Caught With Your Pants Down? The Psychology of Embarrassment

IMAGE Mark Twain once said, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." Embarrassment is a powerful emotion from which no person in any culture is immune. While there are no recorded deaths, many people caught in the unblinking stare of mortifying moments have often felt they should wish for a quick and merciful death. Just before a very proper British career diplomat was to give a speech, he saw his fly was open. He quickly sat back down again and yanked the zipper shut, but jammed his silk tie into the tiny steel teeth.When he stood again, he tightened the tie around his neck and started making gasping, wheezing noises. Some thought he was having a heart attack. Eventually, his host cut the cravat with scissors, but all eyes in the room were transfixed on the scene.Thoroughly flustered, the diplomat ran from the room with a short piece of necktie flapping from his fly and a stubby bit of tie dangling from his collar. Within hours, the entire diplomatic community heard the tie-in-the-zipper story. From that point on, whenever he was on official business, people gazed down at his fly and usually chuckled. With such an impaired image it was hard to take him seriously, so he was recalled to his homeland where he waited in obscurity for the memory of the gaffe to fade.

Embarrassment—It Happens to Everyone

Sources of embarrassment are anywhere and everywhere. Open zippers can be a source of indignity anywhere in the world. Speakers lose their places in important speeches. Bits of masticated food become attached to smiles. Toilet paper trails from shoes. Dentures fly from mouths, toupees from bald heads. Tongues constantly betray their owners like the Oxford Reverend who stood at a royal occasion to offer a toast to Queen Victoria but said, "Let us drink to the queer old Dean."In everyday life, we lesser mortals are usually embarrassed any time we look foolish, oafish, or incompetent in public. Whatever the source, embarrassment can stop you dead in your tracks.Moreover, embarrassment can undermine one’s confidence, ruin prospective careers, and destroy relationships, businesses, or even a life.A life? Yes. If you are the type of person who would rather not face a cashier to buy condoms, you could be putting your health at risk by having unprotected sex. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor about options that are available to you.

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