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April 2017
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All psychological theories about emotions acknowledge and underline that emotional reactions have an adaptive function for the individual or species. In this sense, if fundamental emotions (such as happiness, sadness, fear, anger and disgust) are attributed to functions and simple evolutionary goals (such as maintaining affectionate ties with loved ones, signalling danger, defending oneself from an attack and dangerous situations), more advanced functions and functions related to learning about self-awareness and regulating one’s relationships with others are attributed to more complex emotions.

From this point of view, embarrassment is a typical, social emotion which is strongly linked to the perception that every one of us has about ourselves and our characteristics in relation to others. Given that embarrassment may not only be a negative emotion, this article seeks to provide a definition of this emotional state, to consider the circumstances and reasons that usually give rise to embarrassment, to detect if there are people who experience this emotional state more easily than others, to describe the associated behavioural and psycho-physiology of this emotion and, finally, to suggest some tricks to keep it under control.

Some definitions
It is not easy to provide a definition for the term embarrassment since it has been used by writers and scholars in various ways and with various different meanings. D'Urso, for example, reports that the original meaning of the term is that of 'cluttering material' caused by the presence of a large amount of objects that impede a certain action. More recently, meanings such as a duty, an unpleasant task or concern and worry have appeared. Since the last century, the use of this term meaning 'economic difficulties' has become more common, or, in relation to the body, it may be related to someone's weight, or indeed, an upset stomach.  
In terms of emotional experiences, embarrassment is a fairly intense state which occurs exclusively in social situations and which is characterised by psycho-physiological changes and feeling uncomfortable, and the length of this state can vary from seconds to minutes.

Why do we get embarrassed?
All scholars, whether they are sociologists, anthropologists or psychologists, agree that feeling embarrassed is closely linked to events which undermine an individual's public image and which are connected to the 'here and now', that is, events which are connected to the present situation and the place. In fact, for it to occur, the embarrassed person must be in the company of the person/thing that has caused or assisted the embarrassment.

From this point of view, there is no private embarrassment, nor prospective or retrospective embarrassment. Another point that scholars agree on is that situations which cause embarrassment lack explicit behavioural norms, such as situations in which it is not very clear what the most appropriate or socially accepted behavioural norms are. A typical example is when there are two people in a lift: we never really know how to behave in this situation and this causes embarrassment. Another reason we get embarrassed is because a social rule has been violated or threatened (Modigliani). According to Castelfranchi, the main reason we get embarrassed is because of a momentary loss, which may have already occurred or is feared, of situational self-esteem; for example, a person who is usually refined may be seen as clumsy or awkward in certain situations, thus he/she gets embarrassed.

According to D’Urso and Trentin, the conditions which normally have to be present to induce embarrassment are:

  1. awareness that one’s behave is governed by social rules;
  2. having an audience and feeling people’s attention on you;
  3. the desire to conform to the social rules and being afraid of infringing them;
  4. insecurity about one’s skills, thus being afraid of losing face in front of others.

When we get embarrassed
What are the situations in which it is easier to get embarrassed?
There is no single answer to this question because a lot depends on the values and rules the people involved have and our self-image and the image we want to conserve in front of others. However, it is possible to identify some situations in which it is easier to get embarrassed than others.

  1. In general, the situations are related to a failure in public, the contradiction between demands of various roles, loss of composure or control of one's body and physical and emotional intimacy.
  2. There are some situations in which we are embarrassed for someone being embarrassed who is close to us, or circumstances in which we feel embarrassed for someone else.
  3. Another situation which often causes embarrassment is being the object of praise or attention or being given a prize. In this case, embarrassment does not occur because of the positive situation per se, rather it occurs because we are afraid or feel we will have to undergo further assessments in order to rise to the occasion.

What happens when we get embarrassed?
Typical signs of being embarrassed include going red, restlessness and the voice changing and, as well as signalling to others how you are feeling, these aspects make us more embarrassed. This is a vicious circle and it occurs more with embarrassment than any other emotion.
On a behavioural level, embarrassment is expressed, above all, by looking away from the other person, looking down or diverting one's glance to nothing particularly interesting in space. One's posture can be either extremely hard with very little movement or, on the contrary, the arms, legs and hands move restlessly and the person frequent changes of position. Furthermore, when we feel embarrassed, we do things in order to release emotional tension, such as touching our hair repeatedly or fiddling with small objects. Even the language used by the embarrassed person changes: his/her voice becomes screechy and the tone becomes irregular, he/she might stutter or stumble, the volume of the voice may increase or decrease, he/she can make grammar mistakes, hesitate, make false starts or leave long pauses between one word and the next. On a psycho-physiological level, the usual sign of embarrassment is a sudden reddening of the face and the neck, caused by peripheral vasodilatation, the heart beat slows down (even though we often think it speeds up), body temperature increases or changes rapidly, blood vessels dilate, muscles tense, breathing becomes irregular, we sweat more and stomach movements and dryness of the mouth both increase.

Are there some people who get more embarrassed than others?
Those who get embarrassed more easily are people who overrate other people’s opinions or those who underestimate their skills. These people are often very self-aware and are aware of how people see them, and they are usually very ambitious and empathetic. With respect to the easiness of getting embarrassed, there does not seem to be any significant difference between men and women, even if women seem to embarrass more easily when performing in public or when being physically intimate, whilst men seem to get more embarrassed when their financial or professional situation is questioned.

What to do when we get embarrassed
D’Urso and Trentin claim that there are three things to do in embarrassing situations:

  1. if you have been a bit clumsy and you have hurt yourself, be the first to note it and laugh about it;
  2. if you have been very clumsy and have hurt someone in the process, apologise quickly, make it clear you will make up for it immediately and then change the subject;
  3. if you are embarrassed but you have not actually done anything, or you are afraid of being ugly, inelegant, stuttering or not knowing what to say, you have to choices: a) the heroic one; say how you feel: this is recommended if there are only two of you, or if you are in front of a large, attentive audience, such as a conference, but not recommended if you are with an informal group of inattentive people; b) the easy one; try to stay in control, do not do anything, look at others with great interest, listen, try to understand what people are saying without worrying about having to say anything and try to get used to the situation as quickly as possible since, the moment you feel comfortable in a familiar and predictable situation, embarrassment diminishes.


Feeling embarrassed is not at all pleasant and we try, as far as and in every way possible, to avoid occasions which may fuel this emotional state. However, embarrassment reveals what counts for us and the value we give to others and things. Being embarrassed in front of someone means we are acknowledging that he/she is important to us; in that sense it is like paying tribute to the person in question

As D'Urso claimed, being embarrassed about something may be uncomfortable but it is good for the person who embarrasses us because it shows that we value this person which, from a certain point of view, can be subtly charming.

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