Embarrassment for Others

  • Posted on: 21 March 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

Planes, Trains and Automobiles movie posterYou know that feeling you get when someone on television does something really embarrassing, only they don't seem to realize it, but you feel embarrassed?  You don't? Well, some of us do.

My wife is always making fun of the fact that I get embarrassed for people on a show we're watching. I'll even leave the room if it goes on for a couple minutes. I used to think I was the only one who had this experience, until we realized that our son Liam has it, too.  That was slightly comforting, although I did feel a bit bad for passing along such a stupid trait to my son.  

I've always had this thing, whatever you call it. I remember watching movies back when I was a teenager, or in college, and shrinking down into the seat while other people were laughing at the antics on the screen. The John Candy/Steve Martin movie from the 80s 'Planes, Trains, and Automobiles' was a particularly notorious example of this for me. The whole film was one uncomfortable situation after another. It's gotten worse in recent years as this form of humor seems to be more and more prevalent. Last week, my wife suggested we go see the movie "Identity Thief" because we both really like Sookie.  (OK, WE know her as Sookie from Gilmore Girls. Everybody else knows her as Melissa McCarthy.  She's Sookie, dammit.)  I said, "No! That's just Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Sookie playing the John Candy role!"  My wife is used to me, and she's a saint, so she didn't even blink. 


I've found out that, although there is no word in English for this feeling, there is one in German. It's sort of the friendly cousin of shadenfreud. The Germans call it 'fremdschämen'. It's a Denecanome!  (A missing word)  There was a great posting about this a couple years back on the Quotulatiousness blog by an English guy named Nicholas. It's also listed as one of 14 words that don't exist in English on the Mental Floss blog. They also suggest the Finnish word Myötähäpeä for this concept. So I'm not crazy! There are others of us. However, I may have some sort of unknown German or Finnish ancestry I need to track down now.  (I kid, my family tree is of course liberally infested with Germans.) 

So, "Fremdschäm", is the feeling of embarrassment one feels at the actions of someone else, but NOT because something they do makes you look bad. It's purely an empathetic thing. The transliteration is not actually 'friend-shame', but I'm going to think of it that way. (That would be freundshäm.) A commenter at the Mental Floss site suggests that it's just something experienced by Capricorns, since they're such sensitive souls.  The fact that I think astrology is bullcrap unfortunately has no bearing on the fact that I am, in fact, a Capricorn. Dammit.

So if you're with a buddy or a spouse, and they slink out of the room when you watch an old episode of The Office, or they get red-faced while you are mightily enjoying the latest episode of American Idol or The Voice, it's because they're suffering from fremdshäm.   The fact that they were also likely born in late December or early January to either German or Finnish parents should not be mentioned. It'll just embarrass them more.