I was so delighted to see my former next-door neighbor that I put my arms around him and gave him a big hug. “Wow” I exclaimed. “It has been a really long time. How are you? Do you still live in the same neighborhood?”
The woman to my right answered for the gentleman. “He really is huggable, isn’t he?” she asked. That was the first clue that I had made some sort of mistake.
“Hi, I am Susanne.” I introduced myself to her. Then I realized that this was not the wife I had remembered and he was not my former next-door neighbor. I apologized and lowered my head feeling immensely embarrassed. After all, I had just hugged a man I had never before met, and did so in front of his wife.
This was the second time I had made this same mistake. A couple of months prior, I was paying my respects to a friend who had lost her mother. A crowd of others where also paying their respects. As I was talking, visiting with a couple of gentlemen who I had gone to high school with, I went to give a kiss and a hug to one that had lived down the street. His family and mine had been friends for years. It was only after he did not say a word in response that I realized my error. “Uh oh, you are not who I thought you were, are you?” Another case of mistaken identity.
Then there was the old friend who said, “You don’t have to say hello to me. I’m going to say hello to you anyway.” Of course, I really had not seen him even though he was right next to me.
And there was the time at the gym. As I was finishing my morning workout, two old friends walked past me and I was in too much of a daze to stop and say hello. They were offended and still haven’t spoken to me, although years have passed.
This is not the first time I have embarrassed myself in public. There was the time I asked an acquaintance when she was due? “You mean when am I having my baby?” she replied. “About a month ago. I just still look pregnant.”
Then there was the buffet dinner we were attending in honor of my birthday. My food was on my tray as I returned to my table, and proceeded to trip on my way. All the food and dishes landed on the floor with me on top of the heap. Boy was I embarrassed.
The self-consciousness, or embarrassment I felt resulted from an accidental behavior. I didn’t mean to do any of these things. In each situation, I apologized for behaving so badly in public.
Each of us can remember feeling self-conscious after such a blunder. That is, if we are willing to take responsibility for our missteps. That is, if we can honestly say we feel shame and regret. And each of us can remember feeling badly when someone else is shamed in public.
When I hear a spouse reprimanding their husband or wife in public, I feel embarrassed.
When I hear a parent scolding a child in public, I feel embarrassed.
When I hear anyone bragging about how badly they treated someone else, I feel embarrassed.
We all behave badly by accident, but I also feel embarrassed for the person who was intentionally reprimanded or downgraded in front of others. Facing an honest mistake can help you learn and grow. But being embarrassed intentionally, by someone else, is meant to make you feel small and ashamed.
Recently a girlfriend apologized to me for saying something she realized was embarrassing. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you in public like that,” she said. My response was simply, “I know you and value your friendship. I know you would not have intentionally embarrassed me.”
As we hugged, I realized that there is a great difference between an accidental misstep and an intentional embarrassment. And that difference can determine how we deal with the outcome.