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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 15:15 GMT 16:15 UK
Too hot to handle
A man caught photocopying his bum in an office
Embarrassment can be hard to live down

By Sean Coughlan

The lightning bolt of embarrassment can leave you flushed, frozen and the memory can linger for years. But what makes it such a powerful emotion?

Embarrassment has its own painful, cringe-making place in everyone's memory. Who hasn't felt that agonising spasm of acute embarrassment? Even years later, the awfulness can linger.

Even watching complete strangers on television embarrassing themselves can fill the room with that uncomfortable, toe-curling sensation.

Author and broadcaster Brian King has attempted to get below the blushing skin and examine how the malign lightning bolt of embarrassment can suddenly leave us feeling exposed and ridiculous.

Paul Merton
Paul Merton enjoys Angus Deayton's embarrassment
"It's that sudden failure in how we present ourselves, with a perceived loss of public esteem. And it often feels much worse than it really is," says King.

There are lots of grimly enjoyable stories, not just the usual round of doomed job interviews and sexual disasters. Embarrassment can be more subtle.

The Shakespearean actor and Star Trek star, Patrick Stewart, recalls a time he was watching television alone in a hotel room and stumbled upon an episode of Next Generation which he barely remembered having filmed.

"I had forgotten that I'd ordered room service," he says. "The man arrived with my order. He looked at the television and looked at me with such pity."

That's the comic timing of embarrassment, in a split second it can turn even a movie star into a lonely loser poring over past glories.

Feel for others

It's not an emotion like guilt or regret, because no harm is intended to others. If you get drunk at an office party and insult someone, you might feel guilty. But if you tell them that you love them, that's when you feel embarrassed.

A prerequisite for embarrassment is to be able to feel how others feel - you have to be empathetic
Professor Ray Crozier
It can also be the irresistible move towards the worst possible outcome, says King, author of the book, Walking In on Mum and Dad.

"German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, attending a solemn ceremony at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, was invited to turn a handle to boost the eternal flame commemorating the death of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

"To the acute embarrassment of everyone present, the chancellor turned the handle in the wrong direction and extinguished the flame."

The common thread in embarrassment is the sudden puncturing of our attempts to look competent, whether it's in the boardroom or the bedroom.

"We have this fundamental human need to be respected and not to look foolish," King says. And losing self-esteem "can feel like the world has ended".

An example of such a raw nerve involves bedding and someone who, even years later, doesn't want to be identified.

A young man from a modest home, he had grown up using blankets and sheets, and had never had a duvet. When he arrived at university and was faced with an unfamiliar duvet cover, he had clambered inside each night, sleeping-bag style, doing up the buttons under his chin.

All was well until his first girlfriend came to visit - it was she who had to break the news about the correct bed covering technique to him.

Why blush?

Embarrassment is about social situations, but it also has physical symptoms - such as blushing. It is a uniquely human response, common to all cultures as a sign of sudden social awkwardness.

Ray Crozier, professor of psychology at the University of East Anglia, has researched the psychology of embarrassment and is author of Blushing and the Social Emotions.

Andrew Flintoff
Flintoff explains his embarrassment after the pedalo incident
He describes blushing - which can affect the face, neck or upper chest - as a "very odd phenomenon" which isn't yet fully understood.

The function of blushing, in evolutionary terms, could once have been to signal that someone had made an accidental mistake, admitting to an error and so avoiding a confrontation. But there are people who are so self-conscious about blushing they have operations to prevent it, cutting the nerve that creates the blush.

Instead of feeling awkward about being easily embarrassed, Professor Crozier says it's a sign of greater emotional intelligence.

"A prerequisite for embarrassment is to be able to feel how others feel - you have to be empathetic, intelligent to the social situation," he says.

Social anxieties

Embarrassment is a way of making us adhere to social codes so that we don't insult our friends, reveal our basic instincts or show too much of our private emotions. People who are unembarrassable are likely to be poor at reading social situations. So while everyone else cringes, they plough on, unable to pick up the sensitivities of the situation.

Fawlty Towers
Embarrassment is a comedy staple
Professor Crozier defines embarrassment as when we accidentally "contradict the identity we want to project, leaving a quite disabling sense of being exposed".

And the car-crash moment when it happens is like a "little death" - everything seems to stop, time seems to stand still and we talk about being "frozen" or "dying of embarrassment" or being "mortified".

But what do we do when it happens, and how best to recover?

"The best way to deal with embarrassment is to talk about it," says workplace psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon. "If you skulk off, you're left with it. You mustn't let the embarrassment dominate."

Once you admit to what's happened and talk about it, everyone will feel much more relaxed and they'll be laughing with you rather than at you.

As a way of developing social skills, one therapy he has used is to get people to talk in a group about their own worst embarrassing moments, helping them to face down their social anxieties.

Or else there's the white lie. But this can add to the confusion, as Bill Bryson found after he stumbled into his parents' bedroom at just the wrong moment.

"To my surprise, the shades were drawn and my parents were in bed wrestling under the sheets. More astonishingly still, my mother was winning. My father was obviously in some distress. He was making a noise like a small trapped animal.

"'What are you doing?' I asked. 'Ah, Billy, your mother is just checking my teeth,' my father replied. I believe you are supposed to be traumatised by these things. I can't remember being troubled at all, though it was some years before I let my mother look in my mouth again."

A selection of your comments appears below.

I think my most embarrassing moment must be the time while working in an upmarket cosmetics shop, I overheard a co-worker talking to a customer about her husband's love of golf. Having earlier listened to 45 minutes on the subject, I decided to save the poor customer and cut in with "God, why do people play golf? Don't they have a life or a job?" ...only for my co-worker to say "this is Colin Montgomerie, world-class golfer and multi-millionaire." My reply was "I'm going out to the stockroom to beat myself to death with a bottle of shower gel." Unsurprisingly I never lived it down at that job!
Nikky, London

It was my first day in a new high school in a new state and I was trying to blend in, not be too noticible as a 'newbie'. I was not used to stairs in a school and was walking down with the rest of the students and I missed a step and fell most of the way down before catching a side bar and swinging around and back to upright. I can't imagine the color of my face. So much for first impressions! I felt like the future was already lost. I marched on like nothing but obviously since I bring it up 35 years later it must have been pretty embarrassing.
Bonnie, Santa Clara

The most embarrassing thing i ever saw was when Winnie Mandela went to kiss a (former) friend and he pushed her face away. It still fills me with shame on her behalf.
MLR, London, UK

I remember getting into a hotel wardrobe in Japan in 1988 to remove a film from my camera that had jammed, only to exit to the astonishment of the Japanese concierge who had let herself in to make the bed. How embarrasing was that!
Malcolm Ball, Cheltenham

I accidentally stabbed my boss [the safety officer] with scissors in the buttock on the way to a safety meeting. the blade penetrated two inches and he needed stitches and new trousers.
Anon, UK

Would love to know where I can get that nerve-cutting operation from. My Doctor had prescribed me Betablockers and, when they didn't work, refered me to a psychologist but neither has stopped the blushing (didn't help that the psychologist was a hottie!) Hope the operation is available on the NHS!!
David Todd, Altrincham

Man is the only animal that blushes - or indeed needs to!
John Hickey, Horsham, West Sussex, UK

There's someting deep down inside everyone which is like a hidden wound. We all hide it, sometimes pretending its not there, but it rears its ugly head once in a while. Its filed under the folder called: Insecurites.
k, Birmingham - UK

On the way we are perceived by others, I am reminded of, I think, Oscar Wilde's observation, that 'the worry in what others may really think of us is how little they actually do'. Be happy.
simon, leeds, uk

Aged 18, I had a bar job in a working men's club. One evening, I served an elderly lady, who had come out without putting her false teeth in. She fizzed and spluttered as I strove to understand her order. After she'd gone, I turned to the bar manager working beside me, and launched into a tirade, saying how disgusting and repulsive it was that people didn't wear their false teeth like they're supposed to. Halfway through, I noticed him looking at me strangely, eyes widening. Time began to slow down, as with a growing horror, I found my eyes were drawn to his mouth, for the first time seeing beyond his bushy moustache, and very very slowly it began to dawn on me something that, in the six months or so I'd worked there, I'd never noticed before... yes, you guessed it.
Rob, London, UK

Freshly arrived in NYC, jetlagged and slightly worse for wear I went to bed (naked) in my hot, non airconditioned hotel room. Woke up at an ungodly hour, stumbled into what I thought was the bathroom, and as the automatic door clicked shut behind me I realised I'm standing naked in a brighly lit corridor. Instantly sober and wide awake, took elevator to ground floor, walked to reception manhood in hand and asked for replacement key. The girl at reception had real trouble keeping a straight face. I've heard the same happening to others.
R, London

I recently attended a show. At the end of the show I was allowed onto the stage to give out some presents from the company I work for. These included t shirts and footballs. Unfortunately I got a bit over-excited and kicked one of these footballs right into the face of a woman in the front row. She had to be attended to by members of the St. John's Ambulance. I nearly died!
Paul S, Gillingham

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