The Social Function of Embarrassment


Last week’s blog post,  My Most Embarrassing Moment,  wasn’t actually THE most embarrassing moment. It was more of an A most embarrassing moment, one among many over the years.  


BUT, being the social psych nerd that I am, I got curious. And, as promised, I’m back with a little treatise tome essay on embarrassment.

What is it? What’s the socially redeeming feature of something so painful? What, in social psychology parlance, is the function of embarrassment?


Thanks to for image
Thanks to for image


One thing I noticed, as I searched for images for embarrassment is that they all expressed the desire to hide.  To flee the moment, to disappear in some way. Yet, as I’ll explain below, there are some very positive benefits in being seen as embarrassed.


Embarrassment is the emotional equivalent of the physical pain we feel when we put our hand on the hot stove. It’s a psychological “ouch.” Because of that pain, we determine it won’t happen again (unless we forget, in which case, ouch again.)


“But that sounds like guilt,” you say.

Good catch.  Guilt can also be a motivator to change behavior.

The difference is a matter of time — embarrassment is relatively fleeting, momentary. Guilt is that three-day old fish that hangs around too long — and perspective — guilt can be suffered in private. Embarrassment is, by definition, public.

Embarrassment is just so embarrassing!

Thanks to for the image.

When we feel embarrassed, we often want to hide.

Yet, according to some creative social psych research, when we show embarrassment, we are actually perceived as

(1) more altruistic

(2) more trustworthy and even

(3) more monogamous

The blushing that helps us signal our embarrassment tells the world that we know the rules and want to play by them. We “get it.” Social psychology tells us that embarrassment is a social phenomenon that helps to bind the members of a group together.


“But why must it be so painful?” you ask.

Well, I’ve got a theory. A model. A hypothesis.

It has to do with our identity.

And anything that threatens or undermines our identity attacks our sense of security.  When we feel embarrassed, we have exposed a private, personal state for all to see.  Of course that is painful.

Here’s my hypothesis:

Our level of embarrassment in a given situation is
directly related to the degree to which the particular
identity we have presented publicly has been damaged.

Suddenly, we are not who we think we are.  Or who we say we are.

Our mask has come off.

In my story from last week, I had presented myself as having done all the right things to produce the “perfect” self-published book. I set myself as an exemplar, someone to pay attention to as the voice of experience, useful information, and (in a word) perfection. At least when it came to self-published books.

If I hadn’t done that, if I’d just been reading my book as I usually do at these events, I’d have been surprised, maybe mildly irritated at the proofreader or, more likely, at myself for not catching the gaffe. But there would have been no embarrassment. And, certainly, had I been reading that page at home ahead of time, embarrassment would not have been the outcome.

The embarrassment came solely because of how I presented myself to others.  I got called on my tragic flaw — perfectionism this time.




Fortunately, I’ve come a long way since the evening I ran from the room and locked myself in the bathroom after making a mistake while playing the piano for a large group of guests.  I was eight.

And I’ve come a very long way since the days, the years, I’d do just about anything to keep my stuttering from showing.  And that included the time I introduced two men to a room full of board members as “the two Dicks,” because I knew I’d stutter on the Joe portion of Joe Dick and Dick Ruth.  And I hadn’t thought about it until the words were out of my mouth. More than embarrassed, I was mortified for weeks. I was 32.

Now I know that it’s actually a good thing for our embarrassment to be seen.

It allows us to show our vulnerability. And that allows us to connect with others on a level not often available to us. Laughter helps.

Perhaps that’s why embarrassment is so painful. For when we are embarrassed we believe, if even for a minute, that we are cut off from others, that we are alone. Of course that’s painful.

But if only I could remember that it’s my mistakes that remind me I’m human.




How about you? Can you see the connection between embarrassment and the masks you wear? 


Tomorrow: our next Three Things post.

16 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Hi Janet–I would add that the individual has to actually perceive that his or her image has been damaged. So I can’t imagine the man with the hair feeling embarrassed over anything because he would not perceive this. (That’s how he comes across to me.)
    There is perhaps a feeling of shame involved, too?
    I don’t think guilt is necessarily part of it. You can be embarrassed if you get teased about something. You might feel shame, but not guilt.
    I agree though–a good reminder that we’re all human. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril. Well, I mentioned guilt only because it shares with embarrassment the desire to change ones behavior, to “do it better” next time. I intentionally stayed away from shame (which is often confused with guilt) because it is now seen as an emotion that, rather than saying “I’ve done something bad,” says instead, “I am bad.” That didn’t seem to have a place here. Does that make sense?

      As for the “man with the hair,” narcissists, by definition, have a limited sense of “the other.” And, for embarrassment, one needs that sense. Without the “other” to see us, there can be no embarrassment. This is all getting a bit academic for such an early morning. But you raise important points. Thanks for dropping in.

  2. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    A major element is about the recognition of something inappropriate. We all want to fit in with our chosen groups, to do and say things that are harmonious and contributory. Occasionally we get it wrong and realise we’ve done so. That’s fine, but when other people realise we’ve got it wrong and we know they’ve recognised this, it becomes embarrassing. How embarrassing our slip is depends on the scale of the gaffe, the degree of forgiveness the group normally allows, and the context.
    But it’s the knowing that others have seen our slip that is the real embarrassment. How thick skinned we are determines the effect we allow this to have on us and, thereafter, our relationship with the group or individual who witnessed the slip.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’ve long been curious about the “thick skinned” metaphor, so thanks for bringing it in, Ian. For me, as I think of it now, I’m wondering how porous a thick skin might be. I mean, I wouldn’t want one that would prevent everything from getting through. So, if I were to have a thick skin, I would want a discriminating one. You know?

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        Some people have skins as thick as a rhinocerous. They seem to be pretty impervious. Examples of such people can be seen every day on your TV screens, campaigning to be your next President.
        Permeability depends on sensitivity and interest in other’s views, feelings, needs and aims and the degree of congruence these hold with the skin wearer’s own. It’s also influenced by inherent bigotry.

  3. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, I think the expectation of perfection sets us up for embarrassment..when our self-image is shattered by our humanness. IMHO, the degree to which it’s tied to shame depends on our ability to accept our limitations and flaws. You certainly get me thinking this early Wednesday morn!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      It is a set up, isn’t it, Kathy? I like, also, how you worded that dance between acceptance and shame we do. And self-image is, I think, another word for identity. But, sorry ’bout the early morning thinking part. I’ll try to do better next time. 🙂 I’m off for my first cup of tea.

  4. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    My goodness, between this initial post and all the rapid-fire comments from those further east, this topic has become a delicious dissertation. But perhaps we have or or two more angles to explore: Humor and self-image.

    Maybe self-image is related to skin density, at least to some degree. If … people with hair … believe they are impervious and don’t make mistakes, they won’t perceive them as such. If they do, they may shrug and think “whatever” and move on.

    Humor is a healthy way of dealing with embarrassment. Haven’t we all seen someone make a funny face, crack a joke, or otherwise lighten the moment after doing something embarrassing? I hope we’ve all tried it. Once someone laughs *with* you, how can they laugh *at* you? Once you’ve laughed together, pain rapidly flees.

    Perhaps this is the mechanism that draws us to read and listen to people like David Sedaris. He cracks jokes about painful moments. I haven’t been exposed to him for a few years now, but as I recall, and his family may disagree with this, but if I remember right, his humor was basically compassionate.

    Anyway, as my hair thins, my capacity for laughing increases, so does this mean I’m staying balanced?

    • Ian Mathie
      | Reply

      Lord love a duck! Do you really mean that people with no hair have thinner skins and therefore a more fragile sense of humour? I must ask my son how that works. He has a great and robust sense of humour, but he shaves his head and so has no hair. This is getting interesting and will give me something to ponder about whilst I’m being carved. 🙂

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        Ian, I’m glad you brought up the “being carved.” I know it’s less than 24 hours away that you’ll be going under the knife — or is it more of a drill?– I shall certainly be thinking of you and sending all the powerful healing vibes I can pull together. As I’m sure all who know you will as well. Hugs from Vermont. I invite you to come back in a few days and wave hello to all of us.

        • Ian Mathie
          | Reply

          The knife, Janet. My skin’s apparently too thick to let them use the drill, so they’ll have to hack their way in. Should be good when it’s done. Thanks for the hugs, I’ll take them with me. 🙂

  5. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Thank you Sharon. “Skin-density is related to self-image.” I can see all those eager doctoral students rushing off in pursuit; I love it. Now, for another thesis “the length of time between said embarrassing event and the actual resultant laugh.” I for one am working to shorten that span of time. You have brightened my day enormously.

  6. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Here’s an anecdote tying in with Sharon and Janet’s previous comments about humor and embarrassment. One of my friends, a fastidious interior designer, stumbled and fell as she mounted the dais to speak. After she had collected her wits and faced the audience, she had the presence of mind to utter, “My middle name is not Grace.”

    Presence of mind . . . makes embarrassment bearable, at least in her case.

    • Janet
      | Reply

      What a great retort that was. Thanks for sharing, Marian. Sounds like she has that span of time whittled down just fine. I love it.

  7. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the ticket, I believe, and though we may want to run and hide, I have found that I always learn something about myself when I am embarrassed … mainly that I’m a human being just like everyone else. And some of us do need to be reminded of that. Embarrassing moments often turn into hilarious moments when I can let my hair down and just be me, human Joan!

    • Janet
      | Reply

      Absolutely, Joan. Right on.

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