By Nicola Pearson, TimesOnline, Oct. 5, 2010
As modern media tempt us to reveal lurid* details that would make our parents blush, have we lost our sense of shame?
Imagine my surprise when, a few days ago, walking home from the pub, I fell over two people having sex on the path. OK, it was quite secluded. But it was still next to the bus stop and they were definitely more irritated at being interrupted than they were embarrassed.
Then, at a party the following night, a 20-something girl was giving the assembled company full-on details about her impending boob job* — including invitations to prod* and squeeze, and how her boyfriend felt about it sexually. It got me thinking — whatever happened to embarrassment?
It’s probably not much consolation if you spend a lot of time blushing puce with mortification, but a certain amount of embarrassment is actually a good thing. Unlike shame or guilt, you don’t feel embarrassment when you’re on your own; it’s a social emotion, a public self-consciousness* that shows you care what other people think about you and accept certain standards of behaviour. As a form of self-editing, it generally makes you a nicer person. Rowland Miller, a psychology professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has spent 30 years studying embarrassment and says that people like you more if you show signs of it. “Embarrassment is a good indication of a person’s concern for social acceptance. We don’t tend to like or trust people who don’t mind what we think of them. We often like someone more after they’ve taken a pratfall*.”
In his latest research, published last month in the United States, Miller concludes that embarrassment has declined rapidly over the past few years and that technology is largely the cause.
What tends to embarrass us are flaws in our own behaviour — temporary stupidity or loss of control — that ruin our social image, things such as getting drunk and throwing up or forgetting someone’s name. Miller says that when we show we are embarrassed by blushing or pulling a face, it is an instant non-verbal apology. Seeing someone else embarrassed also triggers empathy in most people and the common reaction to that is support.
This conciliatory* aspect of embarrassment explains why gangs of loud teenage girls on the bus are so annoying. They’re showing they don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of them, and socially that’s very aggressive.
Obviously what embarrasses people changes over time, from generation to generation. My mother swore she never heard my father fart, nor knew how much her friends earned and certainly not how much sex they had. But Miller says that we have become so “heedless* of publicity”, so adept at baring* every thought and emotion on Twitter and Facebook, that we’re becoming desensitised*. “If you watch people making complete fools of themselves on Big Brother or the X Factor every week,” says Miller, “what the hell have you got to be embarrassed about? And particularly if they’re making money from it, brazen becomes good.”
When I mention my recent discovery by the bus stop, Miller laughs and says he’ll now have to rethink his attitude to the British, but agrees such behaviour is part of the increasing “failures of privacy regulation”. “In the past, there were always things we didn’t want our mothers to know we were doing; everyone behaves differently with their friends. But now there is no segregation of audience, a blurring of the line between who sees what, so a huge variety of people can get to know everything about us.”
Because teenagers use this media and technology the most, Miller agrees it’s their change in attitude that is most marked. “It’s your parents who teach you a set of embarrassment codes, be it don’t pick your nose in public or laugh at someone’s disfigurement, but it’s only when you become a teenager that you have the socialisation skills and the cognitive abilities to understand the emotion. Combine that with being blind-sided by your new-found sexuality and most teenagers spend a lot of time crippled with embarrassment.” Now, it’s often young people whose don’t-care attitude makes other people’s lives uncomfortable. There’s so little shame in social disapprobation*: most recipients of ASBOs don’t seem overly concerned with them.
Oliver James, the psychologist and author of Affluenza, says that since the 1960s there has been a massive shift from a collective society to one based on individualism. Before this change morals were underpinned by religion and externally imposed, and people were connected to and answerable to family and friends. In the current age ethics have become a personal choice and we are only accountable to ourselves.
“Self-regulation has been overtaken by a greed-is-good, pragmatic mentality that exploded in the mid-1980s, epitomised by Michael Douglas’s film Wall Street, that is all about ‘what suits me’,” says James. “Role models for young people become people who talk about themselves, which then becomes legitimised behaviour ... and that also includes Diana, Princess of Wales’s extraordinary TV revelations in 1995, and the glut of autobiographies of the famous that reveal far too much information, in the misguided belief that because you’re saying it yourself, it puts you in control.”
So does it matter that people are becoming less bothered about what people think of them? “Obviously,” says Miller, “you don’t want there to be so much embarrassment in society that teenagers have unprotected sex because they can’t bring themselves to buy condoms, or it prevents young women from having health checks. Certainly worrying too much about what people think of you can make people moody, unhappy and eventually neurotic, but should you want to completely overcome embarrassment? No. On the whole, people seeking to avoid embarrassment are more considerate, careful and respectful.”
James argues that “without embarrassment, we feel justified in behaving completely without restraint. If we no longer share a universal sense of politeness and right and wrong, we all become more callous and make other people’s lives less pleasurable”.
The disappearance of a collective ethos means we’re confronted with more annoyances and it becomes uncomfortable and occasionally dangerous to attempt to enforce social norms. “There hasn’t been masses of research on it,” he concedes, “but embarrassment is linked to shame and shame is connected to more monumental transgressions. If the erosion of embarrassment leads to the erosion of a collective shame, then that has much stronger implications.”
embarrassment - Verlegenheit, Peinlichkeit
* lurid - entsetzlich, schrecklich
* boob job - Schönheitsoperation (Brust)
* to prod - anfassen
* self-consciousness - Verlegenheit, Gehemmtheit
* pratfall - Reinfall
* conciliatory - versöhnlich, gewinnend
* heedless - rücksichtslos, unachtsam
* to bare - bloßlegen, enthüllen
* desensitised - unempfindlich
* disapprobation - Mißbilligung
* ASBOs - Anti-Social-Behaviour orders
1a. Explain how shame or guilt distinguish from embarrassment.
b. Why is embarrassment a positive sign of behaviour and when can it damage s.o.'s personality?
2. Embarrassment in people has declined, according to Miller, in the past few years. Why does he think so?
3. Do you agree with Miller's observation? If so, support his arguments by your own observations or by what you see in the media. If not, contradict his opinion by examples which prove the opposite.
4. Anti-social behaviour seems to become a severe problem in our society. Do you agree?
5. Do you personally live by some kind of 'embarrassment codes'?