Oh, those feelings of embarrassment! You feel your body start to sweat, your face turning red, and it feels as if every person in sight is staring at you while you make a buffoon of yourself.
Those embarrassing moments you experience may actually help build trust with others. A study by researchers at U.C. Berkeley suggests the display of embarrassment may increase others’ perceptions of you as a trustworthy individual. Participants in this research watched videos of people describing their embarrassing moments and reported that they perceived those individuals as more generous and trustworthy compared to individuals who tried to downplay the situation and pretend they weren’t embarrassed.
I can’t say the results of this research are terribly surprising, but they do reinforce some fundamental truths about building trust.
- Being “real” builds trust – We trust people when we perceive them as being authentic and down to earth. When people try to put on airs and pretend to be something or someone they aren’t, we immediately label them as being a fake, a phony, or a poser (pick your adjective). What’s the advice that virtually every parent gives their child who’s nervous about attending the first day of school and making new friends? “Just be yourself.” Displaying emotions of embarrassment tells others that you’re being real, that you acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and that you aren’t trying to be someone you’re not by pretending you’re not embarrassed.
- Vulnerability builds trust – Being embarrassed is a moment of vulnerability when you can no longer hide behind your public persona and you’re subject to the reactions of those around you. People who try to hide their feelings of embarrassment probably have a low-level of trust in how they will be received by others in their social circle. Because of that lack of trust and unwillingness to be vulnerable, they try to hide their embarrassment so they don’t run the risk of being looked at as “less than” the people around them. Willingness to be embarrassed shows others that you are confident in your self-image and standing within the group and a few minutes of embarrassment won’t change the dynamics of your relationship.
- Shared experiences build trust – Bonding occurs in a group of people when they all go through a common experience and embarrassing moments can serve as one of those community building events. This happened with my team a few years ago when I was given a surprise birthday gift during a team meeting. It was my 40th birthday and the team put together a PowerPoint presentation with embarrassing pictures from my childhood (courtesy of the covert help of my wife), one of which included a side-by-side comparison of my 9th grade high school photo with that of the movie character Napoleon Dynamite (there is a striking resemblance!). It was quite embarrassing and we all had a good laugh, but it brought us closer together and it lives on in the lore of our team.
So the next time one of those embarrassing moments comes along, don’t be a poser and try to pretend it didn’t happen. Embrace the moment, acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation, and use it as an opportunity to build trust and deeper relationships with those around you.