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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 into 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
Wenn man im Jahr 2008 extra einen Zeitungsartikel schreiben muss um die Bedeutung eines gerade modern gewordenen Wortes zu erklären, und wenn ich als Vielleser erst vier Jahre später Wind davon bekomme, dann behaupte ich mal, dass es mit der Verbreitung des Wortes nicht sonderlich weit her ist. –  Hubert Schölnast Apr 10 '12 at 16:04
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

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Online dictionaries (, Pons) list some possible translations. In Leo's forum you find some more examples. Here's a selection:

  • to be ashamed for someone
  • to feel embarrassed for somebody else
  • 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 how it is used outside of the German speaking area, but I think that's off-topic here anyway. Though, some people here may tell you more about that.


I haven't really read this article, but it contains some more good translations or phrases:

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

I guess there are even more words and probably not all of them will fit in your context, but generally speaking they all work.

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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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Früher hätte man gesagt, man sei "peinlich berührt".

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Da ist es aber egal, ob man selbst peinliches gesagt/getan hat oder jemand anderes, oder? –  0x6d64 May 11 at 18:03
@0x6d64 nach meinem Sprachgefühl ehen nicht. –  Ingo May 11 at 18:08
Das ist keine Antwort auf die Frage. –  Jan May 11 at 18:15

Some other responses came close to the following but for some reason avoided the (to me) obvious solution. So here it is:

I think the best translation for the German verb fremdschämen is the slightly more general English verb cringe. In fact, cringe, the way it is often used in a social context, doesn't really seem to have an adequate German translation. (Erschaudern is too strong. Zusammenzucken connotes a suddenness that is often missing when something makes you cringe.) But a common reason to cringe is when someone does something they should be ashamed of but aren't. And this is precisely what fremdschämen was coined for.

Fremdschämen is a recent coinage, but of course the need to express this kind of situation isn't new. One normally uses sich für jemand schämen (to be ashamed for someone). The only advantage of fremdschämen is that it's a single word for a complex situation. In this sense cringe isn't a very good translation because it's not sufficiently specific. Seeing how the coinage fremdschämen appears to be motivated by the adjective fremdbestimmt (other-directed), other-ashamed might sometimes work as a translation, though it's an adjective.

The problem with coining a corresponding English verb is that all good English translations of the German reflexive verb sich schämen are passive constructions. The only active English verb that comes relatively close in meaning is blush. So in some contexts, other-blush might do the job.

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I thought about this last week and came up with stranger cringe and the English guy I spoke with understood what it meant – so it worked.

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