Leith on life: A bit of a wally

Our love lives and our public lives alike are deeply shaped by the fear of embarrassment
April 23, 2014

How much I learned about mutual unintelligibility from my French exchange all those years ago! Claire was her name: a stout and serious girl from the Loire Valley. We once spent a whole afternoon trying to establish what she did in her leisure time.

“I am scoot,” she had announced. After establishing that she did not mean that she rode, for instance, a scooter, and having been positively baffled by her complicated mime for what she actually meant by “scoot” (it was clearly a noun) we asked her to try it in French. “Je suis scoot,” she said.

I can’t remember how we finally established that she was a Girl Guide. All I know is that it took ages and it may have involved the discovery that “woggle”—used by Scouts and Girl Guides to help tie their neckerchiefs—was the same in both languages.

But the one that really got us was a more complicated concept. I was trying to say that I had been embarrassed by something. I had a hunch that the usual word in a French accent was a false friend, meaning “kissed” or similar—and when 13, and with a French exchange of the opposite sex, you don’t want to risk going there because, well, it would be embarrassing.

I scoured my brain for a universally recognisable scenario, an objective correlative for embarrassment. “What would you feel,” I said, “if you were on stage in front of thousands of people and your trousers fell down?” Claire looked confused. “Honte?” she tried. Even though I was no sort of a linguist I knew honte translated as “shame” and I was dead set: “No. It’s something different.”

Embarrassment is one sort of thing, and shame is another. Both are to do with seeing yourself through the eyes of others. But to feel shame is to see yourself as a knave; to feel embarrassment is to see yourself as a fool. Embarrassment has no moral content. It has to do with exposure. To be embarrassed is to venture something of yourself and to look a wally.

I came away more than half certain that the French do not have a term that translates the notion exactly. French-speaking friends tell me the verb gêner is the closest, though opinion seems to vary as to whether its penumbra of meaning maps precisely onto the verb to embarrass. It seems to have connotations of hindrance and thwarting, of vexation rather than the pure humiliation that I associate with embarrassment.

Every culture has the notion of foolishness and in none of them does one want to appear so. Still, “loss of face” or “dishonour” seem higher or nobler than good old British (and especially English) embarrassment. Tragedy can turn on dishonour; embarrassment is the fuel for farce.

Is it a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon thing? No culture is quite so worried, in quite that way, about losing its trousers in public. Our differing cultures of political scandal (“Pantsdown,” surely, wouldn’t be the same jeer in the French tabloid lexicon) seem to attest to it, as do our differing philosophical traditions. Modest, commonsensical Anglo-Saxon positivism is what you get if your thinkers are reluctant to risk looking like pillocks, whereas French philosophy, well...

Our reluctance to dance sober, our emotional awkwardness, the way we change into our swimming trunks. Everything points to a vice of fear that, experienced in the English way, drives more of our national life than we would care to admit. Shame enters into political calculation seldom, if at all, whereas the embarrassment of being seen to perform a “U-turn,” being exposed as a hypocrite, or being pictured dressed in the uniform of the Bullingdon club... these all enter the calculus on a daily basis.

Our love lives and our public lives alike are deeply shaped by the fear of embarrassment. The blush, the cough, the fumbling with the cufflinks. The wish that the walls would swallow us. Something so mild, so trivial, so petty, so personal, so neurotically fixated on avoiding the recognition that, deep down, we are all of us slightly wallyish. And it’s embarrassment, of course, that prevents so many of us from speaking French properly when we find ourselves on the other side of the channel. Ça nous gêne. C’est honteux.