Word of the Week: Fremdschämen
Enlarge image (© picture alliance / Arco Images GmbH) Have you ever watched someone make a fool of themselves, only to find yourself cringing in embarrassment for them? Then you’ve most likely experienced fremdschämen.
This German word is made up of two parts, with fremd meaning “foreign” and schämen meaning “to be embarrassed.” The term is typically used to describe someone who feels embarrassment on behalf of someone else. The corresponding noun for this feeling is Fremdscham.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re at a black-tie event where everyone is dressed in a suit or an evening gown. You look across the room and see one guest dressed in sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt. This guest has no shame, and could care less about how he looks, but you cringe in embarrassment on his behalf. In this case, you would be exhibiting feelings of fremdschämen.
Similar English equivalents include the terms “vicarious embarrassment” and “empathetic embarrassment,” but neither are as commonly-used as the German word fremdschämen.
The word is still relatively new in the German language; the popular dictionary Duden recognized it for the first time in its 2009 edition, after German speakers commonly began using it in conversation. It is unclear when exactly it was first used, but Dr. Sören Krach, a researcher at the University of Marburg, told N-TV that he first heard of the word in the year 2007. It has since become a trendy word in the modern German language, and was even chosen as the 2010 Word of the Year in Austria.
Researchers at the University of Marburg were fascinated with the term. In 2011, Krach and his colleague, Frieder Paulus, published the first major study about the effects of fremdschämen – an emotion that only humans are able to experience. In order to feel it, humans need to be able to possess empathy, which specific neurons in the brain make possible. Fremdschämen – the ability to feel someone else’s embarrassment – is connected to similar neuron transmissions.
So next time you see someone with food in their teeth while giving an embarrassing speech at the office, you can use the German word fremdschämen to describe how the situation makes you feel. And let’s hope that you yourself don’t become the target of someone else’s Fremdscham.