An Embarrassing Story Is a Secret Weapon at Work
The benefits of looking a little ridiculous in front of your colleagues
Last year, I flew to Montana with a nerve-wracking purpose: I was working on a big story, and as part of the reporting, I’d set up a meeting with several scientists who were big deals in their field. I wanted to appear confident, competent, like I was someone worthy of their time. So, as soon as our conversation began, I leaned forward and propped my chin up with my hand in the “active listening” pose I’d practiced.
Almost immediately, everyone else in the room started chuckling. Apparently, my fancy roller ball gel pen hadn’t withstood the pressure at 30,000 feet, and I’d just rubbed its exploded ink — which was all over my fingers — onto my face in an inky black goatee.
One round of rousing laughter and a trip to the bathroom later, I started the interview for real — and it turned into one of the best conversations I’ve had in recent memory. On the flight home, replaying the experience in my mind, I figured out why: My embarrassing moment broke the ice, making everyone laugh and, thus, making them more comfortable.
We all know shared embarrassment can bring us together. Think about any silly first day of camp or college orientation icebreaker you’ve ever sat through. But research suggests it can be a secret weapon in the conference room, too.
In fact, according to a recent study in the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation, recounting an embarrassing story at the start of a meeting or brainstorming session doesn’t just lighten the mood; it can prime your mind to do more creative, effective thinking.
“One of the inhibitors of creativity is this tendency we all feel to be embarrassed,” says Brian Lucas, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University and one of the study’s co-authors. “But if you get a small dose of embarrassment right out of the gate — we call it inoculation — it might make you more willing to just think crazy thoughts and come up with a highly novel idea. It’ll certainly help with your willingness to throw those things out on the table.”
Making yourself look a little bit silly is also a great way to fast-track group bonding. “An important aspect of brainstorming is that group members need to trust one another that they won’t be ridiculed if they throw out a really ridiculous idea,” Lucas says. And ridiculous ideas are exactly what you want, he adds: “The rule of thumb is it’s way easier to take a crazy idea and turn it into something functional than to take a boring idea and make it interesting.”
The usefulness of your embarrassing stories goes beyond brainstorming. Matt Feinberg, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto, likens our displays of embarrassment — blushing, ducking our head or tilting it to the side — to the way “great apes and other primates display apology or submissiveness.”
This is the evolutionary purpose of embarrassment, Feinberg explains: to make you likable. “People see you’re trying to fit in,” he says. “You’re what we call pro-social. You’re generous, you’re not selfish or egotistical, and as a result you’re more likely to be trusted.”
Putting the research into practice is simple. Use the downtime before a meeting to go around the table as a quick icebreaker. The stories don’t have to be long or detailed; in fact, they probably shouldn’t. “Between getting on the train and getting to the office, there’s a good chance I’ll do something embarrassing,” Lucas says. That’s the kind of anecdote you want: quick, work-appropriate, and relatable. Anything truly traumatic or with a high gross-out factor is too intense for this purpose — you want to inspire a quick laugh and then move on. And hope that the next person’s story is equally cringey.