Private lives lurch gracelessly into the public domain
May 10, 2010
Just burped at a friend's dinner party? Embarrassed? You should be, writes Christine Rosen.
Not long ago, I watched half a dozen people get their teeth whitened in a shopping mall. I was riveted by the spectacle of these men and women in repose in clinical white lounge chairs. Their faces were in a sort of dental rictus, with oversized trays of peroxide solution crammed in their mouths and little blue paper bibs draped around their necks to catch their drool. Official-looking ''technicians'' (untrained minimum-wage workers who simply handed the customers their bleaching trays) bustled around in white coats.
It was like happening upon a car wreck; I couldn't look away. I wondered who would be confident or crazy enough to get a cosmetic dental procedure performed in public.
It is not only public grooming you'll see more of these days; public displays of affection have become more frequent (and more amorous) as well. As one Manhattan resident recently complained in The New York Times: ''Everywhere I go, people are fondling each other as if the entire city were a cheap motel room.'' At work, over-sharing is becoming as vexing an office problem as gossip. The Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Bernstein wrote of the challenge of erasing from her mind the image of a colleague who, in pursuit of his bicycling hobby, described ''shaving his entire body to reduce aerodynamic drag''.
Whatever happened to embarrassment? Why are an increasing number of us comfortable bringing our private activities - from personal hygiene to intimate conversation - into public view? Bernstein and others place the blame on the desensitisation wrought by reality television and social networking sites like Facebook, both of which traffic in personal revelation.
To be sure, television and internet video sites such as YouTube have made all of us more comfortable in the role of everyday voyeurs. We watch others cook, work, shop, argue, sing, dance, stumble and fall - all from a safe distance.
The motley denizens of reality TV put themselves into questionable and embarrassing predicaments so they can later discuss, for our viewing enjoyment, how questionable and embarrassing their conduct was. If we are less easily embarrassed, it must be in part from vicariously experiencing so much manufactured embarrassment on the screen.
Many people see the decline of embarrassment as a good thing. ''Why shouldn't I be able to do X?'' people often say after having done something outrageous or transgressive. But this misunderstands the distinction between embarrassment - a mild but necessary correction of inappropriate behaviour - and shame, which is a stronger emotional response usually involving feelings of guilt about more serious breaches of conduct.
Today what used to cause embarrassment now elicits little more than a collective shrug. In our eagerness to broadcast our authentic experiences, we reject embarrassment as if it were some fusty trapping of a bygone age. But we haven't eliminated embarrassment; we have only upped the ante.
As the boundary between public and private has dissolved, so too has our ability to distinguish between embarrassing and appropriate public behaviour. The result is a society often bewildered by attempts to impose any standards at all. Unlike many other emotions, embarrassment must be learnt. Infants know nothing of this emotion, and parents often use the threat of embarrassment to teach young children correct behaviour.
Embarrassment is a social emotion; its occurrence requires the real or imagined presence of others. Belch at a dinner party and you may feel embarrassed; do it while at home alone and you're unlikely to feel abashed. Because it is a learnt behaviour grounded in social relations, embarrassment is a kind of barometer for a society's notions of civility.
It is part of what makes civility possible. In 1963 the sociologist Erving Goffman described our public actions, from greeting friends on the street to answering questions posed by strangers, as signals of the strength of our commitment to our social networks. ''What individuals think of as the niceties of social conduct,'' Goffman argued, ''are in fact rules for guiding [them in their] attachment to and detachment from social gatherings.'' These are what mark us as belonging, or not.
When we ignore these social niceties, we risk not only embarrassing ourselves, but also sowing doubt in others about our social standing. No one enjoys being embarrassed.
But a University of California-Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner, argues that far from dividing people, embarrassment ''can be a peacemaking force that brings people together - both during conflict and after breaches of the social contract, when there's otherwise great potential for violence and disorder''.
Even when people are objectively behaving badly - like the people who flout mobile phone bans in trains or doctors' offices and impose their conversations on everyone else around them - it is often difficult to muster the courage to tell them to be quiet.
In his book Embarrassment, the psychologist Rowland Miller argues that, far from being inappropriate, embarrassment ''is often a desirable, correct response to social predicaments''. Our fleeting sense of embarrassment when reminding someone else to follow the rules is normal.
We have not yet found the right balance between connecting with others and too much information. So the next time you feel like sharing the details of your upcoming bunion surgery with your co-workers, resist.
You will not only avoid personal embarrassment, but you might just make one small step towards improving civility for us all.
iThis article originally appeared in the journal In Character, republished with the permission of the John Templeton Foundation.
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
2 comments so far
A timely article. On Saturday evening between 5.30pm and 6.00pm I was shopping in a Coles supermarket when in the aisles I came across two 20 something girls dressed in sleepware, slippers, pyjama pants, and sleep t-shirts, casually doing their shopping pushing a trolley full of goods. Whilst I am used to seeing family members parading arround the house in their sleepware. If someone comes to the door there is a mad rush for the bedrooms in fear of the vistor seeing any us dressed in such a state. Obviously these girls do not share our embarassment.
brasso | Central Coast - May 10, 2010, 9:19AM
Yes but embarrassment, guilt and shame are not the same things. Related yes.
Guilt should not simply be regarded as something to be avoided. In many cases it is necessary for some kind of repair or healing to be done.
There is a such a thing as healthy guilt which is usually a prerequisite to leading people to become aware of wrongdoing and to rectifying or making amends for harm done to others. It does not have to involve embarrassment.
However I agree reality TV has done much harm to the notion of what is acceptable behaviour in a civilised society. Sometimes I wish public transport operators would employ actors to embarrass those who talk loudly on mobile phones for example and "shame" them into better behaviour. It would also be pretty amusing to watch as annoying and offensive people are put back in their place.
Hear Here of St Lucia | Brisbane - May 10, 2010, 9:24AM
Oh stop whinging and get on with your life! There are bigger problems in the world than someone talking too loud on their mobile phone.
James - May 10, 2010, 11:58AM
Would you like to comment?
I got so on fire on this one that I accidentally deleted my entire intro to this. So taking a deep breath now but still passionate here we go again: this is the kind of article that makes me feel alive, alive because it fills me with outrage and indignation. J The title first got my attention and then the article itself poured more and more oil on my passionate fire. It is just about all I have been ranting about recently, it reeks of imperialism, colonialism, and old missionary school: white sepulchres and outside of the cup stories. It makes me shiver.
Maybe it IS a cultural thing but still culture is not and has never been the ultimate truth. In fact to take PRIDE and call it GRACE is a double sin in itself. I don’t have all the answers on Life & Death & Love & Guilt & Shame & Embarrassment except that a lot of these words have been horribly misconstrued and you can include Freedom in there as well.
OK yes we are turning into a wilder and wilder bunch of animals and I agree but then again the hypocrite stiff upper lips animals that we were before are not any better.
Just this burping example for instance is so “local”, not sure if it is an urban myth but since the days of Ben Hur we have learned that not to burp, in an Arabic environment, is very impolite and one should be “embarrassed” not to. Another example from anyone who has worked in a poor manufacturing environment one would have noticed that Orientals have a different culture without shame at all as it should be, it is “embarrassing” to us but who are we? I was thinking of lunch time way back then where my fellow Oriental workers would all sit together of course and have a grand time laughing and talking with their mouth wide open and their food on spin cycle in a front load washing machine. J Not to me to tell them HOW to live THEIR lives in “MY” country.
There is a quadrillion example of culture vs morality where one thing is not immoral but unacceptable to one who establishes himself as a little Napoleon on others.
I do hate loud conversations or any noise imposed in fact and I don’t say that I am right or wrong on this, it just happens to be one of my pet peeve these days and deep down inside I’d rather be Zen about it but I can’t find it in me at this moment to worship among pot clanking like Brother Lawrence. But I am also aware that many have been KILLED recently for “politely” asking a neighbour to turn his music down and since we live in a crazy world in the meanwhile until I reach Nirvana I compromised and invest on my sanity with a pair of Sennheiser CX 300 noise reducing canal earphones. Never take the train without them is my motto.
So since we are speaking culture I guess that yes as having a French Canadian background I am not as fussy on certain external behaviour ... but from a “deeper” point of view all the words of Matthew 23 always come back to “haunt” me: FOOLS AND BLIND is what we all are!
And don’t forget the greater damnation part either! J
Mat 23:1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,
Mat 23:2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:
Mat 23:3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.
Mat 23:4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
Mat 23:5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
Mat 23:6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
Mat 23:7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
Mat 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
Mat 23:9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
Mat 23:10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
Mat 23:11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
Mat 23:12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Mat 23:13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.
Mat 23:14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
Mat 23:15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.
Mat 23:16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
Mat 23:17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?
Mat 23:18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.
Mat 23:19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?
Mat 23:20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon.
Mat 23:21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein.
Mat 23:22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.
Mat 23:23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
Mat 23:24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Mat 23:25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
Mat 23:26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
Mat 23:27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.
Mat 23:28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
So what is left to say? Live and let live, free will and all that jazz, to each his own, different strokes for different folks, be fast to forgive and slow to condemn? I still have to learn all this myself so who am I to talk about it anyway?
And to quote Forrest Gump... that’s...that’s all I have to say about dat
Or as in Bugs Bunny: D’d’d’d’Dat’s All Folks!
In reality it is not all but my tired brain and my seroquel morning heart can’t expand anymore on the subject and maybe it shouldn’t but there is a part of me that wants to carry Christine Rosen in front of My Holy Inquisition and another part of me that’s says fuck it I am too tired, let her go.
There is also an important “realm”, a spiritual sphere of truth and beauty and justice and reality somewhere that want to be explored deeper and deeper on this subject a back to the sources what is REALLY Good or Evil? And who is to decide? Where is this God and what does culture and time and space have to do with it? Is it a sin to be contemporary? The word itself would tend to ring a warning note in my mind but again I am not the one to explain since I did NOT “write the book”
Plus my book is dichotomised anyway, for instance at this very moment there is one book that says that constant yapping Pomeranians and their permissive lazy mistress should all be hung and quartered for sure and the words “poisoned meat balls” often come to my mind ( but never in my hands mind you ).
Rom 7:15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.
Rom 7:16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.
Rom 7:17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
Rom 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.
Rom 7:19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.
O Wretched Man That I Am!