Feel Like a Fool? Don't, Says a Professor—Embarrassment Is a Universal Condition

updated 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tripping over a rug, spilling a drink, showing up for a party on the wrong night: Everyone has known the agony of embarrassment. Some people can laugh it off, or at least pretend to. Others are mortified—blushing, stammering, overreacting so that yet another awkward situation often occurs. University of Washington sociologist Edward Gross, 57, has been collecting examples of embarrassment since 1964. "Even the wittiest person rarely handles it well," he observes. Rumanianborn Gross earned his bachelor's degree at the University of British Columbia and a master's from the University of Toronto before finishing with a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He met his wife of 36 years, Rebecca, in a psychology class in Toronto ("between lectures on schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis, " Gross says). He is the author of a book about prestige on the job (Work and Society) and co-author of Changes in University Organization: 1964-1971, dealing with the impact of the student uprisings in the 1960s. Gross talked about embarrassment and its sociological effects with Dianna Waggoner for PEOPLE.

Why are you studying embarrassment?

When I was teaching at the University of Minnesota there was an administrator who was doing a very poor job. A committee set up to repair the trouble he had created was headed by a friend of mine. My friend told me that they planned to reorganize the university around the man because firing him would be too embarrassing. That floored me. When I checked, I found lots of research had been done on guilt and shame, but nothing on embarrassment.

What is the difference between shame and embarrassment?

Shame is when you don't measure up to someone else's standards—or your own. You can be ashamed of yourself alone in a room. Embarrassment, however, results from exposure to others of a failure.

How do you gather your material?

In the first study in 1964 my colleague Gregory P. Stone and I asked mostly students, parents and heads of corporations to relate embarrassing situations they had witnessed or heard about. When I repeated the study this year we also approached people in the armed services, government bureaucracies and businesses. We collected over 1,000 anecdotes each time.

What did you find?

There are four main situations when embarrassment is almost inevitable. The first occurs when people project a certain picture of themselves but something happens to discredit that image—when women executives are mistaken for secretaries, for example. The second is disturbance of poise—we are ready to act but something goes wrong. For instance, when we sit down but the chair isn't there. We assume the props in our lives aren't going to change—tables aren't going to collapse, rugs aren't going to curl up under our feet and make us trip. Unfortunately, they sometimes do. Also in this category are disorders of clothing—frayed cuff, spot on the tie and of course the classic, an open fly. One reverse example of this was the woman at the nudist colony who got terribly embarrassed when she realized she had forgotten to remove her bra.

What are the other two categories?

There is what we call loss of maintenance of confidence. It occurs when two people are supposed to be acting as a team but in the middle of a situation one person shifts roles: At a party when the husband launches into a joke, the wife says, "Honey, everybody's heard that story." Or the secretary who is supposed to help the executive maintain his image of being a hard worker but forgets to close the door so he is observed practicing his golf swing. And finally there is deliberate embarrassment—fraternity hazing is a prime example.

How damaging can embarrassment be?

It can destroy a person's reputation, break up a marriage or ruin a corporation by totally destroying people's faith and confidence.

What is "corporate embarrassment"?

A good example is McDonnell Douglas and the DC-10. For a while their policy has seemed to be to lie low, but there has been a tremendous dent in the company's image. My guess is that they will soon come up with a series of ads connecting their name with safety.

Do corporations sometimes deliberately embarrass their employees?

Yes, to see how they act under pressure. We have one story of a man who was being considered to head a branch office. He was invited to a meeting where several senior executives were considering a contract. After the decision had been made someone suddenly burst into the room with new information which totally turned all the negotiations upside down. They turned to the man for advice. It was all a ploy to unnerve him in order to see how he would act.

Has the nature of embarrassment changed in the last 15 years?

Yes. Our current emphasis on openness often leads to embarrassing situations. Gays coming out of the closet, for example, can be embarrassing to their families and friends. Also, we have developed sophisticated technology to expose people's private lives—everything from high-powered microphones to routine computer checks by stores and police. It's difficult for people to maintain any kind of privacy.

Does urban life add to the possibility of embarrassment?

Yes, because people find they are under more pressure to conform than ever. Your garbage isn't even safe—everyone sees the liquor bottles in the bags. It's very hard to have overnight guests without anyone knowing.

Do encounter groups, assertiveness training, est and other therapies help?

Ironically, they have actually contributed to the potential for embarrassment. According to them, there is no excuse anymore for being embarrassed. If your kid has a temper tantrum in a store, someone is likely to walk past and remark that it is your fault, that you need effectiveness training.

Is it really important to study why people get embarrassed?

It is important to sociologists because embarrassment totally stops interaction. While you're blushing you can't talk. While you're trying to recover, everything else stops. One incident reported involved an intern who handed the wrong tool to a surgeon. The angry surgeon knocked it out of the student's hand and it clattered noisily to the floor. The intern, petrified with embarrassment, stood there perspiring. The anesthetist looked around to see what was going on. Meanwhile, the poor patient just lay there.

Can you give another example?

A couple in their mid-50s, both of whom had been married before, were having a wedding. It was a quiet occasion with only the immediate family present. The husband was a widower and when one family member rose to make a toast to the new wife at the reception he called her by the first wife's name. He tried to recover, but it was impossible. He had simply said what was on everyone else's mind—the dead wife was a brooding presence at the reception.

Why do we relish tales of other people's humiliation?

Because it illustrates the fundamental humanity of everyone. It cuts people down to size. We realize that in spite of all our differences we are all alike. And sometimes we simply enjoy seeing the pompous person deflated a little.

What is the most embarrassing incident you've come across?

It involved the main speaker at a large formal dinner. Just as the chocolate mousse and coffee were being served, the master of ceremonies leaned over, said he was going to introduce the speaker and also informed the man that his fly was open. Flustered, the man zipped up quickly, unfortunately catching the tablecloth in the process. When he stood up to speak he took the tablecloth with him as well as carafes of coffee, mousse, dishes, candles and even the flower arrangements.

What happened then?

He sat down and bent over trying to disengage himself, but the zipper stuck. People then leaped to help him, believing he was having a heart attack. Eventually a waiter produced a pair of scissors, and the man cut himself loose. The audience first began to titter, then totally lost control, laughing uproariously. The poor fellow finally finished his talk but didn't speak in public again for many years.

Do all people react the same way?

No. People with low self-esteem are easily embarrassed; people with a better self-image are less likely to be. Then, too, some people have secretaries, stage managers or entire public relations firms to protect them from such situations.

How do you cope with an embarrassing moment?

I just shrug my shoulders and claim that I'm testing out an idea for a study. The best thing is to prepare for situations. A good deal of the time these mortifications can be prevented if people can foresee what problems may arise. Having someone rehearse a job interview with you, for example, can help you handle questions more easily. But the only sure way of avoiding embarrassment is to avoid new situations—stay in your house, don't get married, don't get divorced, don't take a new job. In short, become a hermit. You may be ashamed sometimes, but you won't ever be embarrassed.

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