We all have one family member or friend in our lives who we don’t want to be seen with in public, even though we love them. Maybe it’s the dad with no volume control and a tendency to say problematic things in quiet restaurants. Maybe it’s the friend with the donkey laugh that can clear out a movie theater. Maybe it’s a colleague who thinks he’s making your Lyft driver’s day with his terrible jokes. Whatever it is, you’re embarrassed by their actions, squirming with discomfort even though you yourself have done nothing but stand next to them.
This particular variety of social awkwardness is familiar to almost everyone, so much so that it’s become its own genre of comedy in recent years: “Cringe comedy.” From The Larry Sanders Show, through The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm and to, well, almost every modern comedy show, it’s comedy that makes us laugh at the subject while simultaneously making us squirm in our seats. Its popularity stems from the fact that secondhand embarrassment is such a universal feeling — just watch this hapless fan interacting with Larry David (speaking of Curb…) and try not to feel mortified every time the hapless kid opens his mouth:
Why We Cringe
It really comes down to our understanding of social norms. While each of us is an individual, there are unspoken rules everyone in society is expected to obey. When people deviate from them, they stand out, bringing attention to themselves. Usually, the person who does this is oblivious to it, but if you’re standing next to them, oh boy, you’ll experience it.
That’s because we often feel a bizarre sense of propriety for them. Even though both of you are adults, you, as the “normal” person, are responsible for bringing this other person into a public place, where they’re flouting the rules, however unwittingly. According to Pascal Wallisch, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at NYU, we unconsciously signify embarrassment to others (by pulling an awkward expression, say, or stepping slightly away from them) to make it clear we know our companion has messed up, because we don’t want society to look poorly upon us. If we apologize for our friend’s transgression — even just with our body language — it lets everyone else know that, Hey, I get it: My buddy here is a clueless goon, but I’m not, honest.
There are times, of course, when someone screws up and knows it — like that guy who mistakenly drops his round of beers while walking back to his seat at a baseball game. And yet, we still feel embarrassed for them. This, says Wallisch, is more about empathy. “You identify with the person who’s being embarrassed, and because you know what embarrassment feels like, you get embarrassed as well.”
The feeling is worse the better you know the person: If it’s a best friend or a spouse, the feeling is intensified because you empathize with them that much more.
Ways to Handle It
Assuming that you like the person enough to continue to be friends with them, it may be wise to limit your exposure to them. “Maybe they can’t be your friend for every occasion, but they can still be a meaningful part of your life,” says social worker Veronica Acevedo. “Spend time with them where you only feel most comfortable.”
Like, presumably, the inside of your house, with the windows closed and the curtains drawn.
Acevedo cautions, though, “This is an avoidant tactic,” and it may not actually solve your problem. If you’re still finding yourself embarrassed by them or you can’t really change the “venue” of your friendship (or, y’know, it’s your dad), then you might need to address it head-on. “You can certainly tell the person about their embarrassing behavior,” Acevedo says, but she warns that you have to accept that you can’t do more than they’re willing to do: As we’ve noted before, you can give people advice, but you absolutely cannot change their behavior — only they can do that.
It may also make sense to try to compartmentalize things and “limit your empathy,” says Wallisch. “Realize that people are a package deal: Just because you’re friends with someone, it doesn’t mean you approve of all they do.” Basically, accept that you can’t take on all of their problems or “fix” them as well as abandon the idea that you should have to take responsibility for their social inadequacies.
If you can’t get past how embarrassing they are, Acevedo says that maybe there are other psychological issues at work: Perhaps, she suggests, on some subconscious level, you just like feeling superior to them. “There’s some power in thinking that your friend is the dumb one,” says Acevedo. Making you, by extension, the smart or “normal” one.
So if you can’t avoid or accept it, it might be time to ask yourself if you’re the one with the problem after all.
How embarrassing for you.