Caught With Your Pants Down? The Psychology of Embarrassment
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 wished 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, according to Edward Gross, PhD, a University of Washington professor emeritus in Seattle who has studied the condition for two decades.
Moreover, embarrassment can undermine one’s confidence, ruin prospective careers, and destroy relationships, businesses, or even a life.
Just the fear of embarrassment is powerful. Dr. Gross first became interested in the topic when he taught at a small college headed by a totally incompetent president. Layers of staff surrounded and insulated the top person and performed his functions for him. When Dr. Gross asked why they didn't try to find a capable person, the staff replied that it would be too "embarrassing" for everybody involved.
Key Elements Which Lead to Embarrassment
Human behavior experts who study mortifying moments say four conditions must exist before we blush.
First, there must be a failure for which you feel responsible. Then, the failure occurs suddenly, with no time to prepare or adjust. "And it usually takes place in public," says Domeena Renshaw, MD, professor of psychiatry at Loyola University in Chicago. "Your face gets red because shock instantly increases blood pressure, which helps more blood get to the brain to help you figure a way out of the predicament in which you just found yourself." The final condition: you must value the opinion of others who witnessed your goof.
"Beware the person who can't be embarrassed," says Dr. Gross. "That rare individual may consider his position, intelligence, and status so lofty, he cares not what others think."
But regardless of the blunder, your most embarrassing moment is probably not as bad as you think.
Some Surprising Research Findings
Andre Modigliani, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, once took part in an experiment on embarrassment. A huge pyramid of toilet paper was stacked so any passer-by knocked it down. Researchers then interviewed the embarrassed people who knocked it over, as well as the shoppers who only watched. Subjects who knocked over the stacks said the onlookers would assume they were bumbling fools.
But when the researchers asked the witnesses what they thought about the people who wrecked the displays, most replied that it was a simple accident that could happen to anybody.
"One of the keys to escaping embarrassment is realizing that others do not always see you in a negative light when you make a public mistake," Professor Modigliani says. "The mortification is mostly in your own mind. Studies reveal that most onlookers are actually very sympathetic when others embarrass themselves."
Dr. Modigliani did yet another scholarly study on why some people feel more embarrassed than others. He found that shy people with high levels of empathy—the ability to imagine how others may be feeling—can be more easily embarrassed.
Another dimension of the easy-to-embarrass-personality was a person's tendency to believe that others see him or her as somehow inadequate. "If either empathy or the belief about inadequacy is missing, the person will not be as easily embarrassed," Dr. Modigliani says.
And, if there's any doubt that 99.9% of embarrassment is in your own mind, consider the example of British actor Richard Harris who sang the role of King Arthur in Camelot twice a day for seven months. One evening, Harris forgot the words to a song. He stopped in mid-stride, halted the orchestra, and went to the edge of the stage where he said in his lilting British accent: "Four hundred and twenty eight performances, and I have forgotten the lyrics! Would you believe it?"
Because people feel sympathetic towards others caught in the throes of embarrassment, Harris received a standing ovation. Somebody then cued him on the words, the orchestra started again and he finished the musical in high style and grace.
"Research shows that people who are embarrassed, and simply admit to it and then stalwartly carry on, are tremendously well liked," Dr. Gross says. It seems to make them more human. "When you admit to embarrassment, you show the incident is not shameful. Nor does it show any defect in your character. It only shows the embarrassing incident was nothing more than a brief lapse," he says.
The upshot: you can easily save face after a bad faux pas with a shrug of the shoulders and by saying, "Oh well, c'est la vie," or, "I blew it! Am I ever embarrassed!"
American Psychological Association
Mental Health America
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Modigliani A. Embarrassment and embarrassability. Sociometry. 1968;31:313-326.
Modigliani A. Embarrassment, facework, and eye contact: testing a theory of embarrassment. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1971;17:15-24.
Last reviewed February 2008 by Ryan Estévez, MD, PhD, MPH
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