What are the magic ingredients for embarrassment?Most people get embarrassed when they believe that they have drawn unwanted attention to themselves (Darwin, 1872; Leary et al., 1992). Typical examples are faux pas situations. We feel embarrassed when we lose control over our body - e.g. slipping on ice, passing wind in public - or when we make mistakes - e.g. forgetting a friend's name. However, we practically only feel embarrassed in these situations when we believe that somebody else has noted our mishap. So one of the magic ingredients is the audience, another is the fact that we believe to have made a negative impression on people that matter to us. A third magic ingredient is the violation of norms (Tangney et al., 1996). For instance, many people feel embarrassed when they receive a compliment because it violates the norm of modesty.
Which kind of audience gets us embarrassed?Although the audience is very central to the emotion of embarrassment, relatively little is known about who can make us blush (see The Project). Most researchers believe that we are more embarrassed if we make a negative impression on people whose opinion is particularly important to us (Miller, 1996). So, for instance, a mishap in front of our boss should be more embarrassing than in front of our colleagues. However, faux pas situations are often much less embarrassing when we are with the people who matter most to us, our friends and family. Perhaps we expect our friends and family to be more forgiving?
Research also found out that embarrassment is stronger the larger the audience is (e.g., Jackson & Latane, 1981). The fewer people notice the better. Often, however, it is not the real audience that gets us embarrassed but the possibility that people may have noticed. While an open fly may go unnoticed in a crowd of shoppers, we still feel embarrassed when we notice ourselves and imagine how many people may have seen it.
Is shame different from embarrassment?Shame and embarrassment are often used interchangeably. Sometimes embarrassment is seen as a lighter form of shame. However, research has found that people recall different situations in which they felt ashamed or embarrassed (Tangney et al., 1996). Often shame is felt when we believe that we have behaved in an immoral way (e.g. after telling a lie) or when other people have noticed a negative characteristic in us that we did not want them to see (e.g. being a bad looser). Embarrassment, on the other hand, is more often felt when we have violated a norm (e.g. inappropriate dress) or made a negative impression that we believe does not reflect our true self (e.g. appearing to be ignorant; Sabini et al., 2001).
How do people react when they get embarrassed?Embarrassment can be seen most clearly in the face. The most obvious sign of embarrassment is the blush, i.e., the colouring of cheeks, ears, or the whole face. In addition, an embarrassed person shows a non-genuine smile (also called a non-Duchenne smile) that does not involve the muscles around the eyes. The person also typically looks down to the left (Keltner, 1995). People also try to turn away from the audience or cover their face with their hands. These signs of embarrassment are often accompanied by nervous laughter. While some people leave the situation as quickly as possible, others seem to 'freeze'.
When and why do we blush?Blushing is probably the most obvious sign of embarrassment. Some researchers believe that it is a sign of appeasement, i.e. a way to apologise and ask the audience for their forgiveness (Castelfranchi & Poggi, 1990). Research has indeed shown that people who show clear signs of embarrassment are seen as more likeable (Semin & Manstead, 1992).
However, a colouring of cheeks or the face may also indicate a range of very different emotions like love, nervousness or anger. We may also feel embarrassed without blushing. It is therefore important to look at the combination of reactions people show as well as the situation.
What makes some people more and others less likely to feel embarrassed?Embarrassment is often felt when a norm is unintentionally violated. People who find social norms particularly important and also want to conform to these societal rules should feel more embarrassed when a faux pas happens. Those who care more about what other people think of them and want to avoid rejection are also more prone to embarrassment. Contrary to common belief, people who are easily embarrassed are not necessarily shy or lack social skills (Miller, 1995).
Are there cultural differences in embarrassment?Interestingly, typical signs of embarrassment such as blushing, gaze aversion, and a suppressed smile, seem to be recognized in many different cultures. However, some cultures have additional displays such as the tongue bite in Southeast Asia to indicate embarrassment (Keltner, 1995). In contrast to the common display of embarrassment across cultures, the situations that people may find embarrassing are likely to differ due to cultural norms and customs. For instance, unpacking birthday presents in the presence of guests seems to be a source of embarrassment for many British people and is generally avoided while the same situation is a joyful experience for most Germans.
Can animals get embarrassed?Embarrassment is seen as a relatively complex emotion that involves our understanding of what other people think of us. Most researchers believe that it is therefore a uniquely human emotion. However, appeasement gestures that resemble the human display of embarrassment can be found among nonhuman primates and other animals. For instance, gaze aversion and even the reddening of the skin have been found in the animal world (e.g. Keltner & Busswell, 1997).
What is the best way to deal with embarrassment?We would all rather like to avoid the feeling of embarrassment. However, predicaments happen fairly often. Most of the time, the embarrassing situation passes quickly and is forgotten about or is laughed about later with friends. Some of our most amusing anecdotes are about embarrassing moments. Still, for some of us an embarrassing moment can cause serious social anxiety. An often suggested method to deal with embarrassment is relaxation. Relaxation techniques can be readily learned and used when needed. Another way to deal with embarrassment is to distract the audience and oneself from the embarrassing incident (e.g. by a change of topic). Often, people try to laugh the situation off and are gladly joined by the audience. Interestingly, most audiences feel embarrassment on our behalf rather than malicious joy at our misfortune. It has also been found that people are their harshest judges themselves, so trying to anticipate the consequences of the mishap in a realistic, non-catastrophic way can help (e.g. passing wind in public may cause a few giggles but will not lead to exclusion from a group).