Many people find themselves embarrassed in social situations. Embarrassment commonly reveals itself in the form of shyness or awkwardness. Embarrassment may occur during times of praise as much to times when we make a complete fool of ourselves. The situations are entirely different yet either can potentially result in excruciating self-consciousness.
We’ve always recognized embarrassment as a feature of human behavior but until fairly recently it has tended to be viewed almost as a bi-product of arousal rather than something worth studying in its own right.
Alexander Gerlach, of Stanford University Medical School, highlights the way in which embarrassment can have a profound effect on behavior, such as preventing teenagers from using condoms. Embarrassment is also a key feature of social phobia.
Charles Darwin never solved the problem of embarrassment as an adaptive function and could not explain the purpose of blushing. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, studies the social functions of emotion. He views embarrassment as having an appeasement function. He points out that embarrassment provides a series of signals to an observer. Gaze aversion, head bowing, blushing and displacement behaviors such as coughing, nose scratching, putting the hand over the mouth, are all examples. The signals say to others, “I know I’ve done wrong, please don’t ostracize me”. The effect on the observer often kindles emotions of forgiveness and even liking. Embarrassment behaviors are, after all, a feature of flirtation.
We get embarrassed when unwelcome attention is drawn to us. Breaking a glass in a busy restaurant or walking into a glass door are just a couple of examples. What matters is the fact that people are watching. Our level of embarrassment seems to increase according to the status of those observing our actions as well as the number of people involved. We’re much less likely to feel embarrassment in front of friends and family.
A question frequently asked is why some people appear to get more embarrassed than others. An important factor seems to be the extent to which people find social norms important. People who have high belonging needs and who fear rejection are more sensitive to social rules and more likely to feel embarrassed if they feel they have violated them.
Embarrassment is an emotion that everyone understands. It can be used as a weapon as much as a vehicle for jokes and humor. When embarrassment is associated with social anxiety it can become crippling. Relaxation techniques seem to help as a part of the overall treatment package.
Embarrassment is not a particularly pleasant emotion. More confident people seem able to use distraction techniques more effectively or brush the situation off, but it doesn’t mean they are any less aware of what they have said or done. People tend to be their own harshest critics. Laughing off your own embarrassment is frequently joined in by other people. Very few will take malicious pleasure out of watching the discomfort of others. More likely they will understand the situation and will empathize.
Gerlach, A.L., Wilhelm, F.H., Roth, W.T (2001) Embarrassment and Social Phobia: the role of parasympathetic activation. Anxiety Disorders 17: 197-210.
University of St Andrews. The Social Psychology of Embarrassment Project. https://sites.google.com/site/embarrassmentproject/home
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.