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«Embarrassment: The Communication of an Awkward Actor Anticipating a Negative Evaluation Lesley A. Withers Central Michigan University John C. ...»

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Human Communication. A Publication of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association. Vol. 11,

No.2, pp. 237 – 254.

Embarrassment: The Communication of an Awkward Actor Anticipating a Negative Evaluation

Lesley A. Withers

Central Michigan University

John C. Sherblom

University of Maine

Lesley A. Withers (Ph.D., University of Connecticut, 2002) is an Associate Professor in the

Speech Communication and Dramatic Arts Department at Central Michigan University. John C.

Sherblom (Ph.D., University of Maine, 1986) is a Professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of Maine.

238 Embarrassment Abstract Embarrassment is often conceptualized as produced by either an awkward interaction or a negative social evaluation. The present study uses the Cupach and Metts (1994) and Sharkey and Stafford (1990) typologies to analyze these two influences. Respondents (n=327) describe embarrassing situations they experienced and explain why they were embarrassing. Chi-square results suggest a difference between awkward interaction and social evaluation as the primary influence on embarrassment in self-induced, actor-responsible situations and on other-induced, observer-responsible situations. Self-induced embarrassment predicaments are associated with a loss of personal script and an awkward interaction. Embarrassment caused by others shows a greater influence of perceived negative social evaluation. These results suggest that embarrassment is best conceptualized as a multidimensional phenomenon having multiple triggers and with multiple communication responses.

Key Concepts: Embarrassment, Face, Awkward Interaction, Negative Evaluation, Typologies Lesley A. Withers and John C. Sherblom 239 Embarrassment is a powerful and pervasive force in human interaction (Verbeke & Bagozzi, 2002). It has been linked by scholars to speechlessness (Berger, 2004), verbal repair strategies (Meyer & Rothenberg (2004), avoidance behaviors, and organizational employee responses to management sanctions (Kobayashi, Grasmick, & Friedrich (2001). The present study analyses the personal experience and communication of embarrassment and examines its triggers to better understand its onset, process, variety, and predictable outcomes.

Conceptualizing Embarrassment Embarrassment is said to occur when an expressive act threatens the assumptions of a participant's projected identity and discredits one’s interactional face (Goffman, 1956, 1967).

Embarrassment, therefore, is "located not in the individual but in the social system" (Goffman, 1967, p.

108). How embarrassment is triggered, however, is opento dispute. Three alternative perspectives suggest that embarrassment occurs due to: (a) a disruption in the social interaction (Gross & Stone, 1964; Weinberg, 1968), (b) a loss of situational self-esteem (Modigliani, 1971; Sattler, 1965), or (c) the perception of negative social evaluation (Buss 1980; Edelmann 1981, 1990; Edelmann & Neto, 1985;

Edelmann, et al., 1989). All three explanations draw on Goffman’s conceptualization of interactional face, but each interprets the implications of face threats differently.

Gross and Stone (1964) and Weinberg (1968) describe embarrassment as a response to a disruption in the interpersonal-social interaction script. This disruption is precipitated by a threat to selfdefinition and face due to an error in personal judgment or behavior. Gross and Stone (1964) argue that embarrassment occurs when one of three essential aspects of face—identity, poise, or confidence—is disrupted by the social interaction. Weinberg (1968) suggests that these aspects have two dimensions.

These dimensions identify the intended-unintended nature of one’s act and the appropriatenessinappropriateness of one’s behavior. Together these dimensions describe four basic types of embarrassing behavior, any one of which can disrupt the personal-social interaction script.

The situational self-esteem and negative social evaluation perspectives both argue that embarrassment results from an act or behavior that is observed and has the potential to be negatively evaluated by others. The situational self-esteem perspective suggests that this results from a temporary loss of self-esteem and that this loss leads one to judge oneself badly. The resulting private disapproval of a publicly observed act produces embarrassment (Modigliani, 1971). Sattler (1965) agrees, indicating that people are embarrassed when their competence for interacting with social grace, their propriety for maintaining appropriate dress and social relations, or their social conspicuousness produce undesired attention is publicly challenged (Sattler, 1965). This public challenge threatens one's self presentation and situational self esteem, creates private disapproval, and produces embarrassment. Alternately, the negative social evaluation perspective traces the source of embarrassment back to child-rearing practices and suggests that embarrassment provides a punishment for social mistakes (Edelmann, 1981).

Through its experience we learn self control, modesty, manners, and privacy. Hence, embarrassment represents a concern for what others think of us and threat of unwanted, negative social evaluation (Buss, 1980). We often blush when embarrassed, but children don't blush in their first few years of life suggesting that blushing is developed through socialization and, by implication; embarrassment is a socially based response (Buss 1980; Edelmann 1981, 1990; Edelmann & Neto, 1985; Edelmann, et al., 1989). From either of these perspectives embarrassment is precipitated by the threat of negative social evaluation, rather than by the awkward disruption to a personal-social interaction script.





These two conceptualizations of embarrassment, as either a response to an awkward social interaction or a concern for negative social evaluation, provide the major influences on the development of models and typologies of embarrassment. The awkward interaction model incorporates elements of the situational self-esteem perspective of Gross and Stone (1964) and Weinberg (1968), and suggests 240 Embarrassment that embarrassment results from an anxious uncertainty and loss of direction in the social interaction.

When a mishap disturbs the social interaction a person becomes flustered, loses his/her social script, is unsure of what to say or do next, is unable to gracefully continue his or her interactional performance, and becomes embarrassed. Hence, embarrassment based on awkward interaction is related to one's own social interaction skills, abilities, and competence. The social evaluation model, on the other hand, incorporates elements of Sattler's (1965) and Modigliani's (1971) situational self-esteem perspective, and Buss’s (1980) socialization perspective. It is related to one's concern for what others think and generally considers embarrassment a response to the anticipation of unwanted negative social evaluation.

Miller (1995, p. 317) argues that these two models "make different predictions about the dispositional correlates of susceptibility to embarrassment." In support of the awkward interaction model Edelmann and McCusker (1985) found that embarrassment is negatively related to the personality characteristics of extroversion and empathy, and to personal social skills and competence.

Parrott, Sabini, and Silver (1988) and Parrott and Smith (1991) provided evidence connecting embarrassment to an individual's experience of anxious uncertainty and a loss of direction in the social interaction. Miller (1995) discovered that people with poor control over their self-presentation and who lack deftness in interaction are more susceptible to embarrassment. In support of the social evaluation model, Edelmann (1987) linked embarrassment to public, but not private, self-consciousness. Miller (1995) demonstrated that unwanted negative evaluation can produce embarrassment independently of awkwardness, and Miller (1987, 1992, 1995, 1996) concluded that overall the evidence supports the social evaluation model. Sabini, Siepmann, Stein, and Meyerowitz (2000, p. 232), however, argue that "the Social Evaluation model captures some, but not all, triggers of embarrassment and that the Dramaturgic [awkward interaction] model captures different triggers."

The purpose of the present study is to analyze the triggers of embarrassment by examining people's reports of embarrassing situations through the lens of two embarrassment typologies, each of which represents a different perspective. The Sharkey and Stafford (1990) typology emphasizes the role of awkward interaction. The Cupach and Metts (1994) typology suggests that embarrassment arises primarily from a concern for negative evaluation, and a lack of control over one's self presentation.

Typologies of Embarrassment The Sharkey and Stafford Typology Sharkey and Stafford (1990) based their typology on Sattler’s (1965) 38 categories, but collapsed these categories to create a more manageable six-category typology consisting of privacy violations, lack of knowledge or skill, criticism, awkward acts, image appropriateness, and violations of environment. Privacy violations include exposure of the body, clothing, or an intimate act; the invasion of space or property; and the revealing of private or secret information. Lack of knowledge or skill includes forgetfulness, lack of skill that is role specific and that which is not associated with a particular role. Criticism includes criticism or rejection, praise or flattery, teasing, and being made the center of attention. Awkward acts are situationally improper acts; ungraceful, clumsy, or awkward acts;

expressions of emotions, inappropriate or intimate talk; and verbal blunders. Appropriate image expresses a concern for one’s body, clothing, or personal possessions. Embarrassment caused by one’s environment involves external stimuli such as viewing an embarrassing movie or piece of art (Sharkey & Stafford, 1990).

The Cupach and Metts Typology Metts and Cupach (1989) based their typology on Weinberg’s (1968) intended-unintended and

appropriate-inappropriate dimensions and the resulting four basic types of embarrassing situations:

faux pas, accidents, mistakes, and duties. From these types Cupach and Metts (1990) developed a Lesley A. Withers and John C. Sherblom 241 typology identifying two basic embarrassment situations: the actor responsible and the observer responsible. Actor responsible situations become embarrassing when a person performs an act that is inappropriate to a level of competence congruent with social norms and expectations, inconsistent with role expectations, or out-of-sync with a social identity (Cupach & Metts, 1990). Observer responsible categories become embarrassing when one becomes the center of attention through recognition, praise, criticism, correction, or teasing; becomes unpoised by being tripped or bumped; is associated with someone who is acting inappropriately; or has personal information revealed publicly by someone else (Cupach & Metts, 1990).

Cupach and Metts (1994) proposed a typology with 12 categories of embarrassment divided into two types of predicaments: those that are self-induced or actor responsible and those that are created by others and observer responsible. Self-induced predicaments consist of accidents, mistakes, conspicuousness, inept performance, tactlessness, and deliberate rule violations. Predicaments created by others include awkward interactions, team embarrassment, individualization, caused to look unpoised, rudeness or abusiveness, falsely accused or implicated, privacy violation, and empathic embarrassment.

Although each typology includes aspects of both awkward interaction and social evaluation, each emphasizes these aspects differently. The Sharkey and Stafford (1990) typology, in general, emphasizes the role of awkward interaction. The Cupach and Metts (1994) typology suggests that, in general, embarrassment arises primarily from having poor control over one's self presentation, a concern for what others are thinking, and a concern for negative social evaluation. Together they provide an analysis tool for examining the comparative influence of awkward interaction and social evaluation on the creation of embarrassment predicaments.

The present study examines and compares the awkward interaction and social evaluation characteristics of embarrassment through the use of the Sharkey and Stafford (1990; Sharkey, 1992;

Kim & Sharkey, 1995) and Cupach and Metts (Metts & Cupach, 1989; Cupach & Imahori, 1993;



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