The Opposite Of Schadenfreude: Vicarious Embarrassment

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman says he suffers from vicarious embarrassment, and can't watch cringe-inducing viral videos. He tells NPR's Scott Simon about what's known as fremdscham in German.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You often get a link in our inboxes or on Facebook and Twitter that takes you to a place where someone is so embarrassed it makes us cringe. Well, it turns out that the Germans have a word for it - this vicarious embarrassment syndrome, if you please. But we're going to let Oliver Burkeman, a columnist for the Guardian, pronounce it for us. He's one of what he calls the easily empathetically embarrassed or EEE. Mr. Burkeman joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

OLIVER BURKEMAN: Thanks very much for asking me.

SIMON: What will set off EEE in you?

BURKEMAN: Well, for me it's almost anything that I'm sent and asked to click on in which somebody else is supposedly really embarrassing themselves. And I'm supposed to find this funny. I'm supposed to enjoy the spectacle. But it's just a physical response that I can't, you know. I clench sort of every muscle in my body and I can barely bring myself to watch it and then end up pressing stop. So, you know, examples would be the recording that was around this week of an employee of a cable company attempting to make a departing customer stay using all sorts of extraordinary arguments, I'm told. I'm told it was very embarrassing for the cable company employee. But I don't know because I can't bring myself to listen to it.

SIMON: The guy who proposed marriage to a woman at the ballpark - you know about this one?

BURKEMAN: Oh, this is going to be a wedding proposal that is rejected in public, I think?

SIMON: Yeah, that's it.

BURKEMAN: (Laughing) I mean, I'm sure it was worse for him than me and her but even just as a viewer, it is excruciating. And I get the sense that quite a lot of people feel the same way, actually.

SIMON: There's a scientific term for it, I gather.

BURKEMAN: Well, it goes by various names. When it's studied, it's been studied as vicarious embarrassment. There was a very interesting study a few years ago out of Germany that looked at this and found that people who are particularly prone to it are also generally high on other measures of empathy and that it in fact involves the same brain regions as when we sympathize with somebody else's physical pain.

SIMON: What do the Germans call it again?

BURKEMAN: Well, I'm going to embarrass myself trying to pronounce this word but I think it's Fremdscham, the two parts that would mean external shame. And I suppose it's the opposite of that famous German term Schadenfreude.

SIMON: Hold on just a second. I'm sorry. I'm getting something from the...

BURKEMAN: What? What?

SIMON: I don't know how to tell you this but we've gone through the whole interview and we haven't been recording.

BURKEMAN: That could be really embarrassing for you and then I'd feel terrible or something.

SIMON: I was just - I was just trying it out on you.

(Laughter)

SIMON: Oliver Burkeman, columnist for the Guardian and author of "The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking." Thanks so much for being with us.

BURKEMAN: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.

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