Peinlich und Blamiert – Embarrassment in Germany

Peinlich und Blamiert – Embarrassment in Germany

When you first arrive in Germany, you might think that we are totally immune to embarrassment. There are crazy events like carnival, nakedness in the sauna, and certainly no fear of disagreeing or asking direct questions in the workplace.

But of course, embarrassing situations affect Germans as much as everyone else. They fear being singled out in a group and drawing attention to themselves in a negative way, for example with unwanted physical slip-ups like rülpsen (burping), furzen (passing wind), stolpern (stumbling) or Magenknurren (a growling stomach).

What Germans Feel Embarrassed By

Embarrassment is also caused by behaviors. Many Germans have been brought up in the European tradition of valuing humility. As a consequence, getting many compliments or being praised in front of others can feel embarrassing.

When you pay a particularly enthusiastic compliment to your German friend, they may feel a desire to run away or at least emphasize that their achievements were actually nur ein Glücksfall (a case of blind luck) or Zufall (coincidence). What’s more, angeben (bragging) and arrogance are considered extremely bad taste, and embarrassing for everyone around you.

This is hilariously common when we catch other Germans speaking bad English – examples like “I lost mei längwitsch at se bietsch” from people who declare themselves fluent feel like a bad reflection on all of us. Yes, Germans take pride in their language skills.

embarrassment - What embarrasses the Germans

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How to Say It

The key words when you talk about embarrassment are peinlich (embarrassing), sich schämen (to be ashamed) and sich blamieren (to make a fool of oneself). Peinlich comes from the Latin word “poena”, referring to a sin or punishment – football fans will recognize its English language cognate “penalty”.

The words schämen and Scham relate to the English word “shame”, and both words are related to the old English word “scamu” which means the same thing. They also both indicate “cheek redness”, so that we can conclude that even the wild Vikings had to battle feelings of embarrassment. And to add a little Latin flavour to our shame vocabulary, blamieren and the related noun Blamage came to Germany through the French language, where “blâmer” means “to criticise”.

The Ground Opens Up

When Germans are embarrassed, you can see someone’s face rot werden (blush) or someone feeling like im Erdboden versinken (to sink into the ground).

Es ist so peinlich' Sticker | Spreadshirt

What to say if you felt embarrassed:

Here are a few expressions to use when something embarrassing happens to you:

Mann, das ist mir aber peinlich! (Man, that’s embarrassing.)

Ich schäme mich ein bisschen. (I’m a little ashamed.)

Entschuldigung. Wie unangenehm! (I’m sorry. How awkward!)

Das ist mir total unangenehm. (This is really awkward.)

Herrje, was müssen Sie von mir denken? (Oh my, what must you think of me?)

If all that embarrassment has you scared of ever setting foot in Germany, rest assured that there are many ways it happens to others, too.

Fremdschämen and Mitleid

German society is not impressed by people who aus der Rolle fallen (stand out). Eccentrics, bad jokers and extroverts can cause embarrassment, and their actions feel like an awkward reflection on their friends or companions.

If you can relate to those situations, the German language has a word for you: fremdschämen means feeling embarrassed on behalf of another person, just because they are being pretty embarrassing. It’s embarrassment by association. The word “Fremdschämen” is a portmanteau of the words “fremd” (loosely translated to “strange” or “foreign”) and “schämen” (embarrassment or shame).

That’s basically the feeling of watching a person walk out of the loo with toilet paper stuck to their shoes or someone proposing marriage in public and being rejected. When you’re expressing that embarrassment from your own point of view, you say es ist mir peinlich für or ich schäme mich für with the Akkusativ case.

Examples of How We Use These in a Conversation

Ich schäme mich total, wenn meine Begleitung unangebracht unfreundlich zu Verkäufern ist. Sowas ist ganz schön peinlich. (I am really ashamed when my companion is rude to sales people with no clear reason. Things like that are pretty embarrassing)

Meine Freundin hatte letztens Lippenstift auf der Nase, und sie hat stundenlang geflirtet. Mir war das so peinlich für sie. (The other day my friend had lipstick on her nose, and she was flirting for hours! I was so embarrassed for her.)

In a sense, the notion of feeling “Fremdschämenconveys the opposite of “Schadenfreude” when another person’s misfortune brings you a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction.


This word is so powerful that it even made its way into the English language as a loanword. In essence, Schadenfreude is the pleasure you feel when bad things happen to someone you don’t like. It’s kind of the opposite of Mitleid (pity, compassion).

The Germans know that there is particular satisfaction in seeing the downfall of someone who would have previously commanded envy or admiration. Imagine seeing a politician you dislike tripping over on camera.

Sayings like Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude (Schadenfreude is the best joy) can still be heard in the country today. The best way to express this feeling is to avoid any expression, so you can say the beautiful sentence Ich kann mir das Lachen nicht verkneifen. (I can’t stop myself from laughing.)

The English Equivalent?

“Gloating” is an English term with a similar meaning to “Schadenfreude.” It refers to the act of observing or contemplating something with triumphant satisfaction, often accompanied by malicious delight or gratification.

For instance, one may gloat over an adversary’s misfortune. Unlike schadenfreude, gloating doesn’t necessarily involve malice; it can occur without ill intent when, for example, sharing a victory with a friend in a game.

Also, gloating is characterized as an action rather than a state of mind, as it typically involves expressing satisfaction to the person who experienced misfortune or to a third party. Unlike “Schadenfreude, which centers on the misfortune of others, gloating often entails inappropriately celebrating or boasting about one’s own good fortune without a specific focus on others’ misfortunes.

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Here are some of the questions people ask about German vocabulary related to embarrassing situations.

What is the German word for “embarrassed”?

The German word for “embarrassed” is “verlegen.”

What is the word for “second-hand embarrassment” in German?

The German equivalent for “second-hand embarrassment” is “Fremdscham,” used for the moment when you have felt embarrassed or ashamed on behalf of somebody else.

Summing Up: Peinlich und Blamiert – Embarrassment in Germany

Embark on an exploration of embarrassment in Germany, unraveling cultural influences and linguistic nuances like “Fremdschämen.” From expressions such as “peinlich” to the delicate art of handling awkward situations, the journey extends beyond language.

Discover how Germans navigate discomfort with terms like “schämen” and “blamieren,” shedding light on societal norms and personal experiences. This exploration not only enriches our understanding of German emotions but also introduces captivating concepts like “Fremdschämen” and “Schadenfreude.”

In this journey through embarrassment, the significance of time and situation emerges, creating a tapestry that captures the essence of navigating social discomfort in diverse contexts. Want to learn more helpful German vocabulary? Come check out our German courses!