Royally Red Faced: Prince Harry's Birthday Embarrassment Is Actually A Really Good Thing

Happy 39th Birthday to the Duke of Sussex!

embarrassed prince harry FiledIMAGE / Shutterstock; DK Studios, supermimicry, golubovy / Getty Images via Canva

The Duke of Sussex rang in his 39th birthday in royal fashion after the large crowd of fans at the sixth edition of his Invictus Games in Germany decided to serenade him with a “Happy Birthday” song. Even Prince Harry is not safe from the age-old tradition of embarrassment.

With his wife, Meghan Markle, by his side, fans in the Merkur Spiel-Arena in Düsseldorf happily sang the tune and wished the prince a happy birthday as he turned red in the face from the embarrassment. Despite the royal red that the prince donned, as the founder of the Invictus Games, he seemed to enjoy the love and affection from the spectators who were there to see the volleyball match between Poland and Germany.


This begs the question: why do we feel embarrassed? Where in human evolution was the feeling of embarrassment deemed necessary for survival? It’s a moment of joy for the people around us, and we’re being showered with love and affection, so why are we praying for the moment the “Happy Birthdays” are over?

As it turns out, there’s an answer to that.

The unique human emotion of embarrassment is actually a good thing.

Humanity is filled with a wide range of emotions unique to our species — and embarrassment is one of them. Dr. Joe Hanson of PBS’s “Be Smart” explained in December 2022 why feeling embarrassed is actually a good thing.


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“Embarrassment. Awkwardness. Cringe. No matter what you call it, it’s one of the most unique human emotions and one that’s particularly hard to figure out,” he says. “But if a feeling exists and has lasted through evolution, then it probably has a purpose!”

To keep things short, when humans feel embarrassment in any social situation, it’s likely because they feel “out of step with social expectations.” We fear the negative judgment from those around us and the feelings of embarrassment are teaching moments for understanding “where the boundaries of social norms and good behavior are.”

Dr. Hanson actually brings up two examples that Prince Harry experienced in one moment — being the center of attention during the “Happy Birthday” song and being displayed on the jumbotron of a sports event.


As for the latter, scientists refer to that moment as the dramaturgic model of embarrassment. Prince Harry felt embarrassed not only because he was the center of attention, but he was unsure of what actions he should perform in the extended moment of his being perceived.

“According to emotion researcher, Rowland S. Miller, people who are susceptible to feeling embarrassment are more concerned with following social norms and more afraid of rejection,” Dr. Hanson explains.

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Prince Harry was likely embarrassed because he was unsure of what to do.

What are you supposed to do in this situation? Aside from sitting there, smiling, and giving everyone the thumbs up, there’s really nothing else to do. Being the center of attention in a place where you normally wouldn’t be and having the whole stadium sing you a “Happy Birthday” is sure to feel embarrassing.

This is a good thing, though, because that means Prince Harry is trying to keep up with social norms — or, as Dr. Hanson puts it, he doesn’t want to “rock the social boat.” He wants to behave in a socially acceptable manner in order to continue keeping up with his appearance.

Everyone knows it’s an embarrassing moment as well. It’s almost like an inside joke. All of your friends at the restaurant know you’re going to feel embarrassed when they tell the waiter it’s your birthday, and that’s a part of it.

Markle was grinning from ear to ear as the stadium sang him a happy birthday because she likely understood the way he was feeling — and that’s something that Dr. Hanson touches on as well.


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Feeling embarrassed for another person is a sign of empathy.

This is known as vicarious embarrassment or second-hand embarrassment.

“When you feel vicarious embarrassment, you're imagining what another person is feeling which fires up particular regions of your brain,” Dr. Hanson explains. “Those are also the parts of your brain that help you feel empathy, which is one of the things that makes human relationships so rich and complex.”


He congratulates you for caring for someone else because, at the end of the day, that’s why you’re feeling embarrassed for them. It’s also why we enjoy cringe comedy so much.

Shows like “The Office” or “Parks and Recreation” highlight this very well. Cringe comedy allows us to experience other people’s social mistakes and laugh at them.

We understand that when Michael Scott crosses the social boundaries with his employees, we’re hiding our faces in our hands because he’s doing something wrong. We’re learning that we shouldn’t behave similarly to him, and therefore understanding what is socially acceptable.


Of course, there’s no way of avoiding the “Happy Birthday” song, but the feeling we get when we’re being sung to is because we care about the way other people see us, and that’s not a bad thing.

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Isaac Serna-Diez is an Assistant Editor for YourTango who focuses on entertainment and news, social justice, and politics.