Fremdscham

Cringe-Worthy
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.

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4 thoughts on “Fremdscham

  1. elizabethweaver

    I thought empathy as well, though I recognized your desire for a narrower slant than English conveys, and applaud you finding the perfect word! Yet I was struck as I read “Fremdscham” that while disconnection lessens the jarring aspects of social “norms” empathy is one of the most powerful emotions to shift us from separation to connection, from cruelty to kindness, from destructive forms of criticism to supportiveness, so I would wish each of us the strength to emphasize rather than minimize that feeling for greater comfort. And I agree that humor is invaluable. Thanks for your post, Anusha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you in saying that empathy should play a greater role in our lives. Far too often we are expected to act independently of the thoughts and feelings of those around us. But if we are to be veritably kind and considerate, we shouldn’t dismiss the emotional states of others as unnecessary information. Thus, in spite of the immense emotional discomfort it may cause, empathy is incredibly important. And thank you for your awesome comment! 😀

      Like

  2. Interesting. The closest that English could come to the German “Fremdscham” would probably be “empathy” in the sense of being able to put oneself in another’s place, but that is too general for the example you cite….so, I would definitely have “Fremdscham” for you if you were Tim Allen in SANTA CLAUSE 2, and I hope you have “Fremdscham” for me for embarrassing myself with this comment. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not at all! Your lovely comment is not embarrassing in the slightest. Empathy, eh? I agree. I just feel like “Fremdscham” is just more geared toward embarrassment or public humiliation, whereas sympathy covers a range of situations.

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