Language Learning

The Secrets of Embarrassment: How To Use Embarrassment for Memory and Learning

Embarrassment is a powerful emotion. It can make us feel anxious, make us withdraw into ourselves and we can be so fearful of it that it can stop us from pursuing our dreams.

The sensation of blood rushing to your cheeks or that sinking knot in your stomach are expressions of a human emotion that dates back to our tribal ancestors. Researchers link the psychology of embarrassment to humans’ social nature and our need for acceptance.  The emotions we feel when we are embarrassed are linked to the rejection or shame we would have felt if we had done something socially unacceptable or against the norm. Psychologist Christine Harris says,

“Group living has been important to us for a long time, and even if you don’t intentionally want to violate a social norm, you sometimes do. Embarrassment serves the function of immediately and strongly displaying, ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to do that.'”

So when we do something that makes us stand out like a sore thumb we automatically panic. Our body sends us a signal that we don’t ‘fit in’. Our historical brain tells us that we could get kicked out of the tribe.

Embarrassment can be a useful emotion. If we can learn to understand the psychology and our experience of embarrassment a little better we can make it less scary.  Learning a language is strongly associated with embarrassment. It’s almost impossible to avoid this emotion if you intend to practice speaking. In a recent Youtube series, the multilingual HelloTalk team recorded their most embarrassing moments when speaking other languages. Everyone has a story to tell and, in hindsight, these stories are hilarious. They become a part of our language learning journeys.

How can we use the power of embarrassment to learn?  

Here are a few tips on how to use embarrassment as a motivational learning tool.

1. Spoiler alert: You will fail before you succeed

As you travel along your language learning path you will embarrass yourself, especially when you practice speaking your target language. Get comfortable with knowing this is going to happen because it will.

2. Maintain a healthy perspective

Embarrassment loves repeating the same incident over and over again in your head. The trick is not to run from it but to face it. Learn to pick yourself up after an embarrassing situation and laugh at your slip-ups. Remind yourself these moments are a part of your learning journey. As this article from Lifehacker puts it:

“Humans tend to overestimate just how negatively people will view us, we get trapped inside of our own head and lose perspective on just how little people are actually paying attention to us.”

The sooner we see the funny side to our mistakes the sooner we can move on.

3. Embarrassment is learning.

One way to make absolutely sure you don’t succeed in learning a language is to ‘simply stay where you are comfortable’ and not expose yourself to embarrassment.

When you think of it that way wouldn’t you rather seek out embarrassment? Successful people often reflect on their embarrassing moments. They treat each defeat, from product flops to failed businesses, as a ‘stepping stone’, a source of invaluable knowledge that helps them move on to make bigger strides. As this article reads,

Most successful writers are embarrassed about their newly written book, they believe it’s not perfect but they publish it anyway as they know nothing is perfect. Most successful startups are embarrassed about releasing their product, but they do it anyway because they need the feedback to grow and iterate.”

Let’s be honest, if you say something really embarrassing in another language you’re never going to repeat the same mistake again, right?

4. Release your inner charm.

According to a recent study at Berkeley University, California, people have more trust for those who openly express their embarrassment. In an experiment, volunteers were exposed to an actor who: “expressed either embarrassment or pride after a researcher publicly praised his performance on a test. When the actor expressed embarrassment, study participants found him more trustworthy and wanted to affiliate with him more.” The honesty that comes with our immediate reactions to embarrassment (i.e. red face, looking sheepish) evokes trust in others.  It signals we are not hiding our true emotional state.

In the same study researchers also found that people who tended to express more outward signs of embarrassment such as describing how they tripped up or passing gas in public, also reported a tendency to be kinder and generous. The leader of the experiment, Matthew Feinberg commented:

“Clearly, people don’t enjoy experiencing embarrassment […] but in the bigger social picture, there’s a plus.”


So, next time you slip up as you speak another language- embrace it! Consider it a part of your language journey. If you use your mistakes as a source of learning you’ll progress quicker.

Go out there and make a fool of yourself! Remember, most people won’t care or even notice. With your embarrassing charm, you might even make a few friends on the way.

For more inspiration:

Watch HelloTalk’s Embarrassing Stories On Youtube



Why not practice being embarrassed to get more used to the sensation?

While researching for this article I came across several  ‘embarrassment exercises’ which might help work through embarrassing moments.

I really like this simple exercise which takes five minutes. Here’s how it works:

Imagine your life in two future scenarios.

First, imagine you let fear dictate your life’s choices. Second, imagine a life where you embrace failure. For each scenario, envision not only the practical outcomes but also the emotions you have.

For example, at each decision point, such as choosing to shoot free throws with confidence, asking  someone on a date, or progressing in your target language, ask yourself these questions:

How do you feel afterwards?

How does your life change as a result?

Are you happy, energized, and filled with purpose?

Or, are you left feeling reactive and anxious?

If you decided to live your life confined by fear, what regrets would you have?

Practice being embarrassed

Why not practice being embarrassed? As Sah Killic proposes:

“On your way to your work, campus or daily grind — stop a random person and say “I’m so sorry, but I needed to tell someone about this! I had the best avocado on toast this morning that I ever had!” continue talking about your love for avocados as long as you can.  Or, plug your headphones in and loudly sing along to your favourite song in public while walking or moving to the beat.”

Good luck with your embarrassing experiences!

Watch HelloTalk’s Embarrassing Stories On Youtube


Written by Holly Maries