Nov. 6, 2000 -- Did you ever hear the one about the diplomat whose tie got caught in the zipper of his fly? He became such a laughing stock that his government had to recall him to a desk job in his homeland. Or how about the time former President George Bush threw up in the lap of Japan's prime minister?
Nearly every one of us suffers embarrassment at some time in our lives. But whether it leaves a scar or just a funny memory, say researchers, depends on how we handle the situation.
(Embarrassment can have medical consequences, too; see "Dying of Embarrassment.")
"It's this massive, powerful emotion that stops everything," says Edward Gross, PhD, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Washington at Seattle and author of Embarrassment in Everyday Life. "It tells you to pay attention, that you are doing something wrong."
Gross became interested in the topic over two decades ago when he taught at a small college headed by a totally incompetent president. Layers of staff insulated the top person, performing his functions for him. When Gross asked why the school couldn't find a capable president, the staff and board replied it would be too embarrassing for all concerned.
But as much as embarrassment seems to muck up our lives, civilization wouldn't work without it, says Andre Modigliani, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "Embarrassment is the sudden acknowledgment that others have noticed what you are doing or have done and that notice is negative." Like a flashing red light, it warns you that you have broken one of the rules keeping society orderly.
What to do
Fortunately, there's a lot you can do not only to think your way out of embarrassing situations, but to keep them from happening in the first place. "Thorough preparation will safeguard you against embarrassing moments," Gross says. "If you must introduce somebody at a meeting, write down his or her name. If you are to give a speech, go to the site beforehand and see for yourself if there are any wires to trip on, that a lectern is provided, and that nothing will take you unaware."
When, despite your best plans, you do slip up in public, you can often charge ahead like it never happened. Actors and musicians do it all the time and hardly anybody notices.
When a gaff looms too large to go unnoticed, you can deflect scorn through humor. If you pick up the wrong raincoat, briefcase, or purse, try: "Hey! I almost got away with it!" while returning it to the rightful owner.
If you lose your place in a speech, say: "I seem to have lost my place -- something for which many of you will be grateful."
During a rehearsal, British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham called out that the third flute was too loud. Somebody replied that the third flute had not arrived at the building yet. The conductor shot back without a pause: "Well, tell him when he gets here!"
President George Bush tried the same approach after he vomited on Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa at a state dinner in Tokyo on June 8, 1992. "I just wanted to get a little attention," he said to the U.S. Secret Service agent who rushed to his aid. Later, he told journalists, "I'm going to have a huge dry cleaning bill to deal with!" (We may never know how the incident affected his campaign for re-election that year.)
Humor won't work for everyone though. "You should use snappy comebacks to overcome embarrassment only if you are good at them," says Gross.
Sometimes a direct appeal to onlookers' compassion works best. Consider the example of British actor Richard Harris, who sang the role of King Arthur in Camelot twice a day for seven months. During one performance, Harris forgot the words to a short song in the play. He stopped in mid stride, halted the orchestra and went to the edge of the stage where he said: "Four hundred and twenty-eight performances, and I have forgotten the lyrics! Would you believe it?"
Somebody cued him on the words, the orchestra started again and he finished the musical in fine style. His sympathetic audience gave him the longest applause of the night.
And research suggests that this kind of sympathy is typical. In one unpublished study, Modigliani and colleagues set up an unstable pyramid of toilet paper. Then they interviewed shoppers who accidentally knocked it down and shoppers who witnessed the accident. They found that the onlookers were much less likely to despise the victims than the victims expected.
"The study reveals that one of the keys to escaping embarrassment is realizing that others do not always see you in a negative light when you do make a mistake in public," Professor Modigliani says. "The mortification is mostly in your own mind."
So what should that unfortunate diplomat have done? "The best thing to do when you discover you have an unzipped skirt, unbuttoned blouse, or open fly is to excuse yourself, go to a private place, and fix the clothing," says Gross. "Most people will never notice."
Charles Downey is a journalist, magazine writer, and content provider who frequently writes about medicine and early childhood development for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He has also written for Reader's Digest, Playboy, McCall's, Woman's Day, Boys' Life, and many other publications on four continents. He lives and works in Southern California and is the father of a grown child.