Dying of Embarrassment

Have you ever felt so embarrassed that you would rather be dead than be in the situation another second? Most of us have. However, embarrassment isn’t exactly what we think it is. In fact, feeling embarrassed generally evokes sympathy and positive emotions from the crowd who sees our foibles.

Imagine a person who farts loudly in an interview, but doesn’t seem to be embarrassed. The boss would have some doubts about that person’s character. But if the person looks embarrassed, or tries to laugh it off, then the boss is being told that the person knew what he did was a social taboo and the action was unintentional.

Research has consistently shown that people who exhibit clear signs of embarrassment are seen as more likable. They are more trustworthy as well, according to a study by Berkeley University. Embarrassment has its roots in early society, where communal living was necessary for survival. It functions as an “appeasement gesture” signaling that the incident was unintentional and will not be repeated.

One of the key distinguishing factors of embarrassment is that it is unintentional. This distinguishes it from shame, which results when a person feels like they acted immorally. The two emotions exhibit clearly different facial expressions and reactions. When embarrassed, people blush, have a non-genuine smile, and look down or turn away from the audience. Nervous laughter also can happen.

Embarrassment can also happen when a person does not know what to do next. This is referred to as awkward-interaction account. When a person is singled out and complimented in front of a group, they may feel embarrassed. This is a reaction to not knowing how to balance the normal value of humility with their accolades.

Embarrassment is an emotion which is based on how we think others perceive us. We typically overestimate that people will remember the incident of embarrassment and view us negatively as a result. In reality, we obsess over our embarrassments more than anyone else. When embarrassed, people’s eyes focus on the facial expressions of the audience, particularly the eyes, in order to gather social information. This is opposite to social anxiety, where a person tries to remove themselves from the situation. This indicates that embarrassment is motivated by a desire to repair the social damage that was done.

It is important to let go of your embarrassments, but this can be difficult. The more you care about what other people think about you, the more prone to embarrassment you are. Don’t get caught dwelling on an embarrassing moment, chances are people have already forgotten about it. People generally empathize with other’s embarrassment, and do not generally respond maliciously. Remember, today’s embarrassment is tomorrow’s funny anecdote.

Additional Resources

UC Berkeley Easily Embarrassed? http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2011/09/28/easily-embarrassed/

World of Psychology How to Overcome Embarrassment: http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/06/18/how-to-overcome-embarrassment/

Psychology Today Embarrassment: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201112/embarrassment

The Social Psychology of Embarrassment: https://sites.google.com/site/embarrassmentproject/

Embarrassment’s Effect on Facial Processing: http://psy2.ucsd.edu/~charris/articles/Darby_Harris_CE2010.pdf

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