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Techly Explains: Why you feel pain when others are embarrassed

If you’ve ever covered your eyes or cringed when seeing someone else embarrass themselves, this is for you.

If you’re one of the many who can’t handle watching an Australian Idol contestant who really. can’t. sing, or if you run down the street to tell someone they have poppyseeds in their teeth, then you’re EEE – easily empathetically embarrassed.

It’s a real affliction and you probably never thought it had a name. It also goes by ‘vicarious embarrassment’, and the delightful German word ‘fremdscham’. It translates as ‘foreign shame’ and is the opposite of the well-loved ‘schadenfreude’, which describes the happiness you feel when seeing your nemesis fall over.

Just FYI, it’s NOT pronounced like this:

So, what is EEE?

If you haven’t yet figured out the difference between empathy and sympathy, my quick way to remember is: sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone, while empathy is understanding the way someone else is feeling by putting yourself in their position. Subtle difference.

Vicarious embarrassment is empathy on steroids, really, because you’re feeling that person’s deep shame from their own position, on top of just generally feeling really sorry for them. It’s layers and layers of empathy.

Some people who have EEE describe feeling physical pain when they see someone else in an embarrassing situation. This has been backed up by a study which showed that “the anterior cingulate cortex and the left anterior insula, two cortical structures typically involved in vicarious feelings of others’ pain, are also strongly implicated in experiencing the ‘social pain’ for others’ flaws and pratfalls”

In short? Your compassionate pain (empathy) fires when somebody bends over and splits their pants.

*sigh* Humans are weird.

619 young Germans took part in the study, which asked them to watch others in embarrassing situations. They might have been aware of the embarrassment (i.e. peeing their pants), or blissfully unaware (i.e. walking around with an undone fly).

They had to respond to questions like, “Imagine you are observing the person in the situation. Are you feeling embarrassed for this person? If yes, how intense is this feeling?”

Empathy, even in its extremes, isn’t a bad quality to have. Being EEE means that you’re the one who will (hopefully) diffuse a tense situation, or change the topic, or lend your jumper to a friend who’s spilled wine on themselves. You’re pretty much an angel!

But we aren’t gonna let you off the hook before looking at this cringe-y – and potentially disastrous – family shot!

Awkward family at the beach

Awkward moments can’t always be avoided, but Sprite is determined to help you own the moment.

From the science behind embarrassment, to the psychology behind Freudian slips, Techly’s teaching you the best ways to cope with awkward. Feel the heat? #needasprite

About the author

Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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