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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
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    Den Begriff gibt es seit Jahren, hier ein paar weitere Informationen – Em1 Apr 10 '12 at 15:56
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    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
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    @HubertSchölnast: Scham ist ein Gefühl, welches sich, wie Hunger, Stolz und andere Gefühle nicht an soziale Regeln hält. Entweder Du empfindest Scham, oder nicht. Das geschieht primär erstmal unwillkürlich - sonst ist es Schauspielerei. Es soll auch Leute geben, die morden selbst ohne sich zu schämen. Wenn man sich der Scham bewusst geworden ist, dann kann man wohl gegensteuern, und etwa versuchen, sich von jmd. zu distanzieren, um die Scham nicht weiter empfinden zu müssen. Wenn ein Sänger auf der Bühne sich in die Hose gemacht hat: Der doofe Volksmusikant! - etwa mit Schadenfreude. – user unknown Apr 11 '12 at 19:32
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    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
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Online dictionaries (dict.cc, 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.


Addendum:

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! – Amelse Etomer Apr 11 '12 at 6:04
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"Cringeworthy" is another adjective that you could use that I didn't see listed above.

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5

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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5

I have heard this expressed as "embarassed on [her] behalf."

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2

I feel embarrassed for him/her.
He/she is embarrassing.
I’m embarrassed for him/her.

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Ich stimme Margaret völlig zu. Fremdschämen heißt (obwohl kein vergleichbares einzelnes Wort im Englischen existiert) „embarrassed on her behalf.“ „Cringe“ ist gar nicht schlecht. Z.B, wenn Amerikaner Deutsch mit einem fürchterlichen Akzent sprechen, dann schäme ich mich fremd.

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habe ich mich fremdgeschämt

1 She creeped me out.

creep out [phrasal verb]: creep (someone) out or creep out (someone) US, informal

to cause (someone) to have an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness or fear

to give (someone) the creeps

That guy really creeps me out.

◊ For creep out, the past tense and past participle creeped is used instead of crept.

I felt creeped out being alone in the office at night.

(Oxford Learners)

2 If you want a noun for your emotional reaction, you could speak of the

yuck factor (informal): A feeling of horror, revulsion, or disgust generated by an aspect of an idea, action, situation, etc. Water recycling is problematic even aside from the yuck factor of drinking purified sewage

(Oxford)

Also note you are welcome to ask this type of question over on English Language & Usage SE.

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-1

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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