In spite of the admirable versatility and complexity of the English language, there are some sentiments, ideas, and expressions that have eluded classification. For instance, there is no one word to convey embarrassment felt on the behalf of someone else or sympathetic embarrassment. Just look! It took me eleven words just to describe the phenomenon! But have no fear, for the German language has the answer: Fremdscham.
Pronounced frem-shah-m, the word literally translates to “foreign shame” or the feeling of shame for someone else. Considering Fremdscham’s significance, I wonder why English speakers haven’t whole-heartedly embraced the term yet. After all, I’m sure we’ve all experienced it at some point. I know I have.
While I believe that I’ve conquered Fremdscham presently, finally able to distance myself emotionally from those making fools out of themselves, I had a terrible time with it in the past. In fact, my distinct discomfort at others’ humiliation had been so strong that I couldn’t even watch certain movies or television shows.
The best example I have? The Santa Clause 2, with Tim Allen acting as Santa. The basic premise of the film is that Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), who has merrily inherited Santa’s responsibilities for several years, fears that he will lose his position unless he finds a Mrs.Clause. While you may cringe at the sappy plot line, I was cringing for an entirely different reason.
At one point in the story, Scott attends an incredibly dull Christmas party with the woman of his fancy, Carol. Striving to lighten the atmosphere, however, Scott steps on stage and makes a complete fool of himself. In spite of his admirable candor and good intentions, all of his jokes fall flat, leaving the crowd bemused and unimpressed.
Although I was aware that Tim Allen was merely pretending to embarrass himself in front of a live audience, I couldn’t take it. I felt the blood rise to my cheeks and began squirming in my seat. It was as if by watching his self-inflicted humiliation that I suddenly took his place. I felt the judgmental stares of the audience members boring into me like little lasers, pointing out every flaw. Unable to take the full emotional impact of Fremdscham, I quickly left the room, feeling as if my stomach had flopped over on itself.
Since then, my terrible case of Fremdscham has lessened significantly, giving me the freedom to enjoy various movies and T.V. shows without having to leave the room. In order to prove it to myself, I watched the whole movie to see what kind of emotional response it elicited. Though the Christmas party still gave me a vague sense of discomfort, I found it more humorous than anything else.
For those of you who still have an acute case of Fremdscham, hang in there, guys. You can always use fast forward, unless it’s happening in real life. Then just look for an excuse to leave.