They’re not all going to laugh at you
Hi. How have you been?
I’ve been busy and haven’t been able to write on Medium lately. But I’m sure you weren’t too concerned.
You probably weren’t waiting around wondering, I wonder when that one guy on Medium is going to write another think piece about Seinfeld and Dylan?
Or if you did notice I wasn’t writing much lately it probably wasn’t on your top 10 list of daily concerns. You have your own things to worry about.
I know this because there’s something called the Spotlight Effect. It means you think others pay far more attention than they actually do to your foibles, failings and bad hair days that preoccupy your own thoughts.
I think I should be writing more often on Medium. Meanwhile you’re thinking, there is unlimited content on the Internet and if one dude doesn’t publish for a few weeks it’s really OK.
Melissa Dahl talks about research into the Spotlight Effect in her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness. Studies show that people wildly overestimate how much others notice when you make a mistake, commit a social faux pas or think that you’ve failed.
Dahl cites studies where participants were made to walk in late to a room or wear a Barry Manilow t-shirt in front of a group. Then they rated how much they thought others noticed their embarrassing behavior. Then others rated how much they actually noticed.
The results? We inflate the impact of our perceived embarrassing behavior.
“We think that people notice us much more than they do,” said Dr. Kenneth Savitsky, associate professor of psychology at Williams College, who has studied the spotlight phenomenon extensively
No doubt, embarrassing situations occur. But usually other people are preoccupied with their own issues to give much thought to or attach too much significance to what you perceive as your own shortcomings.
Reading about the Spotlight Effect reminded me of a time I thought I had made a fool of myself in front of some really nice Canadian beer mile runners.
It all started a few years ago I traveled to San Francisco to cover the first beer mile world championship. I dare say that at the time I was one of the world’s foremost experts on combining beer and running.
I’d been blogging about this niche topic for a beer magazine since 2007, and my 3-year daily beer and running streak had been written about in Runner’s World and WIRED Magazine. In other words, I knew what I was doing!
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When I traveled to San Francisco, the underground world that I had been writing about for years was suddenly breaking out into the mainstream. The beer mile was being covered TMZ, ESPN and even the Wall Street Journal.
My magazine flew me out to San Francisco to document elite runners who were now into the sport of chugging four beers while running four laps. The world was reaching peak beer mile.
Before the day of the big race, there was an event in a private residence where the press could interview the individuals and teams competing. So after getting into town, I checked in at my Airbnb then took an Uber to the residence to interview the beer mile elite.
I arrived, walked in, and I felt like I entered another universe. I was suddenly hit with a wave of imposter syndrome.
This wasn’t a traditional press event. It felt more like a frat house party, except in a San Francisco mansion. There was no one obviously in charge, so I wandered around the elite runners gathered in tight-knit groups laughing, drinking beer and carrying on while wearing their team jerseys.
My internal monologue told me I was clearly out of place.
What was I doing here?? I should just go back to Milwaukee. I’ll just be found out as a fraud.
Eventually, I cornered the team from Canada for an interview. They were super polite. I took out my notebook and started recording. I started asking questions.
And then, a few minutes into the interview, my mind went blank.
I stammered around for an intelligent question.
The flop sweat was real.
I felt like this was the longest anyone had not talked ever.
I eventually stammered out some question, I don’t really remember what.
Fortunately, the rest of the interview went smoothly. If you’re going to be awkward, there’s no better audience than runners from Canada. They were super friendly.
When we experience a moment like this, we replay it on a loop in our minds. Sometimes a particularly embarrassing moment will pop in our minds years later for no apparent reason. Dahl calls these “cringe attacks.” Every time one of these memories gets replayed, it gets magnified.
But for this particular moment, I didn’t just have the recording in my brain. I had an actual recording.
After I went back to my Airbnb that night, I played the tape of the interview. I fast-forwarded to that part that seemed so awkward. I wanted to hear exactly how much I screwed up.
Here’s the strange thing. I listened back to the tape multiples times, and I couldn’t detect anything that seemed awkward or off. It all seemed… normal.
It must have been all in my head.
Even typing this now, it seems funny that I made such a big deal of this. But it shows how much we build things up in our minds in the moment. We can let our thoughts carry us away. That’s the Spotlight Effect at work.
That’s what research on this phenomenon shows. You are privy to all the thoughts in your head, and when you have intense feelings you assume others must notice what you’re going through. Usually, they don’t.
In Cringeworthy, Dahl talks about how if we’re aware of the Spotlight Effect, we can mitigate its power over us. She cites research that we regret what we don’t do – out of fear of being uncomfortable or awkward – more than we regret going for it.
So go do what you want to do. Don’t fear the awkward. They’re not all going to laugh at you.
They probably won’t even notice.
PS The Canadian team ended up pulling off an upset by defeating the Americans and ushered in an era of Canadians dominating the beer mile. I’m glad I interviewed them.