Friday, March 12, 2010

Fremdscham is the new Schadenfreude

One of the most interesting things about emigrating to a country where you are not a native speaker is that you will spend probably the rest of your life discovering new and wonderful words that those who grew up with the lingo don't appreciate in quite the same way.

A few, you will find, are words that don't exist in your own language, but, really, should.

My favourite this week is the verb fremdschämen, which I ran across in an article in Der Spiegel about German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle.

The word was, in fact, applied directly to Mr. Westerwelle, so some background is in order, as I don't presume that anyone living outside of Germany has the slightest notion of our domestic politics.

After leading his party, the FDP (or 'Free Democrats' or 'liberals' [in the European 'free market, small government' sense]), to a historic victory in last year's federal elections, Westerwelle has seen his popularity and that of his party slump dramatically, due to 1) giving an impression that they're not very good at running things, seeming to spend most of their time picking fights with their larger (and long-desired) governing partner, the CDU and 2) seeming to be misusing (German) their arrival in government mainly to benefit the well-off and their main business donors (in this case, then, essentially the same group of people).

Matters have reached a bit of a head this week, as Westerwelle has been accused (English) of using his office to benefit party donors, friends and family, who have been accompanying him on his international trips. Politics as usual you might think; however, the foreign minister seems to have a special place in Germany: as a representative of the nation, standards are higher.

Even sneaker-wearing, policeman-beating Joschka Fischer managed to maintain stratospheric levels of popularity during his stewardship of that office as part of a government that was by no means universally loved.

In any case, Roland Nelles, in a commentary (G), referred to Westerwelle and used the word that you find in this title: fremdschämen.

I had never run across it before, though I recognised the components: fremd -- which has a variety of meanings from 'foreign' or 'other' to 'stranger' -- and schämen which I have usually encountered in its reflexive form referring to feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

A quick Google search brought me to a site that explained it (in German, of course), via a quote from Nadia Zaboura's book, Das empathische Gehirn: Spiegelneurone als Grundlage menschlicher Kommunikation (i.e., 'The Empathic Brain: Mirror Neurons as the Basis of Human Communication').

The crucial bit being (my translation):

The phenomenon of 'fremdschämen' refers to an empathic process in which person A feels ashamed in place of person B. Person B is not aware that they are in a situation about which they need to feel shame; person A, however, absolutely is. From this embarrassing feeling of being touched by the situation in which person B finds himself unknowingly, person A feels vicariously ashamed for him.* [Emphasis added]

Nelles, thus, in his Spiegel article, suggests that our Guido should be ashamed, doesn't realise he should, and is running the risk of making other people feel ashamed for him in his place.

Much like the more well-known Schadenfreude, it seems that Germans have invented a word that doesn't exist in English, but, somehow, needs to.

This is a bit difficult, though, as the verb fremdschämen not only has one of those tricky Umlaute (vowels with the two dots over it that change the pronunciation in ways that Anglophone speakers find confusing) but also is a 'separable prefix' verb that (sometimes) separates into different parts when used: i.e., the first part (fremd) moves to the end of the sentence.

(This is a German specialty about which Mark Twain long ago bitched.)

However, it occurs to me that the noun form, Fremdscham (so, something like 'vicarious shame'), seems ready for export.

So, for which public personage do you immediately feel a strong sense of Fremdscham?

I have the feeling that if we work at it, we could introduce a new and entirely useful noun to the English language.

I'm counting on you.

*'Hinter dem Phänomen »fremdschämen« steht ein Einfühlungsprozess, in dem eine Person A sich an Stelle einer anderen Person B schämt. Person B ist sich der schämenswerten Situation nicht bewusst, Person A aber durchaus. Aus dieser peinlichen Berührtheit für die Situation, in der Person B sich unwissend befindet, schämt sich Person A also stellvertretend für diese.'


Frau Mahlzahn said...

Actually, I fremdschäme myself for those who elected him into office. Makes you kind of not wanting to have anything to do with it... I spat out my coffee this morning when I read on the website of the Süddeutsche Zeitung that his party collegues now claim that the attacks on his favoring friends and family really are only expressions of prejudices against homosexuals...

So long,

Jasper Milvain said...

The "I'm embarrassed for" construction gets you some of the way in English, doesn't it? Not as strong, though.

JCWood said...

FM: judging by the FDP's poll figures over recent months, I would say that many of their voters are feeling rather embarrassed themselves and may not need any help from the likes of us.... Yes, the claims that the criticism is motivated by Westerwelle's sexual orientation is absurd and coffee-spitting worthy. I mean: his critics are certainly trying to turn this to political advantage; however, so far, I've not seen any commentary motivated by prejudice.

JM: Yes, there is that construction, as you say...but in thinking about it, I rarely heard people say it, growing up in the US. In fact, I can't really ever recall hearing it. 'He's really embarrassing', yes, but 'I'm really embarrassed for him', no.

Maybe it's more of a British expression. Or perhaps the British are better at feeling embarrassed for someone else. Just a theory.

But it's not quite as catchy, I find.

mikeovswinton said...

Good post. I'm going to spend some time thinking it through and come up with some candidates. But as a new concept for English - for sure. Can we feel fremdscham for ourselves for not having invented the concept of fremdscham and having left it to the Germans again? Or would that just be scham?

JCWood said...

Mike: I think that would just be Scham. Germans might, on the other hand, feel Fremdscham for the British for not having thought of it first.

But that wouldn't really be fair: after all, English has provided so many lovely words with which Germans have been carelessly littering their language for some time now.

Although, this might be changing.

Geoff Coupe said...

It's a good word, but I don't think it goes far enough for certain individuals. When I think of Geert Wilders, for example, it's not simply that I feel ashamed on his behalf, it's the thought that if I really were in his shoes I would sincerely want to remove myself from the gene pool on behalf of humanity at large.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about German politics, but following the definition in the middle of the page, there's a term for exactly the same concept in Spanish: "vergüenza ajena". Fun fact.