How To Nonverbally Fix Embarrassment
Christopher Philip

In their paper, research led by Ping Dong, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, explains that feelings of embarrassment result “from a public action that observers would consider foolish or inappropriate.” In other words, embarrassing situations threaten our positive public image.

We’ve all been in embarrassing situation, and our reactions are largely the same. We normally blush, we may hide our face with our palms, avoid eye contact, turn away, or try to escape.

However, in their research, Dong wanted to better understand which techniques worked best in helping to “restore our face.”

Turns out there are two different ways to cope with embarrassment. First, people might choose to avoid the situation altogether, escape, turn away, and so eliminate the effects. A second alternative to this is to cope symbolically.

For the purpose of this study, a symbolic coping mechanism was to employ the use of face cream. To hide and avoid, was the use of sunglasses.

In the study, participants were instructed to recall a time when they felt embarrassed. This was found to be a successful way to evoke embarrassment feelings.

In the first study, after evoking embarrassment, subjects were given the opportunity to select sunglasses that varied in size and tint. The researchers expected the embarrassed subjects to have a greater preference for the larger, darker sunglasses, than the non-embarrassed participants would. This general trend was indeed found.

In the second study, subjects again recalled an embarrassing story. Following this, however, they were instructed to imagine that they were in a large department store. They were asked to report on their interest on four different types of products (8 total items) that ranged from face-hiding products (sunglasses), body hiding produce (scarves, shoes, and socks), and two face-restoring products (cosmetics and facial moisturizer). The other products were simply fillers including watches and handbags.

Results showed that those in the embarrassed treatment reported greater interest in the face-hiding products as well as the face-restoring products. No difference occurred in the body-hiding products between the embarrassed treatment and the non-embarrassed treatment.

Thus far, both experiments showed that people choose items when embarrassed that help restore the image of the self.

In the final study the experimenter wished to explore which of the two types of restorative items, face cream or sunglasses, worked best to reduce feelings of embarrassment. In this study, those in the embarrassed condition where asked which activities they were likely to participate in while either wearing sunglasses or applying face cream.

It was found that those using the face cream were more likely to participate in social activity rather than alone. Results also showed that those who were applied the facial cream during the task significantly reduced their feelings of embarrassment over those in the sunglasses condition.

Overall, the results suggest that while nonverbal behaviours such as hiding the face, averting the eyes, covering the face, or putting on sunglasses are ways that people deal with embarrassment, they aren’t as effective as applying a restorative facial cream.

Why does face cream work to reduce embarrassment?

Because “concepts of concrete behavior and subjective experiences become associated with concepts of more abstract and vaguely defined reactions,” say the researchers.

This is how metaphors works and operate. It would only be a guess, but being able to wash the face with water or cleanser may also have a similar restorative effect as did facial cream. However, if none of these coping strategies were available, it is likely that one would simply resort to other restorative methods including face covering, turning the head away, escaping or avoiding eye contact – however, with far less effective results.


Dong, Ping; Xun (Irene) Huang and Robert S. Wyer, Jr. The Illusion of Saving Face: How People Symbolically Cope With Embarrassment. Psychological Science. 2013. 24(10).