’s been stuck in your teeth all day is slightly more understandable to me: Most of us know that it can be distracting or even off-putting to talk to someone who has a bit of lunch wedged next to their incisor, and we hate to think we might have grossed someone out. But I’ve never looked askance at someone who’s just starting off their run. So why do I feel like the spotlight’s on me when I do it?
“We experience embarrassment when we engage in a behavior that goes against social or moral norms. Basically it occurs when we break the ‘social script,’” explains Matthew Feinberg, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “The factors that are most important are (a) us breaking that script, (b) us feeling like others have seen us breaking that script. Most people have a natural inclination to follow the rules and norms of the society they live in. So, any sense that they are failing to live up to that inclination leads them to feel embarrassed.”
Of course, people have slightly different viewpoints on what social scripts are and what sorts of behavior breaks them. So while it might seem innocuous to take the time to put away your change properly, most people in the U.S. would consider “not holding up a line” to be a social script — meaning, the “correct” behavior for the social situation of “standing in line” is “move quickly so as not to delay the other people in queue.” “Many people may feel that they are holding up the line by taking that extra five seconds,” to put away their change, Dr. Feinberg explains. Even when no one is behind you, as was the case during my spontaneous sunflower purchase, you might feel that you’re delaying the checkout person; or, the script may simply be so ingrained in you that you feel pressure to stick to it in all situations.
The same explanation can be applied to many of the other petty personal embarrassments we feel, even my jogging awkwardness: Suddenly breaking into a run violates the social script regarding walking on a public sidewalk. Similarly, the social script for grocery shopping is to buy goods, hence the embarrassment about walking out empty handed. The social script for being in a quiet room is to not be disruptive, which explains why it’s embarrassing to be hit by a prolonged coughing fit. The script for passing an acquaintance is to exchange hellos, which falls apart when you’re walking down a long hallway toward someone you know, leaving you floundering, unsure of when or if to say hi.
Dr. Feinberg says that in situations like opening gifts in front of a crowd, there are two scripts happening at once. One calls for you to open the gifts and demonstrate your gratitude. But another societal norm is to avoid being the center of attention for too long, which can explain some people’s self-consciousness about the tradition. “I don't think everyone will feel embarrassed. It likely depends on how much an individual focus is on one script or the other,” he notes.
Of course, really dissecting why certain, very human experiences are embarrassing can make you question the entire idea of social scripts in the first place. Who decided these things, and who’s forcing the entire human race to stick to them? I’m all for social courtesy, but the fact that I apparently feel so dedicated to preserving a mostly unspoken rule that I break out into a sweat just because the grocery store didn’t have the type of mustard I wanted makes me feel brainwashed and restricted, not polite.
Dr. Feinberg’s view is slightly more rosy. “The key point that our research makes is that embarrassment — although unpleasant to experience — actually serves a very important function,” he says. “It signals to others that you care about the social order, and as a result, it can lead others to trust you more.” And when I think about it, maybe I would be a little suspicious of someone who takes their sweet time putting away their change in a checkout line, without even stepping to the side to let the line continue to move.
If you don’t feel embarrassed about these situations, though, it probably doesn’t mean you’re bad or rude — just that you have a different understanding of social scripts, the situation you’re in, or the rules and norms of the society you’re currently in. The social scripts I’ve described are specific to the U.S., where I live; different places have different etiquette systems and beliefs.
As much as I sometimes wish there was something to be done about this particular kind of embarrassment, understanding that the only thing to do, really, is embrace it as one of those quirks that come with being a human who cares about being a part of a community is its own kind of relief. There’s some comfort in knowing, after all, that we’re all slightly ridiculous. In fact, it’s beautiful, in a way. We’re all just trying to make it through this world as best we can, without stepping on anyone’s toes — especially in that moment we shift from walking into a steady jog.