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I am watching a UK TV programme called "The Apprentice". The candidates have to sell guided tours. Some candidates are terrible at giving these tours. They fluff their lines, or they haven't researched, or they make up "facts".

Watching their ineptitude cause a feeling of discomfort. What is the best word for this discomfort?

The German word schadenfreude means roughly "the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others". The word I want would be almost an antonym of schadenfreude - "the discomfort derived from the mosfortunes of others". Except not the misfortunes but the uselessness of others.

marked as duplicate by Chenmunka, Ellie Kesselman, Hellion, Rory Alsop, Mari-Lou A Nov 12 '14 at 20:59

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  • I know well the feeling and I wouldn't mind having a word for it. However, I don't think that "vicarious embarrassment" quite fits, since (fortunately or not), embarrassment does not always arise from ineptitude. And "cringeworthy" seems a bit non-specific. – Hot Licks Nov 11 '14 at 1:19
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    In Finnish, that would be myötähäpeä. It means second-hand embarrassment. The feeling of shame and embarrassment because of another person's stupid or embarrassing acts. – Adi Nov 11 '14 at 6:22
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    German has an even better word for that, which means EXACTLY what you described: "fremdschämen", to feel ashamed about something foreign, i.e. people on TV, drunk friends at a party etc.. Really an interesting question. I don't know any english term getting close to that, without bloating like you did in the question title. – Mark Nov 11 '14 at 10:01
  • If you have feelings of discomfort, then it is not Schadenfreude in German (this would be your being amused that a mishap happened to someone else) but rather fremdschämen – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 11 '14 at 11:05
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    @PatrickM although the question is similar, it's not the same. The question specifically states that it is not the misfortune of others seen, but their ineptitude/uselessness. – kayleeFrye_onDeck Nov 11 '14 at 20:32

vicarious embarrassment

The very uncomfortable sympathetic feeling experienced while you watch someone else embarrassing themselves. This feeling is often intensified when the person embarrassing themself is not aware of how embarrassing their behavior is. In this case it is more like you are feeling the embarrassment on their behalf.

Facepalm (slang) is another possible translation of the import term (from German) fremdschämen.

A German term which describes the process of being vicariously embarrassed by someone else. For example when somebody's concept for a great party gag goes terrible wrong and you watch him fail in the middle of all of his friends. Tom was completely wasted while he held the speech on Mike's wedding party. Fremdschämen in perfection.

urban dictionary

“Fremdschämen describes the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are,” writes Daniel Hawes in Psychology Today. “Fremdscham [the noun] occurs when someone who should feel embarrassed for themselves simply is not, and you start feeling embarrassment in their place.”

... the auditions for American Idol and all of the related rip-offs are Fremdschämen factories,


Picard facepalm

Alo's suggestion of 'cringeworthy' is also very valid.

More generally, here in the UK we sometimes talk about 'car crash' or 'train crash' TV. In the US they call it a "train wreck".

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    I hear/say the phrase "embarrassment transfer" occasionally. It's half-serious but it gets the point across. – shadowtalker Nov 12 '14 at 4:03
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    Someone on reddit I think once came up with a great translation for "fremdschämen": strangershame. – Fred S Nov 17 '14 at 18:22

I quite like cringeworthy to describe this.

I feel it on a weekly basis watching The Apprentice but keep coming back for more!

For example "James singing nursery rhymes on the coach was so cringeworthy".

From MW

so embarrassing, awkward, or upsetting as to cause one to cringe


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    I would accept this as an answer if I could accept two answers. – DanBeale Nov 10 '14 at 21:41
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    IMO this word better fits what the OP is looking for, although it's slightly informal. – Lou Nov 11 '14 at 12:37
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    Surprisingly this dates only from 1972. OED has fab etymology: "Popularized by the name of the character Cuthbert Cringeworthy, the obsequious, assiduous schoolboy ‘swot’ in The Bash Street Kids (a strip in the British children's comic Beano).", "[1972 Beano 1 Apr. 10 ‘This is our new little chum Cuthbert Cringeworthy.’ ‘Greetings, ugly pupils!’]" See: beano.com – A E Nov 11 '14 at 13:05
  • Cringe. The word is "Cringe". – Bob Nov 11 '14 at 15:10
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    When you see something cringeworthy, you cringe. It's the cringeworthiness of the cringeworthy thing which makes you cringe. – A E Nov 12 '14 at 14:16

The other answers offer good, technically-correct answers, but I wouldn't use any of those in everyday conversation to express the exact idea you want. There is a phrase, however, I find is used quite often in normal conversation: to feel embarrassed for someone, i.e. when someone makes a fool of themselves (especially during a public performance or appearance) you feel embarrassed for them.

It might mean you "feel the embarrassment they are or should be feeling", in other words a sort of empathetic embarrassment. Or it might have a more personal meaning: you "feel embarrassed for being a member of the same species".


As far as I can imagine, there isn't such a word in the English language, but there are a few words that could be made to fit with that idea.

Empathize means sympathizing with another person's unfortunate circumstances. Though empathizing with a person doesn't exactly have to do with that person's ineptitude, you can elaborate on the idea easily enough to make it clear. Empathize means to put yourself in another person's shoes or to feel as another person feels.

Pity is another word that is commonly understood but also commonly forgotten. Unfortunately the word pity in modern times has taken on a sort of high and mighty tone that discourages its use, but it means almost exactly what you're trying to express: pity for the person for the embarrassment he or she has brought upon him- or herself.

I'm quite positive there are others, but I have a migraine. :) Hope these help!

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    I don't think "empathize" works as that means sharing the feelings of the other and that is not happening here - they are unaware that they are there to be laughed at and that they are obliging. – amaca Nov 11 '14 at 9:29
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    "As far as I can imagine, there isn't..." is a statement really only about your imagination, isn't it? – GreenAsJade Nov 11 '14 at 10:34
  • That's not what empathize means. You defined Sympathize, instead. Empathize means you've actually been in their shoes/experienced what they are experiencing. Sympathize means you just feel for them because you can imagine what they're going through. – TylerH Nov 11 '14 at 16:31
  • @TylerH Sorry, you're mistaken. Empathize and sympathize have fairly similar meanings. Empathy describes an ability to feel as another person feels. Sympathy describes a sort of vicarious sharing of experience (or rather the effects of an experience). Of course, sympathy in particular has many different definitions, but the point is both empathize and sympathize could be used here. Sympathize might come off as too strong a word, though, since that's exactly the word that's commonly used to offer condolences on the death of a loved one. – R Mac Nov 11 '14 at 17:51
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    No, you are mistaken. Sympathize means you have not experienced something personally but you can understand someone's pain, discomfort, sadness, et cetera. Empathize specifically means that you have personal experience with something. It's a difference between knowing something in theory and having done it in practice. – TylerH Nov 11 '14 at 18:09

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