Were you cringing through the entirety of Borat 2? Did hearing the details of CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s masturbating-on-a-Zoom-conference-call horror show make you want to die a little inside?
The Germans have a word that describes exactly what you were experiencing (because of course they do).
“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,” said Ales Pickar, a German writer who occasionally shares German language lessons on his YouTube channel.
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 sympathise 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.)
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 said. “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 sympathise ― and maybe even empathise ― with the person.
“There might be a little moment of personal shock in secret awareness that this actually could be us if the opportunity had presented itself,” Pickar said. “Are we really 100% sure that Ali G could not punk us if he wanted to?”
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. “But I guess looking at his audience during some rally, this is when the fremdschämen might kick in.”
The expression became a popular part of the lexicon in the era of the “The Jerry Springer Show,” according to Pickar. Apparently, Germany had a lot of similar cringe-y talk shows in which people sat down and shared way too much information about their personal lives.
Fremdschämen is one of many cherished compound words in the German language.
The word itself can be broken into two parts, said Levi Antrim, a high school German teacher with a language instruction YouTube channel.
“The first part ‘fremd’ is the word for ‘strange’ in German,” Antrim said. “The second half, ‘schämen’ is ‘to be embarrassed.’ So it’s literally to be embarrassed for a stranger.”
Germans love their compound words: schadenfreude, for instance, is a compound of schaden meaning “damage” or “harm” and freude meaning “joy.”
The abundance of compound words means there’s a German word for seemingly everything.
“With German, you can take two words and smush them together and create something entirely new,” Antrim said. (This kind of thing occurs in English, too — “mansplaining,” for instance — but far less often.)
Compound words are the reason why Swiss-born British philosopher Alain de Botton says Germans can say things others struggle to talk about.
“Germans are geniuses at inventing long or what they call compound words that elegantly put a finger on sensations that we all know but that other languages require whole clumsy sentences or paragraphs to express,” he explained in “The School of Life” video below.
Antrim offered up some of his favorite compound German words.
“There’s the word ‘heimweh’ or homesickness. It literally is ‘home pain,’” he said. “But switch it up to make ‘fernweh’ (literally ‘far pain’) and you have a similar feeling of longing to be somewhere, but it is far away instead of home.” (Who doesn’t feel a bit of fernweh now that we’re all stuck at home, unable to travel?)
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!