Embarrassment — a Property of the Situation, Not the Person

October 6, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

When the American Sociological Association gave an award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues to This American Life in 2013, one of the sociologists who spoke about the show (David Newman IIRC), praised its highlighting of social context.

No, no, said Ira Glass when it was his turn. The name of the award gets it all wrong. “What we want are stories, stories with good individual characters. If we don’t have a good character, we can’t do a good radio piece” (This quote isn’t exact— I’m trying to remember something that happened eight years ago — but it conveys the idea.)

Ira was being too modest. Usually, those This American Life stories cannot help but reflect the social forces shaping what the characters do, which is why the ASA was honoring the show. It just provides such good classroom material for professors to work from.

But sometimes the focus on the individual obscures subtle social forces and keeps us from thinking about the sociological implications of the story. The most recent episode, was about embarrassment. But it completely missed Goffman’s insight that while it is the individual who feels embarrassed, embarrassment is really a property of the social situation. Goffman’s focus, as he says in the introduction to Interaction Ritual, is “Not men and their moments, but moments and their men.” [He means “men and women,” but he wrote this a half-century ago.]     
            *                    *                    *                    *

For this episode, “My Bad” (here), This American Life asked listeners to contribute their own stories of embarrassment. They got some doozies. The final segment (title: “Putting the Bare Ass in Embarrassment”) is from a woman, Cariad Harmon, who was sleeping at her boyfriend’s apartment for the first time. Sleeping is the key word.  

Here is the transcript:

I just remember being really, really tired and really needing to go to the bathroom. And that was kind of my last thought as I was falling to sleep was, ugh, I really need to pee, but I can't be bothered to get up and find the bathroom. And then I had this dream that I really needed to go to the bathroom. And I was looking for one and I couldn't find one anywhere. And I was pushing this big metal door, in my search for the bathroom. And it was locked. And I couldn't get through, and I was really, really frustrated.

And then, I woke up. And I was naked, standing in a stairwell, pushing against a big door that went from the stairwell into the rest of the apartment building.

She had sleepwalked. It was early in the morning. She opened the stairwell door and looked down hallway but could not remember which of the apartments was her boyfriends’s. It’s a long story and includes her peeing in the stairwell and winding up nude in an apartment full of strangers.

At the end of the episode, the host Elna Baker says.

So, most of the embarrassing stories I've heard and collected for this week's show, the person does something that results in their embarrassment... So, I get why they feel embarrassed. But you didn't do anything. You didn't overstep. You didn't make a mistake, but you still feel embarrassed.

Cariad agrees, sort of. “Yeah. I suppose if you take blame off the table, it takes maybe a certain flavor of that embarrassment out. But it doesn't take the embarrassment away.”

Goffman couldn’t have put it better. Embarrassment is not a matter of the individual’s intent or personal characteristics or other bases of blame.. It’s about the norms and roles that are part of the social situation. (Of course Cariad did something. She walked around naked in an aparment building. She peed on the stairs. When Elna Baker says, “You didn’t do anything,” I think she means, “You didn’t do anything consciously or intentionally; there was no way you could have avoided it.”)

I used to ask students to write, anonymously of course, their own incidents of embarrassment. Some of them had this same quality where the person was blameless but still embarrassed. One girl was forced to play in the softball game at the company picnic despite her protestations. Sure enough, the first time a ball was hit in her directions, it went right through her legs, and she felt keen embarrassment. (Feeling irked at her co-workers came later.) 

Another girl was making out with her boyfriend in his parked car. Most of their clothing was strewn on the seat and floor. Still, nothing blameworthy there, or embarrassing. But then a cop came and shone his flashlight in on them. And the cop was her father. She had still done nothing blameworthy, nobody had. But needless to say, all three were embarrassed. In other cases, the person is embarrassed not by their own gaffe but by what someone with them has done. Often that other person is a child too young to know the situational norms.

The more general point is that embarrassment shows the advantage of thinking first about the situation and what it requires of the people in it

No comments: