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I was hanging out with friends tonight and we were watching a documentary on (Australian) TV. There was this obnoxious main character. For all her actions "habe ich mich fremdgeschämt", but I wasn't able to explain the concept of "fremdschämen" in English.

I've got two questions:

How would you translate "fremdschämen" to English?

The best fitting answer, I found, seems to be "... has a high cringe factor ...".

Second question: Does the concept of "fremdschämen" predominantly exist in Germany? It exists in Russia where I lived for a while, but not as strongly as in Germany. I assume that it exists here in Australia, but as in Russia behavior of one person seems to be more the business of the very person, that actually behaves "inappropriately" (from the prejudiced observer's perspective)

Disclaimer: I'd like to mention, that I realize, that "fremdschämen" says more about the observer than about the object of observance. It is probably strongly linked to one's class affiliation.

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I am native speaker of german language. While living for 46 years in a germanspoken country (Austria, not Australia) I never have heard the word "fremdschämen" before. And the concept of me beeing ashamed for something another person (not me) has done sounds somewhat strange to me. –  Hubert Schölnast Apr 10 '12 at 15:49
Den Begriff gibt es seit Jahren, hier ein paar weitere Informationen –  Em1 Apr 10 '12 at 15:56
related: german.stackexchange.com/q/1860/23 –  Takkat Apr 10 '12 at 16:00
Och, würde ich so nicht unterschreiben. Zwar verteilt der Duden als Häufigkeit nur 1 von 5 Punkten, ich hab jedoch fremdschämen schon oft sehr gehört, auch wenn ich es selbst selten verwende, aus dem von dir gebrachten Argument. Mir ist eigentlich nur dann etwas von wem anders peinlich, wenn es mich in gewisser Hinsicht mehr oder weniger direkt betrifft und ich mir nur denke: Oh mein Gott, warum kenne ich den. –  Em1 Apr 10 '12 at 16:11
Meiner Ansicht nach geht es beim Fremdschämen um die Scham die aus Peinlichkeit entsteht... ich würde es nie im Zusammenhang mit echter Ehrverletzung gebrauchen. Das Konzept ist ziemlich locker und hat wenig mit dem Ernst des Lebens zu tun... –  Emanuel Apr 11 '12 at 22:09

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Online dictionaries list some possible translations.

  • to be ashamed for someone LEO

  • to feel embarrassed for sb. else DICT.CC

  • vicarious embarrassment

Note the definition of vicarious:

vicarious: felt or experienced by watching or reading about somebody else doing something, rather than by doing it yourself

I don't know about the existence of that somewhere else, but I think that's off-topic here. Though, a few people here may tell you more about that (hopefully in comments) but that's not a question about German Language.


Haven't carefully read this article, but I think here are some more ideas (all words that I pick from the article)

  • cringe-inducing
  • well and truly embarrassed for him/her
  • displaced embarrassment
  • sympathetic wince

Maybe there are more words, and maybe they don't really fit in your context, but I think they work for the idea, in general.

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Danke fuer den Link zum Artikel! –  Sebastian Langer Apr 11 '12 at 6:04

"Cringeworthy" is another adjective that you could use that I didn't see listed above.

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