Embarrassment is normal, but anxiety about embarrassing ourselves in public can keep us from doing the things we want to do.
Ever since my "are you expecting?" incident, I've refrained from asking people whether they're pregnant.
I've abstained from saying anything about people's physical appearances altogether, actually — which is probably a good thing.
In some situations, like the highly embarrassing one I caused with my inane question, keeping your mouth shut is advisable.
But in others, the fear of embarrassing oneself can be overwhelming and can stand in the way of carrying out daily activities.
For instance, the fear of potential embarrassment is so acute that it prevents some people from things such as asking questions in public meetings or seeing the gynecologist for an important checkup.
How can such fears be overcome? New research — now published in the journal Motivation and Emotion — may have found the answer.
The 'actor' vs. the 'observer'
The key to dealing with an overwhelming fear of being embarrassed or humiliated in public may lie in the perspective you take, suggests the new study.
For instance, when you read the anecdote above, you probably put yourself in my shoes and empathized with the "actor's" perspective — that is, with me, the bull in the china shop.
But what if you were able to limit yourself to a more detached, strictly observing perspective — such as that of the reader of this news story?
If you managed to adopt an observer's perspective every time you imagined a potentially awkward social situation, the new study suggests, you'd be on top of it.
Here's how the researchers — who were led by Li Jiang, from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA — reached this conclusion.
Jiang and team carried out three experiments, each involving an advert featuring an embarrassing situation.
In the first experiment, participants had to watch an advert in which someone farts during a yoga class. The second advert features people who are looking to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. The third featured a scenario where someone accidentally passes wind in front of a potential romantic interest.
The researchers asked the participants about how they would feel in all of these three situations, as well as testing their reactions. The participants were asked about the degree to which they identified themselves with the actor or adopted an observer's perspective.
The study found that people who adopted the actor's perspective tended to be a lot more self-aware in social situations, but that when the participants consciously tried to adopt an observer's perspective, this lowered their self-awareness levels.
Thus, training yourself to be an observer, not an actor, in the potentially embarrassing situations that you envisage may significantly lower levels of discomfort and help you to be less avoidant.
Marketing implications for consumers
These findings have deep implications in marketing psychology, explains Jiang.
"Embarrassment avoidance," she notes, "forms the basis for attempts to motivate consumers to buy a wide variety of products, from laundry detergents that can resolve rings around someone's collar, to dishwasher liquid that can remove unsightly spots on dishes."
"Our research is relevant to those situations in which marketers want to inoculate consumers against a fear of embarrassment and encourage them to take actions they might otherwise avoid."
"Embarrassment prevents us from asking advice about what we should do, for example, about our mounting mortgage bills or unplanned pregnancies."
"In many cases," she concludes, "if we are to help ourselves, and others, we must overcome our fear of embarrassment in social situations."