It was a party to celebrate her first modeling assignment, and she was having a marvelous time. Suddenly, to her horror, she heard her lover across the room, talking to two men, loudly revealing a secret he'd sworn he would never tell. "She's pencil-thin now," he was telling his rapt audience, "but you should have seen her two years ago. She weighed 180 pounds -- she spent an entire summer at a fat farm to get that figure." Several people giggled, and the model -- crimson with embarrassment -- wished she could evaporate.
We all know villains like that. They're the friends, colleagues and lovers who, in public, put their arms around you, give you a squeeze, and then cut you to the quick by revealing that you have flabby thighs or by pointing out that you possess the joke-telling talent of a pea. If you get angry at their attempt to embarrass you, such culprits will often say that they were just joking, that the incident was trivial, and that by acting offended you're showing your oversensitivity or poor sense of humor.
But as Edward Gross a University of Washington sociologist who has studied the issue of embarrassment for 20 years, points out, being publicly humiliated usually isn't really funny -- or trivial. At the very least, you've been exposed at being less intelligent, sophisticated or confident then you want others to see you as. At worst, being embarrassed (especially repeatedly) can damage your self-esteem, reputation or career -- and can introduce gnawing mistrust into a relationship you value.
When embarrassed, most of us freeze, stammer stupidly and blush -- it's hard to respond with wit when you're mortified. According to Gross, the classic reaction actually may be part of our evolutionary survival kit. When our Stone Age ancestors confronted danger (e.g., a ferocious beast) they could respond in one of three ways: run away, fight or freeze. Likewise, when your lover suddenly blabs your most personal secret to a group of his friends, your body (which can't tell an angry beast from a thoughtless mate) will instantly react to defend itself from the "danger" of social exposure by running from the room (flight), getting angry (fight), or freezing and blushing (embarrassment). Of course, you still have a fourth option -- to stay logical, take charge of the situation and let the levelheaded part of your brain stay in control.
How do you stay poised and salvage your self-respect while embarrassed? Though it's never easy, it helps if you can understand why a total stranger -- or worse, someone who supposedly cares for you and should have your best interest at heart -- would stoop to putting you in such an awkward position.
According to University of Florida psychologist Barry Schlenker, when anyone embarrasses you, it's best not to immediately assume the person had some ulterior motive. "It's quite possible the person just slipped up," says Schlenker, "or didn't realize you would be hurt." When you point out the gaffe, the well-meaning but socially clumsy offender usually will apologize, strain to make amends and vow not to repeat the faux pas.
Less innocent offenders, however, are acting out of deeper (though perhaps subconscious) motives. When anyone embarrasses you deliberately -- or repeatedly -- experts say he or she may really be sending one of the following messages:
Can You Stand Up to Me? Many use deliberate embarrassment as a type of challenge. One woman, an independent, strong-willed investment banker, admits she frequently tries to embarrass men who intrigue her. "I may make some crack about a man's tasteless tie or reveal the punch line of a joke he's telling before he delivers it," she says. "Maybe it's my way of saying, 'Are you strong enough to handle me?' If a man fails my little tests, I usually assume that the relationship won't work, because I would probably wind up walking all over him."
The danger is that if a man is socially smooth enough to handle her challenge, he's probably also savvy enough to know what she's up to, and he may resent her tests. Her embarrassment tactics may alienate the people she hopes to attract.
Stop What You're Doing This Minute. Gross notes the major sociological goal of embarrassment is to bring some pattern of social interaction to a screeching halt.
When a friend or lover suddenly cuts you to the quick, take a moment to consider what you may have been doing that your companion might resent.
For instance, the model, a bit tipsy on margaritas, had been flirting outrageously all evening with her lover's best friend. Embarrassing her was his indirect and none-too-gentle way of trying to put a stop to her tendency to flirt.
I Want to Punish You. Other self-righteous people who embarrass want to do more than just stop you in your tracks: They actually want to punish you for something they feel you've done to them.
When a New York secretary was rushing to buy a cup of yogurt in a supermarket and found a woman with a full cart of groceries ahead of her in the express line, she felt outraged at what she considered yet another injustice. Determined to expose the woman, she shouted, "Look at the sign: TEN ITEMS ONLY. Can't you read?" All the shoppers in other lines sent daggered stares toward the woman at whom the secretary was screaming.
She could have quietly said, "Look, I'm in a rush. Would you mind if I went first? I only have one item, and this is an express line." Instead, she purposely chose to embarrass the woman, to make her pay for her crime. In their effort to personally correct the situation, people who mortify others out of moral indignation, "often do a bit of grandstanding -- functioning as a judge, jury and executioner rolled into one," Gross says.
I Want Revenge. All through their meal, the husband had been trying to impress the sexy blond waitress. When, at the end of the meal, the husband left a $20 tip, his wife grabbed the money, loudly announced, "The service wasn't that good," and left a $5 bill instead. The husband, who'd been playing the big man for the waitress' benefit, turned bright crimson and disappeared quickly out the restaurant door.
Recalling the incident, his wife says, "I can't believe I was so obnoxious. If I'd just asked him to stop flirting, he probably would have. But I was just so furious ... I wanted to hurt him as much as he'd hurt me. I wanted to get even."
I Feel Threatened. According to Gross, one of the most common instances in which people embarrass others is when there's a status contest involved.
A highly trained nurse at a Detroit hospital had special skills that gave her more privileges than the other nurses. On coffee breaks, she was often invited to sit with the doctors, who welcomed her as a peer. One day, two male surgeons were puzzling over a tough case when she offered a brilliant solution and asked, "Why didn't you try that?" To reassert his authority, one surgeon snapped, "For the same reason you misrecorded the information on a patient's chart last week and might have killed her with your blunder." Proud of her flawless record, the nurse turned crimson. Gross explains, "She was humiliated in front of this group she wanted to impress precisely because she'd risen so high."
I Want Power More Than I Want Love. According to Schlenker, two of our strongest needs in life often conflict: power and love. At one extreme are the ruthless people who go strictly for power and don't care whom they hurt (or humiliate) -- they are desperate to remain in control, even if it means they never develop lasting relationships. At the other extreme are the doormats of the world who sacrifice all their power and self-respect in the hope that at least they'll be liked.
It could be that if someone is continually embarrassing you, he or she would rather be in charge of your relationship than give up some control in return for more intimacy. Many relationships like these actually survive -- for a while.
We've all seen husbands and wives who put up with endless stories about their ineptitude -- she can't boil water, he can't change a tire -- and yet they never seem to consider leaving. But University of Connecticut psychologist Joseph Nowinski points out that if the pattern toward such violations of trust continues over time -- and the couple doesn't recognize its destructive potential -- the breakdown of intimacy between the couple will continue until neither partner feels even remotely in love.
I'm Not the Friend You Thought I Was. Some people, while feigning deep love or friendship, don't really feel as generous toward you as they pretend, and an incident of deliberate embarrassment may suddenly expose them for the frauds they are. An assistant editor at a New York magazine, for example, was embarrassed to admit she couldn't afford a trip to the country, let alone Europe -- where most of her colleagues were traveling for the Christmas holidays. However, she arrived at the office on Jan. 2 sporting a gorgeous tan. When asked if she'd been somewhere glamorous, she answered, "Wouldn't you like to know?" smiled coyly, and walked away, letting them assume she had.
Her cover was blown when her so-called best friend blurted out in front of the whole office, "Glamorous? Come off it. You spent all last week at a tanning salon." At first mortified and later terribly hurt, the editor chose to sever the friendship. "After mulling over the incident, I realized she had a long history of putting me down and had always been indiscreet," the editor says.
In the long run, you can end up spending too much time fretting and asking yourself, "Why did this person do this awful thing to me?" Instead, you should surround yourself with people whose treatment of you makes you feel like more of a success, not less of one.
How you handle an embarrassing incident depends on the person and the situation. If your boss has reprimanded you three times in front of co-workers and is about to do it again, obviously you need to be careful as to how you respond. Still, you can remain calmly assertive by saying, "May we discuss this matter in private?
Likewise, when hurt by a close friend or lover, rather than responding on the spot with your own caustic stab, try to talk over the incident first. Explain that you feel violated -- and that if this person continues to embarrass you, you'll find it impossible to trust him or her anymore.
When someone has embarrassed you on purpose, or maliciously, you may need to take more drastic measures. The next time someone places you in an embarrassing situation, try these tactics to handle the culprit and keep your self-esteem intact:
If the person who is embarrassing you is a competitive co-worker simply call the person on it -- and put a stop to the game on the spot. Say, "You've certainly managed to cut me to the quick. Would you mind telling me what that was all about?" Or, "You seem unnecessarily bothered. Is there something you're unhappy with that I should be aware of?"
Avoid blowing up. By losing your poise, you only give the offender the satisfaction of knowing that he or she has had some effect on you, and you may become subject to even more hostility.
Laugh it off. Often the best way out of an awkward dilemma is a quick wit and a good sense of humor. Gross, who has collected thousands of embarrassment stories, tells of Liz Carpenter (a White House staffer during the Johnson administration), who had written a book and was basking in the compliments of her peers when historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., (who'd been President Kennedy's aide) walked up and said, "I like your book, Liz. Who wrote it for you?" She replied, "I'm glad you like it, Arthur. Who read it to you?" Showing "grace under pressure" often truly is the best revenge. Sue Browder is a New Woman magazine contributing editor.
1987, News America Publishing, Inc.