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‘Learn to live with cringe’ says Swift

Should we stop being embarrassed? Taylor Swift told graduates in New York to “embrace their cringe”. But many think it is more intelligent to possess a modicum of shyness. This Wednesday, Taylor Swift took to the stage at the Yankee Stadium. A crowd numbering tens of thousands clapped and cheered. But they were not there to see her sing. Instead, Swift delivered a 20-minute speech at New York University’s commencement ceremony. In measured tones, she told people to stop worrying about being embarrassed: “You will look back on your life and cringe. Cringe is unavoidable”. The word cringe comes from the Old English term cringan, meaning to bend or to fall in battle. In Modern English, it has come to mean an inward shiver of embarrassment or disgust. Almost everyone feels embarrassed sometimes. The physical reactions are the same in everyone: a sudden warmth in the head, sweaty palms, blushing cheeks, avoiding eye contact, looking at the floor.  For Charles Darwin, blushing in embarrassment was pointless. He wrote: “It makes the blusher suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least service to either of them”.  Yet history is filled with examples of those who have ignored social embarrassment to go against the grain. Martin Luther thought up his Ninety-five Theses on the toilet. If he had been embarrassed to share his bathroom thoughts, the Reformation might never have happened.  Others, however, argue that embarrassment plays a useful social role in our lives. Experiments have found that people tend to choose to work, befriend and date those willing to blush. As behavioural psychologist Matthew Feinberg says: “it could show that you are prosocial, cooperative – someone who isn’t going to cheat.” Biologists have observed that apes blush when they want to apologise or back down. Perry calls it “part of being human”.  Should we stop being embarrassed?  Hot flash Yes: Ancient humans feel embarrasment because they needed to stick together for safety. In the modern world, though, we have the chance to live how we want without cringing – and we should take it. No: Shame feels bad, but being shameless is worse. Embarrassment is much the same. A momentary wince may feel bad, but the perspective it gives us on our emotions and actions is invaluable.  Or… It is not about whether we should stop, but whether we can. Cringing is hard-wired into our system. As long as we have emotions, some things will make us squirm no matter how much we try not to. KeywordsCommencement ceremony - In US universities, students who have recently finished their degree celebrate at a commencement ceremony.

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