We always have a choice no matter the situation or the circumstance
The rate at which a person can mature is directly proportional to the embarrassment he can tolerate.
– Douglas Engelbart
As an African with an accent, the poor portrayal of Africa and Africans in general by the media had led to the many misunderstandings among people who are not Africans, never visited Africa, or have little to no contact with someone from Africa.
First major encounter with embarrassment in America
My first embarrassing moment occurred when I was in college. I used to work in a computer lab during my freshman year. Yes computer labs, and I am from Africa, surprise… because some people were shocked that I was computer literate. We would normally cover events such as conferences, musical recitals, symposiums, lectures, etc.
On one fateful day,
when the sun decided to smile at us for the first time after an awful winter,
my supervisor decided to take the day off and enjoy some sunshine with her
family. She asked if I would take over as team leader. I would be left alone with other work-study
students. Excited but terrified, I summoned the courage to say yes and be the
lead for the day. As an assigned team leader, I was supposed to lead and be the
go-to person in case of any problem or difficulties. After we set up all
the equipment and the conference was about to begin everything shut down.
Sound system misbehaving or when God decided to allow a test
No sound, no projector, no microphones working. Nothing except the laptop speaker, and we did not have an HDMI cable to connect to the station computer or even the projector directly. It seemed like all hell was about to break loose. There was no savior, just a bunch of work-study students and an inexperienced team-leader for the day.
“Well, what are we going to do now?” was the biggest question. Since the conference could not be canceled or delayed further than 30 minutes. After several unsuccessful calls to my immediate supervisor, we decided to call the senior supervisor because no one was answering the phones. All our supervisors think we have it handled. We had several sessions of training on how to operate the equipment and do the setup for events in the previous few days, and everything went well. My supervisor had no doubt that my team and I will carry on the operation smoothly.
When doubts fight to overshadow faith
I was sweating and pacing as the speaker was getting ready to come on stage. I did not know what to tell her. Her eyes were wide, her posture drooping, and with a half a sheepish smile she says hello to us on her way to the change room.
The audience arrives
People started coming in as we continued trying to fix the problem. With the help of the IT specialist, there was still no hope. It almost seemed like a stormy winter day except that we were sweating so hard and won’t be surprised if the auditorium was now a lake because of the amount sweat.
The moment of truth
We were able to get the project and her laptop working with the help of the IT specialist, but the microphone was not working. We tried the wireless mics, but all the wireless either ran off of batteries or was not working properly. It was a big auditorium, so without a microphone it would be hard for people to hear her.
Now comes the speaker
She summoned all the courage she had, or at least I thought so, and put on a big smile as she approached the stage. My heart was pounding so fast it almost seemed like a heart attack. I was hiding behind the big podium while working on the sound system. One of the students handed over the microphone as usual, but this time nothing happens.
Expected the unexpected
She started greeting the audience, but no one could hear what she was saying. She could only guess something was wrong from their reactions. Then I stood up and apologized with a shaky voice, thick accent not helping at all (when nervous my accent usually doubles). She just said, “Excuse me? I speak English ‘Only,’ and, please, who is in charge here?
The moment of embarrassment
Oh wow, I froze for a moment and tried to open my mouth yet only emptiness or air was coming. My body shrieked, and my eyes could no longer keep eye contact with the speaker because of my teary eyes and trying to fight back the tears. The feeling of unqualified, alienation, all started running through me. One of the students finally get his self together and responded to the speaker and ,’She is our team leader, and she also speaks good English.
She said well I could not understand what she is saying and I have a conference about to start.
When shame turned into fighting courage
We apologized and asked her to give us 10 minutes or so. We switched off all the equipment and starting rebooting everything. It took longer than we expected, but somehow miraculously everything started working after we turned them on again. The rest of the team never gave up no matter what, and I learned that it doesn’t matter who looks down on you because you are different or struggling to fix a problem
Fast-forward – The African girl becomes a computer lab staff member
Embarrassment is an unpleasant feeling of awkwardness, which occurs when a person has
lost control over a situation in front of an audience (Goffman, 1956, 1959, 1967; Miller, 1996).The brief moment of embarrassment almost incapacitated me. I had two options: to run out of the auditorium and surrender, or shake it off and got back to work. Thank God, my team, and I chose the later and went back to work. The awkwardness did not immediately vanish or disappear, but there was a feeling of refreshment and relief after everything started working.
My overall boss heard about the incident and did not say anything until I applied for an opening to become a staff member. He told me about the incident and how proud he was. Immediately, questions started raising in my mind; what would have happened if we chose to give up and said it was beyond our experience and paycheck to save the day? Will they ever trust those in work-studies with such projects again? I got the job and continued to surprise many who were closed minded that an African was knowledgeable about computers.
How to overcome embarrassment in similar situations
- Self-esteem in check
No matter who you are, it is easier to get angry, frustrated, or shy away when your self-esteem is attacked. Having healthy self-esteem actually reduces the fight against embarrassment.
- Distinguishing between feeling like a failure and being a failure
It is okay to feel like a failure, but it is not advisable to label yourself as a failure, even after 99 attempts. That does not make you a failure. It is vital to understand the difference and make mental notes or correct your self-talk when the feeling arises.
- Acceptance of uncomfortable or unpleasant situations (ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)
Practice breeds familiarity and familiarity yields acceptance. Sometimes putting yourself out there as an artist, writer, etc can be very scary and nerve-wracking, but as you do it the feeling of fear subsides with time. The comments or negative feedback will no longer be a dreadful experience. It is the same with embarrassment. Perhaps your fear is caused by shyness, uniqueness, or accent as in my case. Accepting it first and embracing the fact that you are different, but not less than, will reduce the amount of embarrassment it causes. In my case, I learned to accept that I will always speak English with an accent, but that does not define my intelligence or ability to learn and perform well in a society dominated by those speaking English as their first language. Talent defies all languages and has no barrier.