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 in which 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.

  • 16
    I do not believe that all people have the same emotion in this situation. Commented Feb 12, 2011 at 16:42
  • 11
    obviously the question only applies to people who understand what i'm talking about.
    – tenfour
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 22, 2011 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.
    – Josh
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 18:02

21 Answers 21


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
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 28, 2011 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. Commented Jan 9, 2013 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
    Commented Apr 24, 2014 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
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 15:53

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.

  • 1
    Schadenfreude means “the pleasure derived from someone else's misfortune”, rather than vicarious embarrassment.
    – Will
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 4:08
  • I've favorited the question, so that I can find this answer (after having read the title, I immediately wanted to know the opposite of schadenfreude).
    – Mazura
    Commented May 19, 2015 at 4:14

How about commiseration?


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


  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
  • This is the best answer. Commented Apr 10, 2012 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." Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 18:10
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    I can only commiserate that this answer wasn't selected by the OP. Commented Nov 17, 2014 at 19:30
  • Can commiseration when the other person are unaware that they're under shame but you still feel it for them? (I assume not) Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 7:35
  • 1
    No. This is not the best answer. To feel "sorrow for the wants, afflictions, or distresses of another; pity; compassion" is not the feeling of embarrassment. @Sean has the best answer, which is that the English language has no word for this, but the German language has: "Fremdschämen".
    – seeker12
    Commented Aug 9, 2017 at 22:25

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.

  • I have also heard this phrase.
    – user22138
    Commented Jul 8, 2013 at 17:39

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. Commented Jan 9, 2013 at 3:22
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    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
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 17:36

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.


"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
    Commented Feb 18, 2011 at 6:36
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    The name for that genre of comedy, by the way, is Cringe Comedy.
    – Nicholas
    Commented Aug 7, 2011 at 2:09
  • I thought those were more about schadenfreude? A sort of antipathy.
    – sep332
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 22:32

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]

  • +1. Yours is way better than mine IMO :) Commented Feb 12, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 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
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 at 19:51
  • @PLL: The OP has added extensive edits. I was responding to the original small paragraph.
    – Robusto
    Commented Feb 12, 2011 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.


It seems odd that sympathy has not been mentioned yet.

  • Have to agree with this. "Sympathy" is the common parlance English word that perfectly expresses the set of feelings described in the question.
    – R Mac
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 0:19

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.


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.’

  • 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. Commented Mar 27, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 28, 2014 at 8:14
  • Hey, there's the third word that ends in "gry"!
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 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
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 5:21

"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.


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


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


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.


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


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

  • 1
    This word is Finnish, correct? A useful answer in a narrow set of circumstances but possibly not quite so generally useful for English speakers.
    – MetaEd
    Commented Jan 15, 2014 at 19:09

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

  • 2
    I doubt many English speakers know this German word, let alone how it's pronounced.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 3:46

I suggest that one might feel shame.

  • 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
    Commented Feb 23, 2011 at 17:35
  • oopps sorry, dont know how this site works. so sorry if i offended (am i up to 30 yet?)
    – iminei
    Commented Mar 14, 2011 at 18:19
  • mortified
  • horrified
  • shocked
  • aghast
  • stunned
  • in utter disbelief

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