The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


The addled, constricted feeling we get when we fart loudly in a bookshop, or have “Happy Birthday” sung to us in a restaurant, or say something innocuous that others mishear as Very Rude Indeed, was largely an invention of the stiflingly polite drawing rooms of Regency England. Adopted in the 1750s, from the Old French embarrasser (to impede or hinder), embarrassment described feeling constrained, even crippled, following some breach of etiquette that made the conversation splutter. (The connection between embarrassment and constraint or blockage also explains the phrase “an embarrassment of riches.” It comes from the French embarras de richesses, which refers to feeling hindered by too much choice.) This new category was free of the moral dimension of the older catchall SHAME. While shame came to be associated with the elongated miseries of self-flagellation in private, embarrassment captured social humiliations, emphasizing instead minor or fleeting transgressions before an audience.

If you’re easily embarrassed, you probably envy those who allow their gaffes to roll right off them. Being lavishly praised in public or accidentally criticizing an in-law can leave one flustered and wanting to evaporate—and then, the horror!—even more discombobulated for being embarrassed. But maybe we’re being too hard on ourselves. According to the sociologist Erving Goffman, embarrassment serves an important purpose. Getting flustered shows that we realize we’ve transgressed a social rule; it is a gesture that promises we will “prove worthy another time.” Recent research from the University of California has shown that people who are more easily embarrassed are also more altruistic, and that onlookers can tell as much. In the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, Charles (Hugh Grant) bangs his head against a marquee pole after a joke horrifically backfires. Carrie (Andie MacDowall) smiles, not just because she’s witnessing an amusing display of English repression, but because the depth of Charles’s self-punitive embarrassment shows how much he cares about the offense he’s caused. Because of this connection between embarrassment and maintaining social equilibrium, the philosopher Rom Harré has argued that embarrassment has taken over from shame as the major “instrument of conformity.”

While stammering and staring at the ground are signs of embarrassment, blushing is its famous tell. In fact, the link between embarrassment and blushing is relatively new. Before the 1800s, one’s face might grow red for a variety of reasons, including modesty and ECSTASY, PRIDE and SHAME, LOVE and ANGER. When Charlotte de Corday was executed in Paris in 1793 for assassinating revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat, her severed head was said to have blushed furiously, an unmistakable “sign of INDIGNATION at her punishment, according to the Parisian surgeon Jean-Joseph Sue. Within fifty years Victorian physiologists had rewritten the story of Corday’s blush, claiming that the murderess blushed not in fury but out of involuntary shame at her wrongdoing. As Thomas Henry Burgess put it in The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing in 1839, there is a distinction between the “genuine” blush of shame, and the mere facial reddenings of anger, excitement or illness. The true blush, according to Burgess, was a moral instinct implanted by God, to restrain illicit behavior. The red blotches were a powerful deterrent, staining the cheeks, the tips of noses, even the earlobes, and lighting up our guilt for all to see.

Intrigued by the possibility of an inherently moral human body, Victorian physicians set about busily recording unusual specimens of blushes. They investigated red-faced sleepwalkers and swapped tantalizing tales of female asylum patients whose thighs flushed during intimate examinations. They wondered whether people could blush when alone, and hotly debated whether people of different races could blush at all—and if not, whether this meant they were inherently deceptive. One particular “servant Negress” became something of a celebrity for a scar on her cheek that glowed red when she was “abruptly spoken to or charged with any trivial offence,” though the color in the rest of her face remained unchanged. Their idea of a moral reflex, however, was reconsidered in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) by Charles Darwin, who first cemented the link between blushing and a social experience of embarrassment—as opposed to a moral category of shame or guilt. He argued that blood rushes to the surface of the skin whenever another’s “attention is vividly directed” to it, as when someone compliments our appearance. He also ventured that, since breaking taboos leaves us feeling conspicuous, blushing may have evolved as a reflex, a deterrent to rule breaking helping fledgling societies survive—an idea taken up enthusiastically by Goffman.

Darwin’s theory has been very influential, but today the link between blushing, embarrassment and conformity is beginning to unravel. Echoing pre-Victorian ideas about blushing, today’s physiologists argue we don’t blush only when embarrassed, but also when we experience any sudden emotional change, including fear, anger and stress. In these moments, our bodies release adrenaline, which in turn dilates the capillaries in our cheeks, flooding them with blood and splattering blotches across our skin. In this picture, the idea of a “moral blush” specifically evolved to deter us from breaking the rules seems even less likely.

In fact, embarrassment doesn’t always work in the way evolutionary psychologists like Darwin and Goffman suggest. While it is broadly true that a fear of embarrassing ourselves keeps us within the margins of social respectability, embarrassment can be disruptive in its own right. It can be crippling, as in the case of shyness, trapping us in its excruciating feedback loops (“I wish I didn’t embarrass so easily, it’s so embarrassing!”). It can be exasperating, as when teenagers, that most diligent tribe of conformists, squirm and sweat when their parents ask a stranger for directions. Sometimes embarrassment can inhibit generosity and cooperation, as when we resist the urge to offer our seat on a crowded bus for fear of drawing attention to ourselves, or assume someone is pregnant when in fact.… Embarrassment might cement our social rules, but the moments of confusion it sometimes creates can accidentally make us break them too.