Social failing

Embarrassment

The feeling when people suddenly focus unwanted attention on you in a situation that is not in your control. You have the urge to get away from the attention.

You feel embarrassment when suddenly attention is being focused on you in a situation that is not in your control. For example, you jump on your bicycle and suddenly your trousers rip with a sound audible to people around.

Embarrassment is often associated with violating social conduct – committing a ‘faux pas’. For instance, you can be embarrassed when you start addressing someone and then realize you forgot their name. Or, when you are on a very busy train and accidentally touch a stranger in an inappropriate place. However, you do not necessarily have to do something bad or stupid to be embarrassed. You can also be embarrassed for being in an uncomfortable situation, such as when you have to ask money back that you loaned to a friend, or simply because someone is staring at you. Such situations are often called ‘awkward’. You can even feel embarrassed by something positive, for instance, when you are being complimented in front of other people. The central elements: sudden attention on you and not being in control, are present in all these cases. Embarrassment is sometimes seen as a less severe negative emotion, and people even put others in embarrassing situations for their amusement, such as putting a whoopee cushion under a seat. Nevertheless, for certain people, groups and cultures, embarrassment can be a seriously unpleasant emotion.

People who are embarrassed become self-conscious, are likely to blush and smile, alternate between looking back and looking away, and often don’t know what to do with their hands and body.

In the comic, Murphy is just about to start an important presentation, when somehow a picture of him on the beach that he had meant for his mother pops up on the screen. His coworkers find it hilarious, but Murphy is deeply embarrassed.

Movie clips

Typical expressions

“Sorry, that wasn’t my intention!”

“This is a bit awkward, but…”

Murphy's bad day

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Comparisons with other emotions

Embarrassment & Shame

Shame and embarrassment are often confused. For example, someone who gives a terrible public presentation may be both embarrassed and ashamed. Although the two emotions are close in experience, there are several important differences that set them apart. First of all, embarrassment can be said to be more superficial than shame. Embarrassing events are often just unfortunate, and do not include a negative evaluation about yourself. When you are ashamed, on the other hand, it is because people have found out something about you. The bad presentation is just embarrassing if you don’t like being put on the spot and getting attention. It will feel shameful, however, if you perform very badly, and are now afraid that people will think less of you because of that. Thus, embarrassment is more often about (superficial) norms and standards, whereas shame is about more profound values. Secondly, embarrassing events need an audience in the moment that they happen (you are only embarrassed if your pants rip at a moment that other people can see it), whereas you can also be ashamed if people later hear something bad about you.