Embarrassment

What Is Embarrassment?

Embarrassment is the involuntary, uncomfortable emotion that occurs when social predicaments increase the threat of undesired evaluations from other people. It typically strikes without forewarning when people suddenly realize that they are making (or are about to make) an unwelcome impression on others as a result of some misstep.

The symptoms of embarrassment are feelings of startled surprise, awkwardness, and sheepish abashment and chagrin; embarrassed people typically feel conspicuous and clumsy, and they are mortified by the unwanted judgments they tend to receive.

Studies of embarrassment are relevant to humans’ social interactions to some extent.

This entry discusses all three of these.

Fundament Motives

Our species exhibits a need to belong: We are wired to thrive when others accept us, and suffer when they reject us. Thus, we are constantly alert at how others perceive us and what they think of us, and we work to maintain desired images of ourselves for those whose judgments we value.

The prevailing view of most theorists is that embarrassment operates as an alarm mechanism that helps us deal with untoward events that might engender social rejection. It occurs automatically to interrupt inept behavior and to advance remedial action when self-presentation fails and we face the dreadful prospect of undesired social evaluation.

Indeed, embarrassment depends on our ability to imagine what others may be thinking of us. People who are unable to comprehend what other people think of them—such as young children, autistic adults, or anyone with certain psychological disorder—are hard to embarrass. They have difficulty understanding others’ points of view, so they may remain calmly unruffled in awkward situations that would ordinarily disconcert the rest of us. Only when their cognitive abilities are sophisticated enough to allow them see things from others’ perspectives (beginning from age 10) do children begin to be embarrassed by some of the same subtle situations that embarrass adults.

Embarrassment is also rare when people genuinely do not care what a particular audience thinks of them. It is more frequent and more acute when people are especially sensitive to other’s opinions. In particular, those who chronically yearn for acceptance and dread social disapproval react more strongly to social predicaments than others do. Thus, we normally possess innate responses that occur uncontrollably when our motives to maintain desired images for others are thwarted.

When embarrassment strikes, a distinguishing pattern of cardiovascular and adrenal arousal unfolds; notably, when dilation of capillaries in the face brings blood closer to the surface of our cheeks, we blush. This is a distinctive physiological reaction that is usually accompanied by a characteristic pattern of nonverbal behavior in which people avert gazes, touch their faces, bow their heads, and try (but usually fail) to suppress sheepish grins that are recognizably different from smiles of real amusement. All of these reactions typically make a person’s embarrassment easy to detect, so embarrassment affects our interactions with others, too.

Interactive Complexities

Most of the events that cause us embarrassment are individual blunders in which, all on our own, we publicly rip our pants, stall our cars, or forget others’ names. However, our relationships with others make a variety of more complex predicaments possible.

When we find someone else in a humiliating situation, we can experience empathic embarrassment if we envision what that person is feeling. If a relationship partner misbehaves, we can suffer team embarrassment—being abashed by our acknowledged association to the wayward partner—even when we have personally done nothing wrong.

Intimacy with others also increases the chances that they will accidentally embarrass us by privacy violations in which they inadvertently reveal secret or sensitive information about us to others. And on occasion, we may become the unwitting victims of intentional embarrassment when others make us the butt of practical jokes.

Intentional embarrassment can make the embarrassed victim angry, but most episodes of embarrassment elicit other reactions. People are sometimes so flustered by their predicaments that they simply run away, but they are more likely to (try to) ignore the incident and pretend that nothing has happened. If embarrassed people do mention the event, they often do so with humor if no harm was done, and if others were inconvenienced, they frequently apologize and take action to repair any damage. Thus, more often than not, embarrassment leaves us contrite, humble, and eager to please. Embarrassed people routinely behave in conciliatory ways that are likely to deflect disapproval from others.

One of the most remarkable things about embarrassment is that once some predicament arises, others will like us and treat us better if we do become obviously embarrassed than if we remain coolly unperturbed. Studies routinely find that people who are obviously chagrined after some maladroit mishap receive more favorable evaluations than do those who implacably stay cool and calm.

Embarrassment that is calibrated to one’s circumstances, being neither too extreme nor too mild, routinely elicits sympathy and support from bystanders. (This isn’t true among children, where goofy mistakes are often met with ridicule and derision; among adults, however, kind responses are the norm.) people who are inconvenienced by our mistakes may be annoyed by our actions, but even then, our embarrassment demonstrates that we recognize and regret our transgressions, and that portrays us in a favorable light.

An Evolutionary Perspective

When embarrassment occurs, it is usually obvious, and, because a blush cannot be faked, it demonstrates that our abashment is authentic and our contrition sincere. That may be why others then typically respond in a kindly fashion; one’s embarrassment reassures observes of one’s good intentions. Thus, embarrassed emotion may have evolved as a social communication that helped to forestall social rejection that would have reduced one’s chances of survival in harsh ancestral environments. Embarrassment may exist because humans are social animals who thrive only when they can comfortably coexist in close contact with others.