Embarrassment is the emotion that results when social predicaments increase the threat of unwanted evaluations from real or imagined audiences. It occurs when people realize that they are making undesired impressions on others, and it usually strikes without warning when some misstep or abrupt change in fortune puts people in awkward situations. It is characterized by feelings of startled surprise, ungainly awkwardness, and sheepish abashment and chagrin. Embarrassed people typically feel painfully conspicuous and clumsy; they rue their circumstances and may be mortified or even humiliated by the unwelcome judgments they presume from others.
Context and Importance of Embarrassment
Embarrassment is clearly an emotion: When it occurs, it strikes quickly and automatically in a manner that people cannot control, but it lasts only a short time. Moreover, embarrassment is a distinctive emotion that is unlike any other: It has unique antecedents and physiological effects, it elicits singular feelings and behaviors, and it has particular effects on people’s interactions with others.
The events that cause embarrassment range from individual blunders—in which people rip their pants, spill their drinks, or forget others’ names—to more complex circumstances in which interactions take awkward turns or innocent victims are made the butt of practical jokes. The common element in these events is that they all convey to other people unexpected, unwelcome information that threatens to make an unwanted impression. Because embarrassment arises from acute concerns about what others are thinking, it is unlikely to occur if one genuinely does not care what one’s present audience thinks.
When it occurs, embarrassment engenders a notable physical reaction, blushing, which is caused by dilation of veins in the neck and face that brings blood closer to the surface of the skin. A distinctive pattern of nonverbal behavior also occurs: When embarrassment strikes, people avert their gazes and try not to smile, but they usually break into sheepish grins that are recognizably different from smiles of real amusement. They may bring their hands to their faces, bow their heads, gesture broadly, and stammer, and when this sequence of behavior is accompanied by a blush, embarrassment is easy to detect.
The feelings that result from embarrassment are less painful than those that result from shame. Embarrassment causes sheepish discombobulation, whereas shame (which follows darker, weightier wrongdoing) is characterized by spiteful disgust and disdain for one’s flaws. Embarrassment is also quite different from shyness, the state of fretful trepidation over potential disapproval that has not yet occurred.
Shyness operates as a mood that may persist for long periods of time, whereas embarrassment strikes suddenly in response to actual predicaments but then quickly fades.
Abashed and chagrined, people who are embarrassed are usually contrite and eager to please. Their behavior is typically helpful and conciliatory as they try to repair any insult or damage they may have caused. Perhaps for that reason, embarrassment usually elicits positive reactions from those who witness it. Audiences routinely respond to someone’s obvious embarrassment with expressions of sympathy and support, and when some public transgression occurs, observers like people who become embarrassed more than those who remain unruffled and calm. Embarrassment that is proportional to one’s predicament actually elicits more favorable evaluations after some misbehavior than poised imperturbability does.
Embarrassment’s links to social evaluation emerge from three types of evidence. First, people who lack the self-conscious ability to understand what people are thinking of them—such as very young children or adults with damage in certain areas of the prefrontal lobes of their brains—do not experience embarrassment. Second, it takes years for our cognitive abilities to develop fully, and only when they are able (around 10 years of age) to comprehend others’ points of view do children become embarrassed by the same subtle situations that embarrass adults. Third, some people are more susceptible to embarrassment than others are, and people who embarrass easily tend to be sensitive to social evaluation; they dread disapproval and they fear that others’ judgments of them are more negative and rejecting than they really are.
Importantly, if audiences are shown tapes of shoppers who clumsily cause damage in a grocery store, they like those who respond to their predicaments with evident embarrassment more than those who remain cool and calm. Furthermore, diary studies demonstrate that, as it unfolds in actual interactions, a person’s embarrassment is usually met with kindly responses from those who encounter it. Evidently, embarrassment is a desirable reaction to social missteps that threaten to portray a person in an unwanted manner.
Embarrassment’s nature and its interactive effects are consistent with the provocative possibility that embarrassment evolved to help forestall social rejection that might otherwise threaten one’s survival in difficult ancestral environments. In occurring automatically when a person becomes aware of some misbehavior, embarrassment interrupts the person’s activity and focuses his or her attention on his or her predicament. It also provides a reliable nonverbal signal that shows others that a person both recognizes and regrets his or her misconduct: A blush cannot be faked or consciously controlled, so it demonstrates that a person’s abashment is authentic and his or her contrition sincere. That may be why others then routinely respond to a person’s embarrassment with kindly support, despite the person’s missteps; a person’s embarrassed emotion reassures them of his or her good intentions. It is sometimes goofy and usually unpleasant, but embarrassment provides a handy mechanism with which to manage the inevitable pitfalls of social life.
- Miller, R. S. (1996). Embarrassment: Poise and peril in everyday life. New York: Guilford Press.