Vergüenza Ajena

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Vergüenza Ajena

A contestant on a TV talent show swaggers onto the stage, brags about their singing voice… and then launches into “I Will Survive.”

The face clawing! The toe curling! You want to throw your TV out of the window (“I can’t watch it!”) but you can’t help glancing back.

The Spanish call this exquisite torture vergüenza ajena (literally: ajena, other person, vergüenza, shame and embarrassment, pronounced ver-gwen-tha a-hay-na). It is a vicarious humiliation, usually felt toward strangers.* You might experience it when a politician mispronounces an important name, but insists he’s said it right, or a smug comedian cracks a joke at an audience member’s expense, and is met with stony silence. When someone realizes they’ve made a mistake and blushes, we take it as a kind of apology (see: EMBARRASSMENT). The most intense vergüenza ajena is therefore reserved for the thick-skinned and the self-important. They don’t seem to feel the shame they ought—so we supply it by the bucket load on their behalf. And then treat them with derision for this double failure: both for the mistake, and for failing to acknowledge it as one.

Vergüenza ajena is a paradox. It’s a ruthless punishment for transgressing the codes of expected behavior. It mocks and excludes (see: CONTEMPT). But it also is empathetic: to feel the embarrassment of another’s situation, we must put ourselves in their shoes. These apparently contradictory impulses both point to the importance of the group over the individual—which is why linguists have suggested that the Spanish have named this emotion. In Spain, the fear of losing one’s dignidad (dignity) or orgullo (pride) is thought to be particularly pronounced—even the last piece of food left on a sharing plate is called el de la vergüenza, since it is a source of shame to whoever takes it. But it is also a culture where the bonds of simpatía (sympathy or kindness) run very deep. In this way, vergüenza ajena highlights sensitivity to propriety and disgrace, but the pleasures of solidarity too.

Spain isn’t the only country with a word for this feeling. Germans call it Fremdschämen (external shame); the Finns, myötähäpeä (a shared shame); and the Dutch plaatsvervangende schaamte (place-exchanging shame). Among English speakers, though we may cringe and howl at the TV, vergüenza ajena remains a nameless pleasure—perhaps all the more agonizing for not being easily described.

For another reason to keep watching, see: SCHADENFREUDE.

See also: EMPATHY.