'Embarrass' Is a Word With a Long Memory

Embarrassment is perhaps the most common and widespread of human frailties. It afflicts the Tibetan as well as the New Yorker. It is rarely, if ever, fatal, but it is, in a word, embarrassing.

The dictionary defines the word as "to cause to feel self-conscious or ill-at-ease; disconcert." Actually, it can be a lot worse than that.

In the book "Embarrassment in Everyday Life: What to Do About It" out this month from ETC Publications, sociologist Edward Gross analyzes hundreds of embarrassing moments to get at the nature of the beast and to offer some suggestions on dealing with it.

He points out that nobody is immune, not even the high and mighty. He recalls that President George Bush, seeking economic peace with Japan, leaned toward the Japanese prime minister at lunch and vomited on his lapels. He doesn't say what the President said. I can't think of anything appropriate.

He also recalls the notorious run of Roy Riegels, a football player for Cal who picked up a fumble in the Rose Bowl and ran the wrong way, thereby losing the game. No one who heard that on the radio, as I did, will ever forget "Wrong Way Riegels."

Gross says recovery from embarrassing moments is rare, but it can be done by wit and boldness. He recalls that Margaret Chase Smith, the only woman in the Senate during the Eisenhower reign, was asked by a tenacious reporter whether she might run for President. He said: "Have you ever thought about what it would be like to wake up in the morning and find yourself in the White House?" Sen. Smith said, "If that happened, I would apologize immediately to Mrs. Eisenhower and go straight home."

Gross points out that one may disarm one's audience with timely humor. A reporter once asked President John F. Kennedy how he prepared himself for a speech. Did he think of a line from Shakespeare, or perhaps from speeches by the famous orators of history?

"No," the President answered. "I just check to be sure my fly is zipped up."

Gross suggests handling small embarrassments by making a quick reinterpretation of the gaffe. If you have picked the wrong raincoat off a restaurant rack and are observed, you can make it into a mock theft by saying, with a laugh, "I almost got away with it."

Oddly, what might have been the most excruciating embarrassment of my life never happened. I caught myself just in time.

I was in New York with a couple of days to kill and I decided to visit the United Nations. I looked up Lou Fleming, then The Times' U.N. correspondent, and he graciously showed me around the building. I was carrying a topcoat over one arm, and at one point a black man in a green robe came up to me and extended a hand.

I made the dreadful assumption that he was a servant of some kind. I was about to hand him my coat when Lou introduced him as a representative to the United Nations from a new African state.

I shook hands with the man and made some appropriate remark--or one that I hoped was appropriate. I didn't know whether Lou sensed my predicament or not; I had escaped a major embarrassment by the narrowest of margins, and so had Lou.

What would have been the repercussions? The man would have been humiliated. Lou would have been embarrassed. I could not imagine how I could have apologized. What could I have said?

The other embarrassing moment I remember most vividly happened not to me, but to my dog. When I was a small boy, we lived in Fresno and I had a combative mongrel, part English bulldog, named Buddy. He barked at every stranger, so we taught him to go into the cellar when someone approached and bark through a little vent.

My sister was in high school at that time and took the trolley to school, arriving home at about the same time every day. Buddy trained himself to meet the trolley, and when she stepped off it he was there, bounding about, barking, exulting and licking her hand.

One day he went through this little drill only to discover that the girl wasn't my sister. His embarrassment was pitiful. He lowered his tail. He moaned. He slunk away into the cellar for cover.

I have never believed animals have human intelligence, but that dog was embarrassed.

Gross says embarrassments can be far more memorable than the occasions that produced them. He recalls that a well-known radio announcer named Harry Von Zell once introduced Herbert Hoover as "President of the United States Hoobert Heever." He says nobody can remember what Hoover said on that occasion, but nobody can forget the introduction.

I can't remember what country the man in the green robe represented, but I will never forget my close call.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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