Embarrassment is an unpleasant feeling that’s most commonly experienced when people make a mistake that others see. Embarrassment is highly associated with social interaction and the opinions of others. In many cases, it relates to contravening social rules and normal behaviour.
The initial expression consists of looking down and tilting the head away, typically to the side, to avert the eyes from onlookers. The hands may be brought up to the face as if to hide it from view. Then a controlled awkward smile is displayed as the embarrassed person looks back towards onlookers. The expression usually takes about five seconds to complete.
Perception of these cluster of movements by onlookers shows the embarrassed person’s recognition of the inappropriate behaviour, and it promotes compassion and forgiveness from onlookers. The positive appraisal of an expression of embarrassment is not guaranteed though, and it’s more likely to be associated with caring, friendly people who value trust, for others seek to exploit such expressions.
Shame is at the root of an embarrassed expression. Embarrassment is humiliation’s little brother.
A typical scenario of embarrassment is committing a minor social transgression that elicits feelings of awkwardness for people who make the transgression and others who witness it. The fact that others have been made to feel awkward does not create embarrassment. Rather it’s the fact that others know that the person embarrassed is now somehow at fault and the opinions of onlookers might be negatively affected. Being scared of social rejection is part of being embarrassed.
Embarrassment is intrinsically related to social pressure. Pain is a physical reaction to cell damage and embarrassment is considered to be related, in an emotional pain-like manner, with the damage being to social reputation. Negative emotions evolved from aspects of pain. The recoiling emotion of embarrassment is to stop adverse damage to future social opportunities.
Embarrassing actions are sometimes followed by mockery and attempts to humiliate. This can be a bid to gain control over the person embarrassed. People try to make others feel more embarrassed than they should. Because embarrassment is driven by social pressure, it’s often used by people to control others who are overly concerned with their reputations, such as people who are excessively prideful in nature. Being aware of social status is a good and healthy thing. Being preoccupied with social status can be a weakness, for instance, it’s easier to manipulate a person who is overly sensitive to avoiding embarrassment from malicious gossip.
For people to be able to own their embarrassing behaviour is important and extremely advantageous. Over time a framework of embarrassing values will develop that enables people to tell the difference between how embarrassed they should feel from the mockery and humiliation that other people would have them feel. Such discernment is a healthy characteristic to possess, and it indicates a personality that is difficult to manipulate with mockery and humiliation. Banter can be used between friends to build a resistance to overly harsh criticisms.
People are not always fair, and this is never more true than when mockery and humiliation are involved. There are people who would have others believe anything if they thought it would give them control. People can and do gain power through exerting the social pressure of embarrassment – dominating at the expense of others.
Embarrassment has the tendency of making people momentarily passive in nature, so they have less capacity to offer resistance. This is often recognised by domineering personalities as an opportunity to seize control of a situation. This momentarily gives the aggressor an ego-trip from a sense of superiority from gaining control, yet it’s abusive for at least two reasons. First, the humiliated person may believe that behaviours are more embarrassing than they actually are. This causes unnecessary avoidance of behaviours and reduces the person’s adaptability erroneously. Second, as the mockery or humiliation consumes the concentration of people who are embarrassed, it effectively robs them of an opportunity to reflect clearly on their embarrassing behaviour. This makes it more difficult to learn from personal mistakes. Adding insult to injury muddies the waters. Perceptual load is added. The issue becomes one of trying to perceive accurately between how much embarrassment should truly be felt and how much embarrassment another is attempting to elicit. Accurate perceptions create balanced emotions that are appropriate to the reality of the situation that created them. Inaccurate perceptions create ongoing emotional and social problems as they are inappropriate to the situations where they’re expressed.
Experiencing this sort of abuse continually, especially in childhood, may lead to a weak comprehension of embarrassing events. In such cases, embarrassing events are often recognised and memorised only as points of attack, so blurring understanding around personal mistakes and making it more difficult to learn from them. Over time this can create a numbed and under developed understanding of embarrassment. The awkward recoiling feelings of embarrassment become more intense, and they trigger defensive reactions instead of a simple awkward cessation of action. How best to react defensively when embarrassment is felt becomes the issue rather than why the embarrassment is felt.
If people know why they feel embarrassed, it’s easier to determine how much embarrassment is appropriate. When people have a reliable internal reference of different embarrassing actions, being pushed around in embarrassing moments by “oh my god” statements is less likely because they don’t believe the hype.
Similar to blushing, embarrassment is a socially refined emotion which displays a sensitivity to behaviour in context. Thus, although negative, it can be something of a badge of honor, for it has the courage to recognise, accept and stop problems when they are minor, therefore preventing a maladaptive response becoming a major issue. If ignorance was employed instead, the behaviour would continue on a path to serious maladaption.
French. Embarrasser = to block, obstruct.
1. To encumber, hamper, impede (movements, actions, persons moving or acting).
2. To perplex, throw into doubt or difficulty.
3. To make (a person) feel awkward by one’s speech or actions; to cause (someone) embarrassment.