It is similar to shame, except that shame (at least in the West) may be experienced for an act known only to oneself. Also, embarrassment usually carries the connotation of being caused by an act that is merely socially unacceptable, rather than morally wrong.
Embarrassment can be personal, caused by unwanted attention to private matters or personal flaws or mishaps. Some causes of embarrassment stem from personal actions, such as being caught in a lie or in making a mistake, losing badly in a competition, being caught performing bodily functions such as flatulence or engaging in sex. In many cultures, being seen nude or inappropriately dressed is a particularly stressful form of embarrassment (see modesty).
Personal embarrassment could also stem from the actions of others which place the embarrassed person in a socially awkward situation, such as having one's awkward baby pictures shown to friends, having someone make a derogatory comment about one's appearance or behavior, discovering one is the victim of gossip, being rejected by another person (see also humiliation), being made the focus of attention (e.g. birthday celebrants, newlyweds), or even witnessing someone else's embarrassment.
Personal embarrassment is usually accompanied by some combination of blushing, sweating, nervousness, stammering, and fidgeting. Sometimes the embarrassed person will try to mask embarrassment with smiles or nervous laughter, especially in etiquette situations; such a response is more common in certain cultures, which may lead to misunderstanding. There may even be an angry response depending on the perceived seriousness of the situation.
The idea that embarrassment serves an apology or appeasement function originated with Goffman (1967) who argued the embarrassed individual “demonstrates that he/she is at least disturbed by the fact and may prove worthy at another time”. Semin & Manstead (1982) demonstrated social functions of embarrassment whereby the perpetrator of knocking over a sales display (the ‘bad act’) was deemed more likeable by others if he/she appeared embarrassed than if he/she appeared unconcerned – regardless of restitution behaviour (rebuilding the display). The capacity to experience embarrassment can also be seen to be functional for the group or culture. It has been demonstrated that those who are not prone to embarrassment are more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour – for example, adolescent boys who displayed more embarrassment were found to be less likely to engage in aggressive/delinquent behaviours. Similarly, embarrassment exhibited by boys more likely to engage in aggressive/delinquent behaviour was less than one-third of that exhibited by non-aggressive boys (Ketlner et al. 1995). Thus proneness to embarrassment (i.e. a concern for how one is evaluated by others) can act as a brake on behaviour that would be dysfunctional for group or culture.
In games such as Truth or Dare or strip poker embarassment is the intended result of the game. A popular dare is to remove clothing.
Embarrassment can also be professional or official, especially after statements expressing confidence in a stated course of action, or willful disregard for evidence. Embarrassment increases greatly in instances involving official duties or workplace facilities, large amounts of money or materials, or loss of human life. Examples of causes of include a government's failed public policy, exposure of corrupt practices or unethical behavior, a celebrity whose personal habits receive public scrutiny or face legal action, or officials caught in serious personally embarrassing situations. Even small errors or miscalculations can lead to significantly greater official embarrassment if it is discovered that there was willful disregard for evidence or directives involved (e.g. see Space Shuttle Challenger).
Not all official failures result in official embarrassment, even if the circumstances lead to some slight personal embarrassment for the people involved. For example, losing a close political election might cause some personal embarrassment for the candidate but generally would be considered an honorable loss in the profession and thus not necessarily lead to professional embarrassment. Similarly, a scientist might be personally disappointed and embarrassed if one of his hypotheses was proven wrong, but would not normally suffer professional embarrassment as a result. By contrast, exposure of falsified data supporting a scientific claim (e.g. see Hwang Woo-Suk) would likely lead to professional embarrassment in the scientific community.
Professional or official embarrassment is often accompanied by public expressions of anger, denial of involvement, or attempts to minimize the consequences (see Canada's participation in the summer Olympics). Sometimes the embarrassed entity will issue press statements, remove or distance themselves from sub-level employees, attempt to carry on as if nothing happened, suffer income loss, emigrate, or completely vanish from public view.
Some say the Spanish word actually came from the Italian imbarazzare, from imbarazzo, "obstacle" or "obstruction." That word came from imbarrare, "to block," or "bar," which is a combination of in-, "in" with barra, "bar" (from the Vulgar Latin barra, which is of unknown origin).6 The problem with this theory is that the first known usage of the word in Italian was by Bernardo Davanzati (1529-1606), long after the word had entered Spanish.7