Recently I spent a day debugging a device driver on my home computer and got so engrossed in the problem that I forgot that I had a date. Actually, I had forgotten that there was a world around me beyond the computer, much less that I had an appointment to keep in it. My girlfriend found me at the machine, and managed to get my attention and tow me back to reality.
However before the boat came in, she saw me scribbling notes and muttering churlishly in programmers' argot (a language roughly half venomous curses and half technical specifications). The fact that it took a good five or ten minutes to regain fully focusing eyes and return to speaking English didn't help. With my return came that special embarrassment that comes from opening the bathroom door after a private concert and seeing your roommate on the couch giggling.
My girlfriend knows that I am a geek, so the fact that I get this way should not surprise her. In fact, I know she's technical person herself, and experiences the same moments of focus. So what caused me to be so uncomfortable?
I've heard the theory that this type of embarrassment stems from finding oneself unexpectedly performing something for others that was intended to be private. That may be a cause of embarrassment, but don't think it's the relevant one. I have been surprised performing an act that I intended to show to others, and been embarrassed when the very people I was going to show it to saw me. This shoots down the idea that my actions aren't intended for display.
I feel that the source of the embarrassment is not that the act itself is embarrassing, but that your state of our mind is. Without an audience, people are unselfconscious. You sing raucously in the shower, or grumble in an unfathomable language at inanimate objects, believing that no one is there to hear. It is the sudden change in role from hermit to performer that causes the discomfort. Worse than suddenly being in the spotlight, you discover that your private self has been in the spotlight for some period of time. You have been acting in the most disingenuous way you are capable of acting, and someone has seen it.
I have no idea why this upsets us so, but it does. Maybe it is some survival instinct chiding us for letting our guard down. After all a similar slip up in a more primordial setting could have exposed us to predators. Or maybe it is a reaction that was trained into us when we learned the basic etiquette of being around other people. The same reaction that makes you zip your fly up, makes you ashamed to have been leading an imaginary orchestra.
But next time it happens to you, notice how intently the person who catches you is watching. They are genuinely transfixed. Seeing someone being completely themselves is so unusual that they're fascinated. This distresses me as much as my own reaction to being caught being myself. Are we really that unused to seeing people we know be themselves?
I think we are, and in many cases it keeps society moving. There are many people in this world that I have no desire to know their unhidden selves. (In fact, I think this is why Michael Jackson is so disturbing, but that's another essay.) Still, having friends that you share a bond with that allows you both to be unashamedly yourselves is to be fondly treasured.
I think that we should all be trying to find some set of people that we can be close enough with to sing in their shower unashamed, with them unfascinated. And maybe the key to finding them is writing disk driver code in more friends' living rooms.