While Facebook is a popular venue for sharing information about ourselves, it also allows others to share information about us, which can lead to embarrassment. This study investigates the effects of shared face-threatening information on emotional and nonverbal indicators of embarrassment using an experiment (N ¼ 120) in which pairs of friends posted about each other on Facebook. Results show that face-threatening information shared by others produces a powerful emotional and nonverbal embarrassment response. However, it is not the content of the face-threatening post that produces this effect. Rather, the level of embarrassment depends primarily on whether that information violates the individual’s identity and if they perceive that unknown members of their audience can see it. In response, individuals were most likely to joke about the post, although those who were most embarrassed were more likely to delete it. These results inform our understanding of how the process of embarrassment works online. The emotional embarrassment response is similar to offline, but is affected by the features of these sites, such as a large, invisible audience, and the need for ideal self-presentation. This finding has important implications for treating online social networks and their effects to be as “real” as those offline.
“Embarrassment is a short-lived emotional and psychological response to a discrepancy between one’s idealized role-identity and one’s presented role-identity (Singelis & Sharkey, 1995).
Edelmann (1985) mapped the process of social embarrassment across a wealth of data and models on the causes, experience, and responses to embarrassing experiences. First, the process starts with the assumption that individuals are aware of and trying to follow a particular set of social rules. As part of this effort, individuals attempt to manage others’ impressions of them via selective self-presentation of information about themselves (Schlenker, 1980). However, this self-presentation can be challenged by others (Higuchi & Fukada, 2008). Thus, the process of embarrassment is triggered when a disruption of social routine (e.g., a secret being revealed about the individual) creates an undesired impression of a person. These disruptions tend to fall into one of five categories of embarrassing events: awkward acts, violations of privacy, forgetfulness, criticism, and image appropriateness (Sharkey & Stafford, 1990). Next, an awareness of this discrepancy draws attention to the target. Being the center of attention is a key situation that individuals find embarrassing, along with committing a faux paus, and threatening another’s social identity (Sabini, Siepmann, Stein, & Meyerowitz, 2000). This attention highlights the threat to the target’s desired identity in relation to others, another key element of inducing embarrassment. Singelis and Sharkey (1995) note the role of self-construal in embarrassment, or one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions about the self as related to others. Those with higher interdependent self-construal show an increased susceptibility to embarrassment. Finally, the presence of an audience, real or imagined, makes the individual aware that this discrepancy in self-presentation is visible to others. Most models of embarrassment, while addressing various causes, assume that an audience is a necessary condition for embarrassment (Manstead & Semin, 1981; Modigliani, 1971; Sugawara, 1992). Robbins and Parlavecchio’s (2006) unwanted exposure model gets to the root of what makes any situation embarrassing: the revelation to an audience of something that one prefers to keep hidden. Embarrassment caused by others is particularly influenced by the perception of negative social evaluation (Withers & Sherblom, 2002), and by one’s relationship to the audience (Singelis & Sharkey, 1995). Onlookers may even experience vicarious embarrassment when witnessing threats to another’s social integrity (Müller-Pinzler, Rademacher, Paulus, & Krach, 2016). In response, the individual will experience a feeling of embarrassment, characterized by both emotional and nonverbal responses. Embarrassment is emotionally unique from other negative emotions, such as shame or guilt (Keltner & Buswell, 1997). Embarrassment is also characterized by specific nonverbal responses, such as decreased eye contact (Modigliani, 1971), increased smiling (Edelmann & Hampson, 1981), speech disturbances (Edelmann & Hampson, 1979) and laughter (Fink &Walker, 1977; Kreifelts et al., 2014; Sharkey & Stafford, 1990). Once embarrassed, an individual will engage in “facework,” or attempts to minimize the negative effects of the situation that caused embarrassment (Cupach & Metts, 1994), using a variety of protective and defensive communication strategies (Petronio, 1984). Response tactics include excuses, justifications, apologies, remediation, avoidance, aggression, mitigation, correction, and humor (Cho & Sillars, 2015; Fink & Walker, 1977; Metts & Cupach, 1989).”
2.1. Embarrassment on Facebook
Edelmann’s (1985) proposed process may play out similarly on Facebook. The effects of embarrassment on Facebook, however, may be exacerbated by the features it provides for self-presentation and content sharing. Individuals work to manage favorable impressions on Facebook as well as offline, engaging in selective selfpresentation (Walther, 2007) by controlling what information is displayed to whom (Child, Duck, Andrews, Butauski, & Petronio, 2015; Christofides, Muise, & Desmarais, 2009).
The results of this study advance our understanding of how individuals react emotionally and non verbally to face-threatening posts made by their friends on Facebook. Face-threatening posts triggered a strong embarrassment effect, regardless of the specific content or the type of face threat. Two key factors drove embarrassment. The first was whether the post was inconsistent with the participant’s sense of identity. The more a post diverged from a target’s identity the more embarrassing the post, and the stronger the emotional and nonverbal response to the post. The second was the nature of the audience, though not in terms of overall diversity. Embarrassment was not affected by how many different types of people participants thought could see the post, but instead was influenced by whether the participant thought the post was visible to an unknown audience. These results suggest that the primary concerns for an individual who has just been embarrassed by a friend on the site is whether an audience that does not know them well will see an unrepresentative account of their identity. Embarrassment on Facebook is driven by the quasi-public threat to one’s identity, rather than the revelation of any particular information.
The results of this experiment show that something as simple as a Facebook post by a friend can produce strong emotional and nonverbal responses. This effect holds true no matter what information is revealed, indicating it is not what is shared, but whether anything unwanted is shared at all. Overall, the process of embarrassment largely matches what is seen in face-to-face settings, while certain elements, such as an unknown audience, may even magnify the outcome. This suggests that we must not treat these environments, their content, or their audience as though they are not “real,” given that their emotional influence is very real.
Anne Oeldorf-Hirsch, Jeremy Birnholtz, Jeffrey T. Hancock. «Your post is embarrassing me: Face threats, identity, and the audience on Facebook.» Computers in Human Behavior 73 (2017) 92e99