German words expats should know: Fremdschämen

German words expats should know: Fremdschämen

We’re all familiar with the concept of living vicariously through someone - experiencing their pleasure as our own - but have you ever felt acutely embarrassed on someone else’s behalf? Well, there’s a word in German for that: Fremdschämen

What does Fremdschämen mean?

You know the feeling: your friend has just stepped on stage to collect an award and trips over the top step. A famous singer suffers a wardrobe malfunction live on television. A politician is dancing on stage, attempting to appear “down with the kids”. Your colleague is trying to entertain the office with some lame jokes, but not a single punchline is landing. 

Your ears begin to burn. Your face flushes. You look away. You feel embarrassed - and you’re feeling it as acutely as if it were happening to you - only it’s not. You, my friend, are experiencing an acute bout of second-hand embarrassment. We might also say you’re cringing - hard. 

The Germans know all about second-hand embarrassment

In German, this is a painful state of being known as Fremdschämen. Made up of the words “fremd” (foreign or external) and “schämen” (to be embarrassed), Fremdschämen is the act of being embarrassed for somebody else who is behaving in an embarrassing way. 

But more than that: Fremdschämen is another fabulous example of how the Germans use compound nouns to succinctly describe nuanced concepts, feelings and emotions. That’s because it is often used to suggest that the culprit themselves is not ashamed, even though they probably should be. That’s a lot of meaning contained in one word! 

In this sense, it can be seen as the opposite to Schadenfreude, which is the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction at the misfortune or humiliation of others. But unlike Schadenfreude, Fremdschämen isn’t a callous feeling - it actually has a lot to do with empathising with the person who is triggering it. Studies have shown that more empathetic people tend to feel stronger feelings of Fremdschämen

“Ich habe mich total fremdgeschämt”

So the next time you see someone commit a terrible faux pas, you know exactly how to describe the sensation in German: du schämst dich fremd



Abi Carter

Abi studied History & German at the University of Manchester. She has since worked as a writer, editor and content marketeer, but still has a soft spot for museums, castles...

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