Tuesday, May 7, 2013

On the Difference Between Embarrassment and Shame

The other day, worried I was running late, I hurried to class and was disconcerted to find none of my students there. Instead, the instructor who teaches in that room before I do was still wrapping up class. I realized that even though I've been teaching on this schedule for two years now, I had AMAZINGLY forgotten what time my class began and hurried to arrive at the room fifteen minutes early. Whoops. I was embarrassed and promptly told everyone I encountered about how I was absentminded, foolish, etc.

I told everyone about this because I was embarrassed. However, if I had been fifteen minutes late to class because I forgot when it began, I'd probably be ashamed instead of embarrassed. And I certainly wouldn't have jokingly told all my colleagues about it. When I do things I am ashamed of, I don't want anyone to know about them at all. I mean, I don't even want to know about them myself. Embarrassment is funny and public; shame is heavy and private.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines shame primarily as "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or improprietyand defines embarrassment primarily as "something that embarrasses <the scandal was a major embarrassment>." Hey, thanks, Merriam Webster! That was a big help. They define the word embarrass as "a: to place in doubt, perplexity, or difficulties b: to involve in financial difficulties c: to cause to experience a state of self-conscious distress<bawdy stories embarrassed him>" 

So, my discussion of embarrassment here isn't even the primary function of the word embarrass. And frankly, I don't think "a state of self-conscious distress" covers it. There wouldn't be an entire field of British comedy based on embarrassment if that was all there was to it. 

I'm not sure the definition for shame really covers what shame means, either. In her afterword to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison asserts that for rapists, rape has "or once had" a "glamour of shame."* It was that phrase that made me think about this difference. I have never felt glamourous when I have been ashamed of myself; that might be nice. Glamour can be comforting, after all.

I guess I am still figuring out the nuanced differences in how I think about these emotional states. Embarrassing things are funny. Shameful things are not. Perhaps embarrassment is caused when I make mistakes that don't hurt anything; shame is caused when I make mistakes that do.

  • I am interested in how others think of these terms - do you use them interchangeably? Differently, but not how I do? 

Nota Bene: You are still welcome to weigh in on next year's project!

*Citation TK - my book is at school and I am at home.

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