November 6, 2020
Were you cringing through the entirety of Borat 2? Did hearing the details of how CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin satisfied himself sexually on a Zoom-conference call make you want to die a little inside?
The Germans have a word that describes exactly what you were experiencing , according to a report by The Huffington Post. “Fremdschämen” is the feeling you get when someone does something so awkward or embarrassing, you end up feeling secondhand embarrassment for them.
“It’s basically the notion or feeling of shame or embarrassment particularly toward people you don’t personally know and oftentimes never met in real life,” Ales Pickar, a German writer who occasionally shares German language lessons on his YouTube channel, told the news outlet.
Unlike schadenfreude, the increasingly well-known German term that describes the unique pleasure we get from watching people we don’t like experience misfortune, fremdschämen isn’t a feeling of cruelty. It’s a word full of empathy, actually.
With fremdschämen, you’re embarrassed for the person in question but you also sympathize with them. With the “Borat 2” example, you probably felt a tinge of it watching the kindly non-actor babysitter explain to Borat’s 15-year-old daughter Tutar that “enormous fake titties” won’t prevent drowning. (The woman, Jeanise Jones, said she had no idea she was being set up. For what it’s worth, Sacha Baron Cohen did end up donating $100,000 to the church of the unsuspecting babysitter.)
And, if you were feeling incredibly generous, you may have felt a small amount of fremdschämen for Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani as he “adjusted” himself on a hotel bed in the company of Tutar posing as a reporter in the film.
“The feeling is usually directed only toward people that should have known better than to put themselves into such a position,” Pickar told the HuffPost. “Oftentimes, it’s people that were actually paid to make fools out of themselves― for instance, in reality TV shows―or people that are simply by the nature of their trade supposed to be smarter than that, like politicians or people of prominence.” (Cough, cough, Giuliani.)
The prevailing feeling with fremdschämen may be, “Oh, you were so gullible to put yourself in that position,” but you also sympathize―and maybe even empathize―with the person.
Another nuance in the word that’s worth nothing? With fremdschämen, you usually need to be able to identify with the person in question to some degree.
“One would think that Donald Trump would be an inexhaustible source of fremdschämen, but it doesn’t work like that, because the average person can hardly identify with such a person,” Pickar said.
Bharat Chaudhary, a YouTuber living in Germany, admits that the hyper specificity of the German language caught him off guard when he first moved to the country.
“Being married to a German, one thing I have noticed is how ridiculously observant Germans are about things,” he said. “They have this innate ability to express complicated feelings through composite words that can very directly express a particular feeling and that could come from the directness ingrained in the German culture.”
In the end, that’s what makes our friends in Deutschland such effective communicators. Sure, German may not be the most melodic language, but if you want to convey a thought fast and precisely, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better language to do it in than German. Gut gemacht, friends!
Research contact: @HuffPost