The terms shyness and embarrassment are familiar to us all and describe experiences that are widely shared in our culture. My 6-year-old daughter can use both words in the appropriate context. Incidents can be embarrassing, or someone can appear to be embarrassed, whereas “shyness” can describe a person (“He's shy”) or a reaction to a situation (“Why were you shy when we visited so-and-so?”). Some interesting descriptive research, such as that of Zimbardo, Pilkonis, and Norwood (1974) and Zimbardo (1986), has established that the experience of shyness is indeed widespread and is not restricted to any one age group, gender, or class of persons (shy people). Similarly, surveys have provided useful insights into the experience of embarrassment (see Edelmann, this volume).
Nevertheless, as is so often the case in psychology, closer scrutiny of routine social experiences shows that these are much more problematic than they at first appear, and the states of shyness and embarrassment raise fundamental and difficult questions about the social psychology of interpersonal behaviour. Indeed, as this volume demonstrates, there is scarcely an area of contemporary psychological enquiry that is not recruited in an attempt to classify and explain the experiences of shyness and embarrassment, and researchers in this field find that they have to draw upon concepts from personality theory, social psychology, psychophysiology, sociobiology, and clinical psychology, in relation to the self, the nature of emotion, social norms, group dynamics, and the study of language, to take but a sample.