The Art of Social Embarrassment



The Art of Social Embarrassment


I always admired Elizabeth Bennet for re-telling the story of how she was not tempted enough for Darcy to dance with her. Such public embarrassment is perhaps dealt with by a hearty story on your own terms. However, she was embarrassed later by her sisters and mother. It got me thinking about social embarrassment and where it starts.  I remember as children my brother was always cutting his knee and one day pulled off the plaster. I was not impressed as I have always been squeamish about cuts. ‘Look,’ he said, threatening to touch me with it, ‘It’s still got sticky on it.’

‘I know,’ I said, now interested. ‘Let’s take it in turns to throw it at the ceiling and see how long it sticks there. We’ll time with the clock.’


We tried this several times with much hilarity but the last time after three minutes of it clinging stubbornly to the whitewash, we lost interest and started playing with toy cowboys instead. They had to be quickly swept away as some relations had come to call. My mother’s cousin and her children. Our cousins seemed very posh to us because they lived in the southeast of England and had English accents, not to mention living in a detached house and having a father who did not work with his hands.

The grown-ups had a conversation out in the kitchen while we were left to entertain the family’s children who were near in age to us but an ocean apart from us in interests and inclinations. They did not watch the programmes we loved like ‘Riverboat’ or ‘Wells Fargo’, In fact, to our horror, they rarely watched television and then only if it was educational. As my father said later, ‘It is all educational in some way.’ They sat awkwardly on the couch [probably just as wary as us] while we tried to entertain them by showing them toys or asking them questions. When they weren’t interested in our cowboy collection that killed our interest in them.

It was when they got up to leave that I saw indeed that the plaster still had sticky as it was sticking to the back of the younger boy’s head. My brother went to point this out, but I hushed him with a look. With a bit of luck, I hoped he would think it had not come from us. My embarrassment was complete that this would happen to our poshest cousins – with our other cousins we would have just admitted it. [Yes, Susan we would have told you. Of course, Linda, we would have admitted it. Vaughan and Louise, yes, yes] Something about the situation and our English cousins’ different status made me squirm. They are perfectly nice people by the way but as children we felt unequal. I think that is a key in social embarrassment. Think Joe Gargery. Think Miss Bates.

Not everyone is Elizabeth Bennet, but Austen illustrates the richness of social embarrassment as a source for writing. Austen often makes an uncomfortable comedy out of such situations while Hardy makes it tragic. Think Tess Durbeyfield’s found shoes. However, we all have moments of discomfort, awkwardness and embarrassment when we wave back to a stranger who was gesturing to someone behind us or trip when making an entrance. Once I went to a meeting at Buckingham Palace about poetry. I lingered too long looking at rooms when I saw a group disappearing up some stairs and thinking I was being left behind I scampered after them. The group paused in a room to introduce themselves. They turned out to be ambassadors from different countries and such like who gave themselves a title and a country. All eyes turned to me. What could I say but, ‘I am Jude Brigley from Wales, and I am clearly in the wrong meeting.’ Oops. Hurried apology and retreat now. Social embarrassment. A subject suitable for all genres.


Jude Brigley


Jude Brigley is Welsh. She has been a teacher, an editor and a performance poet. She now writes more for the page and has been published in a wide number of magazines including Ariel Chart, Scissortail, Door=Jar and Sylvia


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