Episode No. 134
  •  March 14, 2024

Feeling Embarrassed?

Make It Work For You!

closeup photo of two women looking coy as they think about the lessons we can learn from the way Iceland treats women

Embarrassing yourself is the key to success – well, not exactly, but there are benefits to embarrassment.  In this episode of Crina and Kirsten Get to Work, our hosts delve into this unusual emotion – embarrassment – hot head, panic, stomach upset, racing heart, sweating – and all of the things.


Science tells us embarrassment is a unique emotion – unlike an emotion such as fear, we need to think before we can feelthis emotion.  Rowland Miller at Sam Houston University tells us, “we become embarrassed when we perceive that the social image we want to project has been undermined and that others are forming negative impressions of us.”  But there is more to embarrassment.

John Sabini of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleagues found embarrassment is likely to arise when a person anticipates a disruption of smooth social interaction and/or faces a situation without clear social expectations . She is not worried about making a bad impression, but rather she does not know what to do next.

Sabini defined three kind of embarrassment:

  1. Faux-pas – food in your teeth when meeting your new boss
  2. center-of-attention – being the guest of honor at a surprise party
  3. sticky-situation embarrassment – having to fire someone or give hard feedback

Crina adds a fourth type, vicarious embarrassment, to this list – the feeling of being embarrassed for others.

Embarrassment serves a few important purposes.  Embarrassment signals others that we know we stepped in it and these negative feelings discourage us from doing it again and encourage us to make repairs with others.  It can also encourage us to prepare for a situation to avoid being embarrassed.

Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people who expressed more outward signs of embarrassment while describing their embarrassing moments (such as tripping) also reported a tendency to be more “prosocial” — that is, kinder and more generous.

Researchers also found that when the study’s actor expressed embarrassment, study participants found the actor more trustworthy and wanted to affiliate with him more.  Embarrassment can humanize a leader because it helps break down the barriers between team members and the leader and ultimately allows for stronger connections to form.  Does the leader have some humor about her embarrassment or are they prickly and defensive about the embarrassment?  A leader’s response to embarrassment can set the tone for the team.

When we think about how to respond to embarrassment, research suggests most people tend to overestimate how much others notice our embarrassment. We can help put embarrassment in context by detaching ourselves and thinking about how we would react as an observer of our embarrassing situation.  It’s likely we will find grace, distance and context in that exercise.

We know embarrassment does not feel good, but it communicates we care and presents opportunities to consider our behavior and be more connected with those around us.


The Surprising Perks of Being Embarrassed

Oh no you didn’t!

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,

Countering embarrassment-avoidance by taking an observer’s perspective | Motivation and Emotion