Picture this: you’re watching a drunken fresher struggling to get into a taxi after one too many Jesticles while her friends only look on and cackle at her ineptitude. How do you feel? Embarrassed? Awkward?
Or let’s say you’re watching Bridget Jones and it comes to that scene where she’s running across London in nothing but a tank top and leopard print underwear, apparently immune to the cold. Do you cover your eyes, refusing to believe what is unfolding before your eyes? Or maybe you’re watching the news and Prince Philip is making another trademark gaffe?
Do you get that feeling of unbearable shame on behalf of someone else? That’s what the Germans refer to as fremdschämen.
Think of fremdschämen as the linguistic equivalent to the facepalm. In the literal sense, the phrase means ‘external shame’. The person who has made a fool of themselves should be dying of embarrassment but may not even be aware of what they’re doing, so you pick up the slack, feeling ridiculously uncomfortable for them instead.
If you need more clarification, imagine this: you’re at a wedding and the best man is in the middle of his speech. Just one problem: he’s completely wasted. He’s slurring his words, he’s spilling champagne over his suit, and then, the tipping point: he makes a pass at the bride. A thick fog of awkwardness descends on the room and you, as well as everyone else, can’t help but cringe and cringe, waiting for this train wreck of a speech to end so you can get up, steal a slice of cake and leave this awful party. That right there, is fremdschämen in the works.
Other examples include the time George Bush used the word ‘misunderestimate’ at a press conference (or, really, any time Bush has appeared on TV), or if you’ve watched the NBC series Parks and Recreation, the character of Jerry Gergich is constantly made fun of for his incompetence in the office and always sets up fremdschämen perfectly.
So, the next time you observe someone humiliating themselves in public, and it almost feels physically painful to watch the moment unfurl, know that you are witnessing fremdschämen in all of it’s glory.