“Empathetic embarrassment” sounds very noble. I’m sorry, the sufferer says. I just feel too much. Like there was a 14th century saint who sacrificed herself on the altar of an epically botched homily.
But I worry my empathetic embarrassment is really just a couched plea. Oh my god, I silently pray, please stop talking.
The German word for this is fremdscham. (Thank you, as ever, German language, for being on top of it.)
Empathetic embarrassment (EE?) has prevented me from watching a single episode of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report past the opening monologue and taped segments. Sometimes the taped parts are bad, too.
“Oh, how funny!” I say, not at all about to throw up, as I undertake evasive maneuvers, the most common of which is to flee without pretense as my whole body rebels against seeing a junior senator reveal their shocking lack of modern pop culture awareness.
It’s like I’m afraid the fourth wall of the TV screen will dissolve under the acidic agent of my anxiety and the until-then metaphoric car crash on screen will enter my living room, upending my coffee table and my grip on reality.
When did this happen? Did accumulating awkwardnesses build up over time until I was no longer able to bear the weight, not even of actually witnessing something cringe-worthy, but even the expectation of it?
In an effort to better understand my embarrassment I've surveyed the situations that cause it, and those that don’t.
Also, like, people have asked me about it. I’m not subtle.
The Super Bowl: Totally fine! Go, whichever-team-seems-more-fun! Until, that is, the post-game, when a desperate sideline reporter trails after a victorious or, please no, a losing player or coach, asking painfully awkward questions of a person who really does not want to answer them. I don’t know who I feel worse for, player or reporter. Can you have ties in football?
State of the Union: Generally this isn’t too bad. I was in a bar for the last one, and all six of us civic drinkers watched the president, rapt. But when the bartender asked if she should unmute the TV — we’d been watching with subtitles — we came together in a glorious moment of bar-bonding and vehemently shook our respective heads.
The mute button is a crucial coping mechanism for the empathetic embarrassment sufferer.
Stand-up: Not too bad! Mostly preoccupied with the fear of being noticed.
The Academy Awards: Horrible.
The yearly prospect of watching the Oscars elicits in me a progression of emotions:
Act 1. Our heroine love movies! And pretty dresses! “Let’s do this!” She fist pumps and twirls simultaneously.
Act 2. “Hmmm. That got nominated? That didn’t?! Hey, who’s hosting? Oh… and they’re singing? Huh. Has anyone controversial died ? Has anyone controversial not died? Perhaps we can turn this into a high-volume drinking game?”
Act 3. Now, if I was going to win an Oscar, Act 3 would go like this: Our heroine overcomes her fear of topical humor and acceptance speeches that run over the time limit. She watches the Oscars with a huge crowd at a friendly local bar (our heroine lives in Brooklyn; our heroine does not have cable), and somehow manages to simultaneously save the bar from becoming a Duane Reade. Fin.
What we get instead is less like a blockbuster than that movie marooned in your Netflix queue out of masochistic aesthetic obligation: Her fear grows until it becomes a crippling sort of recoiling bellyache. Our heroine is no longer that — she has been defeated by the prospect of banter. She pulls her phone from her pocket. She checks Twitter to see who has won. She does not get any of the jokes. #fin.
Early episodes of The Office: Weirdly, totally fine.
The moments of my most acute discomfort are the unscripted ones, and I think it’s not so much the awkwardness as the loss of control. The performer careens off the icy edge of the predetermined script, and I sit helpless on my couch, watching (but not for long! Excuse me, I have to go get my laundry. In Connecticut.).
I don’t remember this problem when I was a kid, even given elaborate plans to trip up awkward substitute teachers and wannabe baby pop stars at school assemblies and hastily completed extension projects that had to be presented at the front of the class.
In fact, I was a snot about it! The roll call of readers would go around the elementary school library, each 10-year-old taking a turn with Anne of Green Gables, and I felt in my fingers the physical pain of the sounding-it-outers as I twitched, waiting for my turn to spit out the words and show off.
Maybe nothing’s changed. Maybe my empathetic embarrassment is not so much listening as waiting for my turn to talk.
Irony (definition of): I love public speaking!
I don’t have many opportunities for it at this point. (Hello, nice to meet you, can I speak at your wedding?)
When I do, though, I feel high in every sense, giddy and about to jump. Speaking to a group seems easier, and safer, than speaking to just one person. Crowdsurfer-style you dive backwards and out away from the solid ground of the things you say when you are afraid that the single person you are speaking with will not understand.
The odds that someone will catch you are better in a crowd.
Another name for it is “vicarious embarrassment,” which seems about right, at least for me. You need other people in order to be embarrassed.
Counterpoint: You need other people.