Jan. 12, 2023

11. Secondhand Embarrassment

11. Secondhand Embarrassment

Have you heard of secondhand embarrassment? Imagine you’re sitting on a train next to a toilet with an automatic opening door.  And then, for no reason, it starts to open.  Think this could never happen?

If you’re going to ask others to sharing stories, then it is only fair if you share a story yourself.  So, here goes - this is my first personal story on Batting the Breeze. I hope you like it.

Next week's episode

[Episode 12] Winston Churchill's Last Bodyguard - Have you ever found a handwritten inscription behind an old bathroom cabinet and not stopped to read it? In that case, you may be kicking yourself by the time you’ve finished listening to the series of events which uncovered the life of one of Winston Churchill’s closest confidants - his last bodyguard.

Last week's episode

[Episode 10] A Holotropic Journey - In the 50’s and 60’s, a pharmaceutical company in Switzerland released the psychedelic drug LSD to encourage research of possible beneficial effects for psychological struggles or psychiatric illness. Psychedelic drugs were subsequently outlawed. Most people don’t realise that there is a legal, much safer option to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness today. Neil Harris explains.

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Le Penseur

The Thinker, Rodin



[00:00:00] Steve: It reminded me of eating a chocolate pudding. As soon as the pudding is gone, remorse and self-loathing wash over you in equal measure.

Host, Steve Winduss, thinking

[00:00:10] Steve: [00:00:20] [00:00:40] Secondhand embarrassment. The act of being embarrassed on behalf of another person and their [00:01:00] actions.

[00:01:00] Steve: It's a Saturday morning. My youngest son and I are on a trip to London to watch the mighty Chelsea FC perform at Stanford Bridge. This is a well-trod journey: Train from Southampton Airport to Clapham Junction, change to the overground line [00:01:20] and two stops to West Brompton.

[00:01:22] Steve: From there, a quick walk through Brompton cemetery, scene of so many great movie finale's, and you are there. As my son is in a wheelchair, our position on the train is predetermined; that seatless, open space at the end of the carriage[00:01:40] opposite the toilet.

[00:01:43] Steve: A pretty standard trip. As we near Clapham Junction, the train takes on more passengers and the prevalence of the Chelsea Blue is in increasing evidence. Our section is now a male haven; my son and I, a dozen [00:02:00] mid-twenties male Chelsea fans, and a toilet door.

[00:02:05] Steve: For those of you who have not had the pleasure of traveling on British railways; a while back, some well-intentioned technical designers drafted the idea that toilet door openers shouldn't be [00:02:20] of the door-handle variety that you and I probably have at home.

[00:02:24] Steve: Instead, they should be of the push-button variety, very similar to those that let you on and off the train. In many parts of the [00:02:40] country, this indeed is what we now have. There are two buttons on the outside; open and close, and three buttons on the inside; open, close and lock. But I'll return to that later.

[00:02:57] Steve: The toilet door itself is an [00:03:00] enormous curved structure, so large and so prominent that when open the toilet becomes part of the carriage. Passengers at one with the toilet. Fair play to the designers, this is great for those in [00:03:20] wheelchairs who wish to go in, but not so good for those in seats who wish to stay out.

[00:03:27] Steve: The old design would have the toilet door opening into the corridor, a low-key entrance and exit, surreptitious and away from passenger seats. [00:03:40] Our new toilet is now as proud as a theatre stage. As the user leaves that stage, the curtain draws back to reveal the audience. However, instead of pausing to absorb a warmth of applause, they're praying that the door closes quickly behind them before [00:04:00] anything unseemly follows them out. They leave briskly.

[00:04:05] Steve: Back to those buttons. With such an audience, it's incredibly difficult to take in the relatively simple, yet unfamiliar instructions how to ensure a secure visit to the loo.

[00:04:19] Steve: The [00:04:20] problem is that despite a small red light coming on when you press the lock button, there is no way on earth that you can convince yourself that the door is actually locked.

[00:04:33] Steve: You immediately realize how comforting a tangible, solid stainless bolt across a [00:04:40] toilet door can be. The old trick of putting your foot up against the door while simultaneously concentrating on the task at hand simply won't work with a large sliding door. To sit on that toilet is to give yourself up to blind [00:05:00] faith and lady luck.

[00:05:02] Steve: A passenger would walk into our carriage to use our toilet. Other passengers appear and press the open button to find that the door won't open. That's because it was locked. Some press it [00:05:20] several times before satisfying themselves that someone else is using it.

[00:05:25] Steve: I couldn't help but wonder how embarrassing it would be if the door opened while someone was inside. It was the schadenfreude that I think we all experience from time to time ; imagining the most [00:05:40] embarrassing thing that could happen in any given situation, and imposing that embarrassment upon someone else.

[00:05:48] Steve: But of course, that would never happen.

[00:05:51] Steve: At this point, I have to say to you that what I [00:06:00] am about to describe really did happen.

[00:06:04] Steve: A lady had been in occupation for a few minutes. For no apparent reason, the toilet door started to draw back so slowly, so quietly, so [00:06:20] theatrically. And it stayed open.

[00:06:27] Steve: The testosterone packed carriage fell silent. Time slowed, mouths gaped. And there she was. [00:06:40] I call her Samantha, sitting serenely on toilet, jeans and knickers around ankles. Arms resting on legs, posture leaning gently forwards, not unlike Auguste Rodin's, "The Thinker". And boy did she have some thinking to do.[00:07:00] And with that door rolled back, we were there with her, in the same space, in the same moment.

[00:07:10] Steve: As an aside "Le Penseur", [00:07:20] also known as "The Thinker", was originally designed as part of a doorway sculpture called "The Gates of Hell", based on characters from Dante's Divine Comedy completed in 1320 just before his death.


[00:07:36] Steve: Divine Comedy paints an [00:07:40] imaginative picture of the afterlife, with part one, "Inferno", describing Dante's journey through hell. How apt.

[00:07:54] Steve: Back to [00:08:00] Samantha. Now, if an outstretched leg can't reach the door, then neither can an arm. To hit the close button again would require leaving the relative safety of the toilet seat and lunging. Jeans and knickers would stay around ankles. [00:08:20] A short step could be afforded, and then one upper body lunge, no second chances.

[00:08:27] Steve: And lunge she did, uncoiling like a frog leaping from a lily pad, mercifully hitting the closed button first time. The door [00:08:40] slowly drew closed.

Lunging for the toilet door lock

[00:08:41] Steve: But of course Samantha still wasn't home and dry. Her curtain call awaited. She still had to walk back through her virile, adoring audience to return to her seat. . We were still 15 minutes from the next [00:09:00] stop. She couldn't stay in there till then? But to walk out?

[00:09:05] Steve: During those moments, I reasoned that this was not schadenfreude. That would be experiencing pleasure at someone else's expense. Someone faceless, remote, intangible. [00:09:20] This was Samantha; so real, so close I could shake her hand - though probably not appropriate under the circumstances. This was something else; an embarrassment so personal that I felt it as much as her, I'd become part of her [00:09:40] embarrassment. Secondhand. Secondhand embarrassment.

[00:09:45] Steve: An eternal two minutes later, the gates of hell reopened. The audience held its breath and our Samantha strode [00:10:00] single-mindedly off stage to merge back into the adjacent carriage. The synchronized exhalation was followed by momentary reflection. A spontaneous round of applause could have befitted, but the silence remained as the stunned and speechless pondered their own [00:10:20] secondhand embarrassment.

[00:10:22] Steve: The silence was inevitably broken by the boyish giggles, cackles and guffaws of the pack, and then the moment had passed.


[00:10:33] Steve: The experience had been bizarre, transcendental,[00:10:40] excruciating.

[00:10:43] Steve: It reminded me of eating a chocolate pudding. As soon as the pudding is gone, remorse and self-loathing wash over you in equal measure.

[00:10:53] Steve: The point is with one step forward, I could have saved Samantha.[00:11:00] A single finger push on a close button. But I just sat there. And that is the paralyzing phenomena that is secondhand embarrassment; a recognition of the acute pain of the situation, and with an opportunity to release that pain, but held in [00:11:20] time and unable to move.

[00:11:22] Steve: Samantha, whoever you are, wherever you are, I wholeheartedly apologize for my inaction, ineptitude, and failure to step in to save you that day. I can only hope that [00:11:40] you're dining out on this story as much as I have since, and will continue to do so for some time to come.

[00:11:48] Steve: By the way, Chelsea beat Aston Villa [00:12:00] eight-nil. [00:12:20]