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.]     
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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

Financial Literacy — Protecting Who?

September 16, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

My high school offered a course in drivers ed. I didn’t take it, but it was available. Today, some high schools offer courses in “financial literacy.” Behind these two seemingly different courses lie the same assumptions:

  • bad things happen largely because of individual shortcomings — bad driving, bad financial decisions
  • the road to less suffering lies in education

These two kinds of programs share one more similarity: they don’t work.

Financial literacy courses are not yet widesp4read, but there is a movement to get them into the curriculum. Who would be behind such a movement? Elizabeth Warren? Paul Krugman? You’re way ahead of me. It’s the people inside the world of finance — the banks and brokers and their attendant media. Here’s the graphic that came up when I searched for news of  “financial literacy.” 

CNBC, Financial Times, Fast Company, Charles Schwab, and so on. We don’t know for certain why these organizations have gotten into the fin-lit game. Their official goal is to keep people from making bad financial decisions. But it’s hard to ignore the own self-interest. The implicit message in these programs is that the banks and others are good, reliable, public-spirited institutions so long as you are careful. But beyond that, as Felix Salmon says,

Such curricula also tend to reinforce a libertarian view of financial wellness, based on individual rather than collective action — one where poverty and debt are less a societal problem and more a consequence of bad individual financial decisions.
Do Hispanics have financial problems, and if so how can these be solved? The CNBC link
 in my Google results has this:

During Hispanic Heritage Month, CNBC will highlight individuals who are working to teach others about personal finance and empowering them to strive toward a bright financial future.

The Financial Times link  yields a video of a panel discussion. It begins with moderator asking what are the most important things the FT financial-literacy charity can do. The answer:

The sorts of schools that we work with, about half of the children live in poverty. Their aspiration is to have their lives not in poverty. Money is so beyond important to all of them.

The idea that the government might regulate these institutions in order to protect consumers is simply not part of the discussion. Read all the fine print before you sign or click “Agree”; pay no attention to those lobbyists hard at work fighting against consumer financial protection laws. Fin-reg no; fin-lit yes.

I don’t know the history of drivers ed, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it was promoted, supported and perhaps designed by the car companies, the AAA, and the oil industry. The focus on good driving frames automobile safety as a problem whose cause and solution lie entirely with individuals.  Meanwhile, Detroit vigorously resisted regulations requiring them to include safety features like seat belts and airbags.

Eventually safety improved. The number of highway deaths declined. But it wasn’t because of drivers ed. The evaluation research on those programs is hardly a ringing endorsement of their effectiveness.

The same is true of financial literacy education. Felix Salmon again:

A 2014 meta-analysis of 169 papers and 201 studies, however, found that “interventions to improve financial literacy explain only 0.1% of the variance in financial behaviors studied” — and that low-income students had even weaker correlations.

It may be a bit too cynical to ask cui bono? (who is it good for?). But at the least, let's just say that  organizations do not promote programs that go against their own interests

White Lotus

August 23, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some random observations on White Lotus. I know it’s just television, and the stories are about the individual characters. But it’s hard not to see the social categories — class, gender, age, race, family role, occupation, etc.

Spoilers abound in what follows. For those totally unfamiliar with the show, White Lotus is a luxury hotel in Hawaii. The show focuses on three sets of guests who have come from the mainland for a week and on some of the staff who must endure them.

1.      Rich people are the problem, even when they’re trying to help.

Rich people are often the bad guys in American movies and TV.* In their pursuit of wealth and power, they resort to all kinds of nefarious deeds, some legal, some not but nasty nevertheless.  In White Lotus, the rich people are not that kind of villain. They are not Gordon Gecko or Montgomery Burns.  They are merely thoughtless. But the results are just as bad. In that thoughtlessness, they unintentionally bring disappointment, disaster, and death to the people who have jobs serving them.

    Three plot lines in the show pair a guest and a member of the hotel staff:

  • Tonya, a wealthy but very unhappy White woman. Belinda, the Black manager of the hotel’s spa services
  • Paula, friend of Olivia Mossbacher, whose family is on vacation at the hotel. Kai, a native Hawaiian who works at the hotel.
  • Shane, young White man on his honeymoon; his money is from the family real estate business. Armond, manager of the hotel, gay.

    None of these ends well, especially for the staff member.

    a.    After Belinda brings Tonya out of her physical and psycological misery, Tonya offers to help Beinda start her own business. But  then Tonay backs out, not even reading Belinda’s proposal. (She does though leave Belinda with a substantial amount of cash.)

    b.    Paula seduces Kai, then tries to help him by convincing him to steal the jewelry of the family that has brought her along. She provides the combination to the Mossbache’s room. It’s a stupid idea, and Kai is easily caught.

    c.    Shane is out to get Armond practically from the start. His complaint is mostly about the room Armond has given him. But in the end, he winds up killing Armond, though the death is more accidental than intentional.

2.    This ain’t Mother’s Day.

    a.    White Lotus is not kind to mothers. Tonya (Jennifer Coolidge, who should be given an Emmy right now) makes it clear that her mother is the principle cause of her personal failings and misery. ( “My mother told me I would never be a ballerina, and that was when I was skinny,”) We’ll never know the mother’s side since she exists only as the ashes that Tonya carries around in a wooden box and periodically tries to scatter on the ocean,

    b.    Nicole (Connie Britton) is more interested in her role as CFO than in her family. Even on this family vacation, she’s rearranging the furniture in their hotel suite for purposes of feng shui for her Zoom with China.

    c.    Shane’s mom (Mollie Shannon) is so involved with running Shane’s life that she crashes his honeymoon, is disdainful of her new daughter-in-law (if she listens to her at all) and is in general a thoroughly dislikeable materialistic snob.

3.    So much for the new masculinity.

    Shane performs the old-style bro version of masculinity., and for that, the show portrays this as something no man should want to be. But the non-bros, the two Mossbacher men (father Mark and teenage son Quinn) are hardly ideal. They are nearly lifeless, without energy for anything and finding little gratification in what they do. Mark seems to has little authority in the family, and seemingly no job. His wife Nicole, is the high-power one.  In the opening episode, Mark is worried that he will literally lose his balls. Quinn, bored and listless, distracts himself with screens — video games and porn.
What brings each of them to life is the chance to do something physical and tradionally masculine — fighting and sports. When Mark comes upon Kai burglarizing his room, he tackles him. They fight briefly, Mark getting the worst of it. But his valiant effort transforms him in his own eyes and in the eyes of his wife. They have sex for what is apparently the first time in years. Quinn comes to life only after he joins up with a rowing team. Pulling an oar in the outrigger is the only real thing in his life.


* The creators of these shows are often rich. I don’t know how much Mike White is making from this show that he created, wrote, and directed — it’s impossible to find out unless someone sues someone else — but I’m sure it’s a lot. Why do rich Hollywood writers make rich business people their villains? For Ben Stein’s Marxist answer to this question, see the post Schmucks With Powerbooks from 2007

Jim Loewen, 1942-2021

August 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I saw Jim Loewen was at the 2018 ASA meetings in Philadelphia, a session on blogging as public sociology. It was in one of those small rooms and there were about forty of us in the audience. Jim was sitting quietly towards the back of the room. The irony struck me immediately. Here were bloggers, public sociologists, whose publics were perhaps a few hundred people, mostly sociology professors and graduate students — and sitting unnoticed was a sociologist whose work had reached more than a million people. My son had read Lies My Teacher Told Me in high school.

After the session, I said hello. He didn’t remember me.  Our grad school careers had barely overlapped; I was in social psych then, not sociology. But a couple of my friends knew him from grad school and from leftist student politics. My friends both wound up at prestigious business schools, one teaching business law, the other teaching about leadership and doing well-paid consulting for corporate executives.

Jim remained true to the concerns he had back then. I spoke with him very briefly after the ASA session. He said his current interest was people’s hometown experiences with race and class. I told him that I might not have much to contribute. When I was growing up, my hometown had no known African Americans, though my parents had said that there were some families that were passing. “No, no. Write it up and send it to me,” Jim said, handing me his card.

I never did, an omission I now regret.