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When I see someone else being embarrassed / humiliated, for example a singer forgetting their words in a concert, I would say something like "I feel embarrassed for them". But is there a better word to describe this feeling?

I would say it's a mix of:

  • Empathetic discomfort for someone else's humiliation
  • Tension; hope that spectators will be forgiving
  • Frustration that I cannot help them

Other scenarios I would feel the same emotion:

  • Seeing someone make a presentation, the slides are all out of order, and their face gets red with embarrassment while there's a tense silence in the room.
  • Seeing someone make an embarrassing social blunder in front of unforgiving people.
  • Seeing a speaker who keeps making a distracting and annoying gesture, and they don't realize that the whole audience is annoyed.
  • Seeing someone be taken advantage of, like seeing someone naively and happily accept a terrible offer on a car.
  • Seeing a person of strong image (for example the CEO of your company) do something like accidentally leave their webcam on after a conference call, and employees see him/her let out a big burp and pick their nose or something.

In these cases it's important that the audience is not forgiving, even if they don't confront the person about it. The person may or may not know they are being humiliated.

"Pity" as proposed in an answer seems very close, but I think it lacks a few components. I think "pity" has a chronic connotation - that you are referring to the general state of things rather than a specific event.

I think "pity" also depends on the subject suffering, but in my example they are often oblivious.

It could very well be that there is no word for this at all.

NOTE: Some people do not feel the same way I do in this scenario, so you may not think this question makes any sense.

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I do not believe that all people have the same emotion in this situation. –  Dour High Arch Feb 12 '11 at 16:42
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obviously the question only applies to people who understand what i'm talking about. –  tenfour Feb 12 '11 at 17:22
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I think @Dour High Arch’s point is that the question in the title doesn’t really match the question in the body. In the body of the question, it’s clear you mean a specific emotion. But “the emotion of seeing someone humiliated” could be anything, from compassion to shame to schadenfreude… For the specific emotion you’re after in the body of the question, I’m afraid I can’t think of anything better than “feeling embarrassed for them” — but on the other hand, I think that itself is a pretty good phrase, and is generally well understood. –  PLL Feb 12 '11 at 19:50
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I'll have to vote along with @PLL. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the phrase "I feel <emotion> for <person>" -- it's the most succinct way, I think, of saying not only that you empathise, but how you would feel in the same situation. –  bye Feb 22 '11 at 15:49
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Is there a reason "empathy" is insufficient here? You (the OP) use it in your post, but it seems to answer your question. It also solves the problem Dour High Arch points out that not all people feel the same emotion. Empathy solves that problem, as it merely indicates that anyone can understand or share the feelings of the embarrassed person. –  Soylent Green Jan 15 at 18:02

21 Answers 21

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Does "cringe-making" help? I think you're trying to express a feeling of discomfort created in the viewer, irrespective of the other person's self-awareness. I saw this word used to describe moments in Vince Vaughan's performance in the movie "The Dilemma."

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+1 I think this is closer than pity to the emotion being described. –  ukayer Feb 12 '11 at 20:10
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I thought "cringe-inducing" was more standard here, but Googling shows 1.9 million hits for "cringe-making" vs. 118,000 for "cringe-inducing", not including various official dictionary definitions for the former. Huh. –  Uticensis Feb 28 '11 at 1:45
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I think "cringe-making" may be more of a British expression. I've never heard it before (I'm American); I would've used "cringeworthy" in this situation. –  Nathan Reed Jan 9 '13 at 4:23
    
I have usually seen the term "cringe-worthy", not cringe-making. However, I don't think cringe-worthy quite captures the nuance of what the OP was asking –  Questor Apr 24 at 17:07
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Strange that this was accepted, since neither cringe-making or cringe-worthy actually refer to an emotion at all... they're used to describe the behaviour in question, which doesn't actually answer the question. –  Aaronaught Jul 12 at 15:53

You could also say that you pity them.

pity the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others [Webster's]

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+1. Yours is way better than mine IMO :) –  Johannes Schaub - litb Feb 12 '11 at 15:04
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I think this works technically, but I don't think I would use it in the context I propose. It could be that I have a hard time explaining this -- perhaps because there is no word for it. For example if you feel bad for a teacher who doesn't realize he has toilet paper stuck to his shoe, I would not say I "pity" them. But the emotion is the same as in my original question. Or maybe my own connotations with "pity" are wrong :) –  tenfour Feb 12 '11 at 18:58
    
this answers the title of the question, but I think what the OP was really after is the more specific emotion described in the body of the question. –  PLL Feb 12 '11 at 19:51
    
@PLL: The OP has added extensive edits. I was responding to the original small paragraph. –  Robusto Feb 12 '11 at 22:28

If you don't want to use "pity" for it, the phrase I would use in those situations is "feel bad for", which you already almost touched on when you said "feel embarrassed for". Feeling bad for someone has a broader sense than simply feeling embarrassed for them, since it can be applied to many negative situations other than simple humiliation, so in that sense it may actually be less of what you're looking for; but it may also broad enough to encompass the meaning you're seeking.

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"Embarrassment by proxy" is perhaps accurate, but doesn't roll off the tongue. By the way, the emotion you describe is the basis for popular TV shows (in the US) like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

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In fact, the emotion is common to all sitcoms. Which is why I simply can't watch sitcoms. –  Marthaª Feb 18 '11 at 6:36
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The name for that genre of comedy, by the way, is Cringe Comedy. –  Nicholas Aug 7 '11 at 2:09
    
I thought those were more about schadenfreude? A sort of antipathy. –  sep332 Feb 24 '12 at 22:32

"Pity" carries the implication of superiority: you can pity an animal or a bum on the street, or someone with a terminal illness, but in these situations what you feel is sort of the opposite of schadenfreude: You feel embarrassed and uncomfortable by someone else's embarrassment or discomfort (even if it's something they're not actually feeling, in the case of someone who doesn't know they've left the webcam on).

So, I'd rather unhelpfully say that we don't have a single word for that feeling, but I'd add that it might help to say you "share" their shame, or embarrassment, or whatever. As long as you don't say you "feel their pain". That phrase has been taken.

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How about commiseration?

Wiktionary:

The act of commiserating; sorrow for the wants, afflictions, or distresses of another; pity; compassion.

Merriam-Webster:

  1. sorrow or the capacity to feel sorrow for another's suffering or misfortune
  2. the capacity for feeling for another's unhappiness or misfortune
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This is the best answer. –  andrewdotnich Apr 10 '12 at 3:35
    
Yeah, I'm with andrewdotnich. Commiseration is a great word. "I commiserate with people when they're being embarrassed, ridiculed, or criticized in my presence." –  rhetorician Jan 15 at 18:10
    
I can only commiserate that this answer wasn't selected by the OP. –  Jeff Axelrod Nov 17 at 19:30

I suggest that one might feel shame.

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2  
If you would add a short explanation of why you think it is the best word, then you wouldn't have to add filler. That's really why the restriction is there. –  mmyers Feb 23 '11 at 17:35
    
oopps sorry, dont know how this site works. so sorry if i offended (am i up to 30 yet?) –  iminei Mar 14 '11 at 18:19
    
This is really a comment, not an answer to the question. Please use "add comment" to leave feedback for the author. –  Matt Эллен Aug 22 '12 at 9:03

I picked up the phrase second-hand embarrassment from a review of a certain movie. Not a reliable source, but seems like a legit phrase.

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I have also heard this phrase. –  user22138 Jul 8 '13 at 17:39

Perhaps, "I felt their embarrassment vicariously", or maybe "I partook in their embarrassment vicariously".

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Fremdschämen - it's a German word meaning "external shame," where you see someone in an embarrassing situation and feel the embarrassment vicariously, sort of the opposite of schadenfreude.

It's the lynchpin of a lot of comedy television; The Office is a notable example.

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Schadenfreude means “the pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune”, rather than vicarious embarrassment. –  Will May 6 at 4:08

I love the phrase "external shame". I think it absolutely captures the weight of the emotion.

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Pena ajena (Mexican Spanish): The embarrassment you feel watching someone else's humiliation.

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I'm upvoting this one because the mere fact that an Anglophone posted that expression at all is prima facie evidence that there's no equivalent English term. –  FumbleFingers Jan 9 '13 at 3:22
    
Note that only in Central America, does "pena" mean shame. In Spain and South America, "vergüenza" means shame, and this feeling is called "vergüenza ajena". –  cabad Nov 19 at 17:36

It does depend on the context a good deal, and the other posters have covered most of the answers already. I would just add, that if it was a friend or someone you were close to who was having this happen to them, then you might experience indignation at their treatment.

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  • mortified
  • horrified
  • shocked
  • aghast
  • stunned
  • in utter disbelief
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Awkward making you feel embarrassed so that you are not sure what to do or say [= difficult]:

If I were to see someone experiencing a humiliating moment I would feel awkward for them. You might even find yourself squirming and instinctively shutting your eyes in order to block out an acutely embarrassing episode.

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From my experience, Cryil's answer, second-hand embarrassment, is the more commonly heard expression for "I feel embarrassed for them."

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Myötähäpeä (n.) the feeling of shame you experience on the behalf of another person or a character when they do something stupid or embarrassing.

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This word is Finnish, correct? A useful answer in a narrow set of circumstances but possibly not quite so generally useful for English speakers. –  MετάEd Jan 15 at 19:09

I suggest the word compassion. True, it is a hypernym, I guess, because it can express various feelings, including embarrassment. The situations you describe, however, lend themselves to a hypernymnic word, in my opinion, since regardless of the feeling you are feeling, you are feeling (albeit empathically) what the other person is feeling: Com, with; and passion, heartfelt feeling.

The feeling could be embarrassment, shame, humiliation, fear, intimidation, or whatever, on the negative side; or joy, exultation, relief, pride, smugness, or whatever, on the positive side.

Interestingly, in the King James Version of the Bible, a common expression for the feeling of compassion is "bowels and mercies" (sometimes "bowels of mercy") as in

If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . .(Philippians 2:1-6)

Evidently, in the 17th century, in the English speaking world, at any rate, deep feelings originated not only in the heart, but also deep inside one's gut or bowels. Modern Bible versions of the "bowels and mercies" phrase are certainly different, but they all convey deep feeling triggered by another person's feeling. Do you feel me, bro?

  • tender mercies and compassions

  • any loving mercies and pity

  • if any bowels of commiseration

  • if any affection and mercy

  • Are your hearts tender and sympathetic?

  • if any tenderness and mercies

  • if any tender mercies and compassion

Well, you get the idea.

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Igry is the word you are looking for here:

Every once in a while, though, somebody invents a word that meets a hitherto unrealized need; [...] such a word (or prospective word) is “igry,” invented by John Chaneski, Peter Gordon, Kevin West, and Francis Heaney some time back with the meaning ‘painfully embarrassed for or uncomfortable about someone else’s incredibly poor social behavior, or descriptive of such poor social behavior.’

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2  
I wasn’t previously familiar with this slang word; please consider linking to a source (e.g. Urban Dictionary) with a brief excerpt of the most appropriate definition there. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 23:42
    
I added the link because it would be a shame if this answer got nuked because of its "low quality". Matt is free to edit his answer as and when he pleases. –  Mari-Lou A Mar 28 at 8:14
    
Hey, there's the third word that ends in "gry"! –  Joe Z. Mar 29 at 0:06
    
Now I'm going to ask on behalf of Matt. Why the downvote?! I didn't upvote because I'd never heard of this word before, I don't think I'll ever adopt it either but Matt's answer is far from wrong. –  Mari-Lou A Mar 29 at 5:21

It seems odd that sympathy has not been mentioned yet.

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Fremdschämen which means what you are technically explaining and there is cringe-worthy.

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I doubt many English speakers know this German word, let alone how it's pronounced. –  Mari-Lou A Apr 9 at 3:46

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