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Class 17: Embarrassment

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Author: Jessica Collett
Prof. Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame. "Introduction to Social Psychology" lecture notes - Embarrassment

Class Notes

One of the reasons that social interaction runs as smoothly as it does is because we are all able to put ourselves in the shoes of one another and feel that the social order has some stake in that ability.  It's not just that we can perceive how others view us by taking the role of the generalized other, we can perceive how others feel that people are feeling about them.

From the Reading: Discussion of Facework and Interaction Rituals 


Embarrassment is the feeling that we experience when the public identity that we claim in an encounter is discredited.  It is described as uncomfortable, awkward, mortification, or feeling of exposure or chagrin.  It may manifest itself physiologically in blushing, increased heart rate, and increased temperature.

Embarrassment is contagious.  We experience embarrassment not only when our own identity is discredited, but when the identities of others are discredited too.  This often happens because we feel we have been duped about the assumptions on which we built our interaction with them, including unwarranted acceptance of their identity claims.

Sources of embarrassment

  1. Lacking the skills necessary for a claimed identity (Example: when a math teacher forgets how to solve a problem while writing it out on the board)
  2. Violation of privacy norms (Example: walking in to someone's bathroom stall)
  3. Awkwardness or lack of poise (falling while walking down the stairs)

Responses to embarrassment

We want to restore face, to eliminate the conditions causing embarrassment.  While the major responsibility lies with the person whose actions produced the embarrassment, interaction partners frequently help out.

  1. Apologize, provide an account, or otherwise realign their actions with the normative order
  2. Exaggerated reassertion of that identity (Example: if you fall while walking down the stairs, you might jump up and curtsy to reassert the identity of being graceful)
  3. Aggression if we feel someone intentionally caused us to lose face and made no effort to help save it
Other responses by witnesses of repeated failed performances.  
  1. Cooling out- to gently persuade people to a less desirable, though still reasonable, alternative identity (Example: If a starting pitcher isn't pitching very well, he may be moved to be the second string pitcher.  It's not as desirable, but is still a good identity)
  2. Identity degradation- forcibly transforming the offender into a lower social type (Example: Getting fired from a job)
Two social conditions strongly influence which of these we choose:
  1. the offender's prior relationships with others and
  2. the availability of alternative identities.


Imagine you are at a party and a friend comes out of the bathroom with his zipper open and part of his shirt coming through the open zipper.  What would you do?  How would you feel?  How do you imagine your friend would feel when you told him?  Do you think how you think he would feel affects how you feel?  For more explanation, see an article that uses this exercise in class.  Sharp, Shane and Gregory T. Kordsmeier. 2008. "The 'Shirt-Weenie': A Note on Teaching the Power of Face-Work and Tact in Social Interaction." Teaching Sociology 36:359-365.

Works Cited

Michener, H. Andrew, John D. DeLamater, and Daniel J. Myers.  2004. Social Psychology. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.

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