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Don't Ask Us What We Think of Your Hat

`WHAT do you think of my new hat, dear?'' I asked my wife cautiously with the air of a man who knows that any headgear makes him look faintly ridiculous. ``Well,'' said my wife tactfully. ``You're no Bing Crosby, but the hat's ... quite nice.'' As she spoke, however, I could see a smile tremble on her lips and eventually she gave way to an outright giggle. ``Yes, it's not too bad, I think we'll get used to it.'' Our two boys, aged 18 and 12, were less tactful. My appearance in the new hat caused hoots of amusement which were slowly tempered by the realization that I was seriously going to wear a hat, any hat, to keep out the winter chill. Even a charming young American girl, who was staying with us, was in danger of being caught in the verbal cross-fire, and she wisely declined to offer any opinion.

Occasional youthful derision is the lot of any self-respecting father, and I consoled myself with the truism, ``Around the same time your children stop embarrassing you in public, you begin to embarrass them.'' But to embarrass my wife - that would be a different matter. I remembered reading a newspaper report about a survey among 500 women which revealed that almost half lived in fear of being embarrassed by their men in public. Surely a posh new hat would not embarrass my wife, even if my literally cold head overruled her warm heart, on this particular issue of sartorial elegance.

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There are, of course, several definitions and conditions of embarrassment. According to Webster's, to ``embarrass'' is ``to place in doubt, perplexity or difficulties; to involve in financial difficulties'' or ``to cause to experience a state of self-conscious distress.'' Given those varied definitions it is relatively safe to conclude that most men have embarrassed their womenfolk at least once in the course of a relationship or a lifetime.

The big problem for both parties is to decide what constitutes ``embarrassment.'' Spouses of both sexes ought to remember the wise old maxim about marriage: ``Keep both eyes open beforehand, and half shut afterwards.'' Many a quiet, even blissful, evening can be turned into a verbal minefield with the apparently casual remark, ``By the way, darling, I've just been reading a magazine article about embarrassment. Do I ever embarrass you in public?''

Such a question has no safe answer. If the man or woman says ``Yes,'' the next question is, ``When, where, and how?'' If, on the other hand, he or she opts for a noncommittal answer, or better still, pretends not to have heard the question at all, such a ploy might be regarded as evasive. And if the hapless husband or wife, or boyfriend or girlfriend (for this question of embarrassment is not confined to the state of matrimony) says, ``Of course not, darling, you never embarrass me in public,'' the questioner is liable to conclude, ``He (or she) never notices how I behave in public anyway!''

Perhaps embarrassment itself is less a definition of behavior, errant or otherwise, and more an attitude of mind. The celebrated English writer W. Somerset Maugham once noted grandly that, ``American women expect to find in their husbands a perfection that English women only hope to find in their butlers.'' To balance that picture and to strike a blow for spirited husbands everywhere, America's Robert Frost concluded: ``There is one thing more exasperating than a wife who can cook and won't, and that's the wife who can't cook and will.'' Many a wise husband has deliberately avoided embarrassment, or worse, by bravely tackling a souffl'e that had sagged rather than soared.

It is not easy to recall specific examples of acute or even chronic embarrassment in a matrimonial or close relationship. We all know, for example, those couples where one or other partner seems totally at ease with the kind of eccentricities which would embarrass anyone else. These include interrupting, finishing or capping a partner's story (a common embarrassment), or talking about a partner as if he or she were not in the group (distressingly common), or forcing the poor man or woman to regale the entire table or restaurant with the story of the embarrassing encounter with the boss or the bank manager or the traffic policeman. All of which ought never to be repeated, even to oneself.

There are also the eccentricities which go well beyond embarrassment, such as that of an acquaintance of mine who insisted on smoking a pipe in bed. His wife was not best pleased with such a matrimonial smokescreen, and it became a matter of considerable contention.

Personally, having negotiated the verbal minefield of asking the question about embarrassing behavior, my wife assured me that I am not the kind of man who does anything outrageous in public. Perhaps only in private.

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But I was guilty of embarrassing my entire family and myself on holiday by driving my car through a French roadblock and blundering into a professional cycle race where I led the field for one hilarious, hair-raising lap. The French race-marshal and I misunderstood one another. He tried to usher me across the road, well ahead of the bikes, but his timing was poor and I had the choice of either turning left and keeping ahead of them or else mowing down the leaders by driving straight across. But, as they say, that's another story.

MY final observation on embarrassment belongs to that restricted area of the men's changing room at the local swimming pool where occasionally a very young lady is allowed to accompany her dad.

Two days ago I was sitting on the changing bench wearing little more than a smile when a particular young lady of some three years of age appeared with her dad, looked me straight in the eye and asked, ``Can you put on your own clothes without any help?'' I assured her gravely that I could, whereupon she gave me a huge smile and said, ``So can I,'' and skipped off happily.

Now that, to me, is handling a situation without embarrassment. On both sides. By the way, I'm still bravely wearing that hat....

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