On being ... embarrassed

By Ingrid Sapona

On Saturday we launched the boats at my sail club. As usual, I worked on the crew that removes the slings (used by the cranes to hoist the boats off their cradles) once the boat is in the water. We then hold the boat on the dock until the owner happily motors off to his or her slip.

Though launch is usually a happy time (it means that sailing is imminent, even if summer isn’t), the day itself is not without some stress. Though stress is an individual phenomenon, the anxiety around whether your boat motor will start that day is a cause of stress for pretty much all boat owners. I’ve come to this conclusion not as a result of my keen observation of the subtleties of human nature, but because about one-in-three owners mumbles, “I just hope it starts”, as they climb aboard and another one-in-three can be heard mumbling, “Oh thank God it started”, as we cast them off. (The other third keep their thoughts to themselves, but if you watch them closely, you’ll see that as they climb aboard they look to see whether a tow boat is nearby.)

During the afternoon break on Saturday I was chatting with a good friend whose boat was soon to be launched. He had been watching the progress for awhile and he commented on how many boats were being towed. I agreed, noting that the two tow boats certainly seemed to see a lot of action that day.

As luck would have it, when my friend’s boat was launched, his motor wouldn’t start. I was surprised, as just a few days before I had lent him a hand with it as he flushed out the anti-freeze. That day his motor started with no problem at all. But launch day was another matter. After a number of tries he reluctantly accepted the offered tow.

Later, when I saw him by his boat that was safely moored in his slip, he commented about how embarrassed he was to have been towed. I reassured him that no one thought a thing about anyone whose motor didn’t start. Of course, I couldn’t help tease him that he caused the problem because he jinxed his chances by commenting, during the break, about how many boats he had seen being towed.

Though I’m sure he realized I was teasing with that last comment -- or perhaps because I was teasing him -- he came back with: “Well, it was very embarrassing -- and it would be to most people -- it’s just you don’t get embarrassed by stuff”. In some contexts (for example, if that was said by one’s spouse or partner), those would be fighting words. Because I knew he was just trying to get a rise out of me, I didn’t bite. But, the comment started us on a lengthy conversation about the nature of embarrassment that sent us in search of a dictionary (to look up “embarrass”) and that continued over a drink at the bar.

According to the dictionary, embarrassment has to do with feeling self-conscious. That being the case, since a boat motor is separate from one’s self, I argued that I don’t see how its failure to start could possibly cause embarrassment. Eventually he agreed his motor not starting wasn’t about him and therefore his embarrassment was misplaced. That left us to explore a different facet of the concept -- the one he claimed applied to me -- the idea that some people don’t feel embarrassment.

I explained that I took exception to his labeling me as such because I see the self-consciousness that causes embarrassment as a part of one’s social barometer. After all, different situations require different behavior and embarrassment can arise when you realize -- or feel -- your behaviour isn’t within the parameters of whatever is normal in that situation. In other words, the ability to feel embarrassment is useful, so long as it is deserved and so long as it doesn’t become debilitating.

To reinforce my point -- and to make him see that he had no cause for embarrassment that day -- I argued that if you agree that embarrassment is a self-consciousness stemming from behaviour that doesn’t jive with a particular social norm, then, on a day when the Club has two tow boats on hand, most would agree there was a higher than average expectation that motor’s wouldn’t start, so there’s no reason to feel self-conscious when yours doesn’t. Grudgingly he agreed. The rest of the conversation amounted to us sharing stories of times we had suffered embarrassment and I’m sure some of my stories more than convinced him that I’ve felt my share of embarrassment.

Though I suspect his motor not starting on Launch Day 2007 won’t make my friend’s list of life’s most embarrassing moments, his comments made it clear that, however misplaced, his feeling of embarrassment that day was real. I think our conversation left him feeling better, however, as he realized there was no need to feel embarrassed because he was hardly the focus of any particular attention that day.

As for me, our conversation left me with a useful way of assessing the legitimacy of embarrassment: the idea of stepping back and asking yourself whether whatever behaviour you had engaged in was so far outside the social norm as to truly warrant feeling embarrassed. My guess is that most times when we feel embarrassed, we’re not really seeing the situation for what it is.

I know, an embarrassingly simple way of looking at things. But next time you feel embarrassed, why not try asking yourself whether what you said or did really was something for which feeling self-conscious was appropriate, or whether your sense of being the focus of others’ attention was perhaps a tad overblown.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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