A few years ago we went to Poland to visit our son Jon’s in-laws. Part of the trip was a pilgrimmage to Auschwitz and a visit to the ancient salt mine at Wieliczka, and staying in the resort town of Zakopane. At the markets in Zakopane one of the features is Oszcypek, a locally made sheep milk cheese. One of our number bought a bag of this cheese, it was quite reasonably priced I was told. The next day we set off by train for the long journey back to Warsaw. Well it was winter, the train was modern and had excellent heating – you can see where this is going – and the bag of cheese was unfortuantely near an aircon vent. Oops!
Well, sheep cheese doesn’t go gooey, when warmed it separates. And so there was initially an impercptible drip. Eventually Lyn noticed a dampness on her beanie, and looked up to be hit on the face by the dripping cheese. As the photo shows, we all began the hunt for the leak, and to move the cheese from the vent. If that weren’t awkward enough, it was just a little embarrassing that a local university student was in the same compartment witnessing this rather inept event. We did laugh, but it was awkward. That beanie took a fair bit of washing to get rid of the smell! Now we fondly remember the moment as a funny travel story, it contributed to making the trip memorable.
I have reflected on the moment and realised that it was socially embarrassing because, well, who likes to smell like sheeps cheese? And who likes to appear incompetent in storing cheese in the first place? And who copes with an audience in such circumstances? Who hasn’t been asked in class to read and not been paying attention as to which page? Who hasn’t been caught out with a maths question in class? Who hasn’t had a socially embarrassing moment as a teenager? (Perhaps a hermit) Teenagers tend to laugh to cover embarrassment, but it can turn to ridicule which derives from anger, and then it gets ugly. But then adults do that too. Who hasn’t pointed out that a friend is wearing odd socks only to be told it was intentional, and thus realizing that one’s own awkwardness drove the question in the first place?
Awkwardness is sometimes defined by our own expectations of how we look, behave and present in social settings or specific circumstances like sport or work. But it can also be coloured by what we imagine or perceive to be what is socially acceptable, and shame can be an unfortunate driving force or response. Humour is a great response, especially the ability to laugh at ourselves. And, to have empathy. We’ve all been there, so what is the cost to us to ease the embarrassment of another? Exactly – nothing! And in that train there was no anger, there was no scapegoating, there was no fault finding. We laughed together, we were momentarily embarrassed, and then we made adjustments, even the student laughed and shared our feelings, which eased the situation.
I can’t imagine life not being awkward, things happen, and we cannot control every moment or make life perfect, we really do have to learn to live with awkward, but we can help each other in that endeavour, we can ease the shame, the pain, the embarrassment, the anger, we can make it easier for each other. There’s nothing wrong with the feeling, but we can help each other move through it.
Below is a superb TEDtalk by Brene Brown on shame, she nails it.