A gas station clerk greeted me with a smile when I entered to pay for gas. She was in mid-sentence when I walked in, but since no one else was there, I assumed she was talking to me. After an awkward moment, she gestured that she was speaking to someone on her hands-free phone. Awkward for me, not her.
It wasn’t always that way, was it? Ten years ago, a person appearing to be talking mindlessly to himself, might have said, with a trace of embarrassment, “Oh, sorry, I’m talking to someone on the phone.” Not anymore. The “burden of embarrassment,” as I call it, has shifted from the hands-free talker to the guileless, well-meaning observer (me).
Experience is the best teacher, thanks to occasional doses of embarrassment. We navigate boundaries and etiquette rules through embarrassing moments. But sometimes, embarrassment doesn’t just shift, it’s gone before it can educate us.
Among the many tributes for the late Senator John McCain, and now General Colin Powell, were bitter remarks from a recent ex-president who is immune to shame and its lessons. Worse, his behavior is trending as if humility is a lost human trait.
Embarrassment is (or was) a check on how we mature as we grow. When qualities like kindness, courtesy, and humility become anachronisms, how do we replace them?