Consider the recent adventures in awkwardness from Jeb Bush’s campaign: On Monday, the former Florida governor took the stage at a pre-caucus briefing in Des Moines after being introduced as “George — er, Jeb — Bush.” Later that same meeting, two apparent seat-fillers stood up and loudly demanded to know why they hadn’t yet been paid. (As Daily Intelligencer’s Ed Kilgore reported, seat-fillers were offered $25 per hour to make the gathering appear more full.)
Then there was Wednesday and the two saddest words ever uttered by a prospective presidential candidate: “Please clap.”
And that’s just this week. To be fair to Bush, when you see “please clap” in its proper context, it’s not quite as bad as a New York Times reporter made it out to be; it’s hard to get a crowd excited enough to spontaneously applaud something as mild as “a safer world.” But the story took flight on Wednesday, likely in part because it fits one of the narratives of Bush’s overall campaign: This is so awkward it physically hurts me.
Psychologists call the feeling vicarious embarrassment; the German word for it is Fremdscham, which translates literally to “external shame.” One of the most basic, primal human instincts is to keep up your standing within your social group. This is, in fact, the reigning theory of regular old embarrassment — that the feeling exists in order to maintain social order, by giving people an internal clue that they’ve stepped out of line, and that they’d better self-correct. For our ancestors, losing your standing in your group could potentially threaten your survival. Now, of course, it also means someone might immortalize the moment in a GIF.
That GIF comes from a recent thread in a subreddit exclusively devoted to dissecting cringe-worthy behavior. Secondhand embarrassment likely works the same way as the firsthand kind, but the feeling arises because you’re imagining yourself in the awkward person’s shoes. Most everyone feels, to some degree, embarrassment on behalf of someone else’s pratfall or screwup, but research has suggested that people vary in the degree to which they experience secondhand embarrassment. If some of Bush’s most painfully awkward moments have been hard for you to watch — or, for that matter, if you can’t bear the American Idol auditions, or if you’ve never been able to make it through an entire episode of the British version of The Office — it likely means that you number among the easily empathetically embarrassed. As psychology writer Oliver Burkeman phrased it in a 2014 piece for The Guardian, this suggests you have a “generally high capacity for involvement in the emotional lives of others.” It means you’re skilled at taking the perspective of others, in other words: You see someone else making a fool of himself and you feel it, as if it were happening to you.
And there’s a reason, incidentally, that we call these moments painfully awkward: The neural pathways that are activated when viewing another person’s social pain are the very same ones that are active when you watch someone withstand physical pain. The German researchers of the 2011 PLOS ONE study that discovered this, by the way, came about their findings by making their study participants watch other people do fun things like wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “I Am Sexy.”
One recent study found that the more you like someone, the more you feel empathetic embarrassment on their behalf. This may turn out to be good news for Bush, especially when one considers that time he tried to chest-bump someone.
Or that time he told a first-time voter, “I want to be your first.”
Or the time he couldn’t quite remember Malia Obama’s name.
I’m picking on Bush, but he is by no means the first politician to struggle with social ineptitude. Four years ago, we had Mitt Romney insisting that he “actually [likes] jokes as well as things that are sort of fun,” and apparently attempting to prove the matter by making a weird joke at a New Hampshire diner about a server grabbing his butt. Or there’s President Richard Nixon, who once, famously, wore wingtip shoes on the beach. As the Daily Beast noted in a 2012 piece, “Clearly you can be elected president and get things done even if you’re not a people person.” Few would place big bets on Bush’s chances at the presidency at this point. But at least one poll on Wednesday afternoon did show him rising to second place. To which I think Bush might say: Please clap?