Embarrassment is embarrassing. As anyone who has ever been told, “You’re blushing!” knows, displays of embarrassment can become mortifying events of their own. According to recent research, however, revealing embarrassment is nothing to be ashamed of, and in certain ways it might even serve us well.
Part of what makes embarrassment so embarrassing is the fact that it’s a dead giveaway of a private internal state. Feelings we would rather not display for all to see become readily apparent. But sometimes being a little transparent may not be such a bad thing. Building on the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, and on evolutionary accounts of the importance of signaling and detecting social intentions, Feinberg, Willer, and Keltner (2011) argue that embarrassment reveals that a person cares about others and values relationships. In other words, it’s a way of saying, “I feel bad for messing up, and I want to do better next time because this relationship matters to me.”
In sum, the researchers found support for their hypothesis that embarrassment signals prosociality. Embarrassment, they say, is “not a sign of social disorder, but a display that helps restore fluid social interaction where it has gone awry.”