Nothing to See Here!
You had grand plans to walk gracefully across the floor of the conference center and say hello to your boss. Instead, you tripped over your own feet, slammed into a stranger (whose drink and papers went flying), and landed, gracelessly, on your hands and knees. Everyone is staring, and just like that, the hot flush of embarrassment has taken you hostage. Your face is burning, you’re flustered, and you might even feel immobilized. (The word embarrassment derives from the Portuguese word for noose.)
Horrible for you, but from a social perspective, it’s the beginning of recovery. “Showing embarrassment acts as a sort of physical apology to those around you,” says Christine R. Harris, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, who has studied the emotion extensively. She adds that it elicits sympathy, “smoothing over goofs and promoting group harmony.” Across cultures, people express embarrassment with the same body language: averted gaze, head tipped down, tight smile, hands touching face. These signs may be a variation of the appeasement gestures that animals use. (Think of a dachshund rolling on his back to greet a looming mastiff.) The display says, “Don’t worry—I mean no harm!”
More science: Because embarrassment is a sign that you care about the way others see you, experiencing it openly can make you more likable. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that subjects were more willing to trust someone who showed embarrassment after being lauded for an accomplishment than someone who reacted with a display of pride, like a confident smile. (This may explain why the world found Jennifer Lawrence’s sheepish 2013 Oscars acceptance speech adorable but Anne Hathaway’s pronouncement—“It came true!”—um, less so.)
However, embarrassment can also work against us. A 2013 study from the National Literacy Trust, in the United Kingdom, measured the daily reading habits of almost 35,000 children, ages 8 to 16, and found that one in five claimed that they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading a book. In a study by Harris published in American Scientist in 2006, half of the study’s adult respondents said that they had hesitated or failed to report a worrisome symptom to a physician for “fear of looking foolish” if it turned out to be trivial.