Written by Kerstin Cable
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).
Embarrassment is also caused by behaviours. 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.
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, they may rot werden (blush) or im Erdboden versinken (to sink into the ground).
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 embarrassment on behalf of other people, just because they are being pretty embarrassing. It’s embarrassment by association.
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.
– 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 is 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 hat lipstick on her nose, and she was flirting for hours! I was so embarrassed for her.)
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. Sayings like Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude (Schadenfreude ist the best joy) are heard in the country until 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.)