Embarrassment is an emotional state experienced upon having a socially or professionally unacceptable act or condition witnessed by or revealed to others. Usually some amount of loss of honour or dignity is involved, but how much and the type depends on the embarrassing situation. It is similar to shame, except that shame may be experienced for an act known only to oneself. Also, embarrassment usually carries the connotation of being caused by an act that is merely socially unacceptable, rather than morally wrong.
The science of embarrassment is called emderatology. Emderatology is a technique often used by the employers to examine the way their employees deal with this. Embarrassment can be personal, caused by unwanted attention to private matters or personal flaws or mishaps. Some causes of embarrassment stem from personal actions, such as being caught in a lie or in making a mistake, losing badly in a competition, getting debagged (having one's pants pulled down), or being caught performing bodily functions such as flatulence. In many cultures, being seen nude or inappropriately dressed (for example, in a silly costume) is a particularly stressful form of embarrassment (see modesty). Personal embarrassment could also stem from the actions of others which place the embarrassed person in a socially awkward situation, such as having one's awkward baby pictures shown to friends, having someone make a derogatory comment about one's appearance or behaviour, discovering one is the victim of gossip, being rejected by another person (see also humiliation), being made the focus of attention (e.g. birthday celebrants, newlyweds), or even witnessing someone else's embarrassment.
Personal embarrassment is usually accompanied by some combination of blushing, sweating, nervousness, stammering, and fidgeting. Sometimes the embarrassed person will try to mask embarrassment with smiles or nervous laughter, especially in etiquette situations; such a response is more common in certain cultures, which may lead to misunderstanding. There may also be feelings of anger depending on the perceived seriousness of the situation, especially if the individual thinks another person is intentionally causing the embarrassment. There is a range of responses, with the most minor being a perception of the embarrassing act as inconsequential or even humorous, to intense apprehension or fear.
The idea that embarrassment serves an apology or appeasement function originated with Goffman (1967) who argued the embarrassed individual “demonstrates that he/she is at least disturbed by the fact and may prove worthy at another time”. Semin & Manstead (1982) demonstrated social functions of embarrassment whereby the perpetrator of knocking over a sales display (the ‘bad act’) was deemed more likable by others if he/she appeared embarrassed than if he/she appeared unconcerned – regardless of restitution behaviour (rebuilding the display). The capacity to experience embarrassment can also be seen to be functional for the group or culture. It has been demonstrated that those who are not prone to embarrassment are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour – for example, adolescent boys who displayed more embarrassment were found to be less likely to engage in aggressive/delinquent behaviours. Similarly, embarrassment exhibited by boys more likely to engage in aggressive/delinquent behaviour was less than one-third of that exhibited by non-aggressive boys (Ketlner et al. 1995). Thus proneness to embarrassment (i.e. a concern for how one is evaluated by others) can act as a brake on behaviour that would be dysfunctional for group or culture.
Embarrassment can also be professional or official, especially after statements expressing confidence in a stated course of action, or willful disregard for evidence. Embarrassment increases greatly in instances involving official duties or workplace facilities, large amounts of money or materials, or loss of human life. Examples of causes include a government's failed public policy, exposure of corrupt practices or unethical behaviour, a celebrity whose personal habits receive public scrutiny or face legal action, or officials caught in serious personally embarrassing situations. Even small errors or miscalculations can lead to significantly greater official embarrassment if it is discovered that there was willful disregard for evidence or directives involved (e.g. see Space Shuttle Challenger).
Not all official failures result in official embarrassment, even if the circumstances lead to some slight personal embarrassment for the people involved. For example, losing a close political election might cause some personal embarrassment for the candidate but generally would be considered an honorable loss in the profession and thus not necessarily lead to professional embarrassment. Similarly, a scientist might be personally disappointed and embarrassed if one of his hypotheses was proven wrong, but would not normally suffer professional embarrassment as a result. By contrast, exposure of falsified data supporting a scientific claim (e.g. see Hwang Woo-Suk) would likely lead to professional embarrassment in the scientific community. Professional or official embarrassment is often accompanied by public expressions of anger, denial of involvement, or attempts to minimize the consequences. Sometimes the embarrassed entity will issue press statements, remove or distance themselves from sub-level employees, attempt to carry on as if nothing happened, suffer income loss, emigrate, or completely vanish from public view.
The English word embarrassed has taken an unusual path into English. The first written usage of embarrass in English was in 1664 by Samuel Pepys in his diary. The word was derived from the French word embarrasser, "to block," or "obstruct",1 whose first recorded usage was by Michel de Montaigne in 1580. The French word was derived from the Spanish embarazar, whose first recorded usage was in 1460 in Cancionero de Stúñiga (Songbook of Stúñiga) by Álvaro de Luna.2 The Spanish word comes from the Portuguese embaraçar, which is a combination of the prefix em- (from Latin im- for "in-") with baraço or baraça, "a noose", or "rope".3 Baraça originated before the Romans began their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 218 BC.4 Thus, baraça could be related to the Celtic word barr, "tuft." (Celtic people actually settled much of Spain and Portugal beginning in the 700s BC, the second group of people to do so.)5 However, it certainly is not directly derived from it, as the substitution of r for rr in Ibero-Romantic languages was not a known occurrence.
The Spanish word may come from the Italian imbarazzare, from imbarazzo, "obstacle" or "obstruction." That word came from imbarrare, "to block," or "bar," which is a combination of in-, "in" with barra, "bar" (from the Vulgar Latin barra, which is of unknown origin).6 The problem with this theory is that the first known usage of the word in Italian was by Bernardo Davanzati (1529–1606), long after the word had entered Spanish.7
- "embarrass," The Oxford English Dictionary, (1989) <http://dictionary.oed.com> [Accessed February 15, 2006].
- Joan Corominas and José Pacual, "embarazar," Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, (Gredos, 1980) Vol. II, p. 555-556.
- "embarrass," Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (2002) <http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com> [Accessed February 15, 2006].
- Corominas, "embarazar."
- "Iberian," Encyclopaedia Britannica, <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9041884> [Accessed February 15, 2006].
- Corominas, "embarazar."
- "embarrass," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, (2000) <http://www.bartleby.com/61/12/E0101200.html> [Accessed February 15, 2006].
- Tangney, JP; Miller Flicker Barlow (1996). "Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions?". Journal of Personal Social Psychology.