Is a Social Blunder Less Embarrassing If It’s Unintentional?

Is flouting social rules more forgivable if it’s done as a genuine accident than if it’s intentional? Depends who you ask, apparently.

In particular, whether people have higher or lower levels of social anxiety seems to influence how they perceive unintentional social mistakes compared with intentional violations of social norms.

If you believe that intentionally acting against a social norm is more inappropriate and embarrassing than unintentionally violating a social norm, you’re generally more likely to have low or average levels of social anxiety. If you believe that unintentionally committing a social blunder is just as embarrassing and inappropriate as intentionally ignoring principles of social etiquette, on the other hand, you’re more likely to have higher levels of social anxiety.

That’s according to new research from psychologists at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Their study, published in European Psychiatry, showed that people with low-to-intermediate levels of social anxiety rate intentional social norm violations as more inappropriate and embarrassing while people with high levels of social anxiety rate intentional and unintentional violations as equally embarrassing.

The idea for the study came from previous research showing that people with social anxiety tend to perceive social norm violations as more embarrassing, and that this is especially true for unintentional social blunders.

This inclination to see unintentional social mistakes as particularly embarrassing may be a core feature of what social anxiety disorder is. In the words of the researchers, “high levels of embarrassment are likely related to the debilitating concern of socially anxious people that their skills and behavior do not meet expectations of others, and to their fear of blundering.”

If this is the case, investigating why people with social anxiety are especially concerned with unintentional social violations could shed more light on social anxiety disorder and even lead to treatments that reduce social anxiety symptoms by focusing on how people perceive unintentional social norm violations.

Image: Flickr/Alex Proimos