Vicarious embarrassment / second-hand embarrassment

dreamlike

Senior Member
Polish
Hi everyone

Suppose you've witnessed some very ebmbarrassing situation, but it wasn't your actions that were a source of embarrassment, but rather someone's else.
I tend to have this feeling very often, mostly when watching some silly TV shows, or when I see people behave in otherwise awkward way.

What is the phrase that you'd be most likely to use?
(1) I can feel a vicarious embarrassment...
(2) I can feel a second-hand embarrassment...

I think they both get the point across, but I run the risk of not being understood if I were to use the former, because of the word "vicarious", right?
 
  • MuttQuad

    Senior Member
    English - AmE
    Hi everyone

    Suppose you've witnessed some very ebmbarrassing situation, but it wasn't your actions that were a source of embarrassment, but rather someone's else.
    I tend to have this feeling very often, mostly when watching some silly TV shows, or when I see people behave in otherwise awkward way.

    What is the phrase that you'd be most likely to use?
    (1) I can feel a vicarious embarrassment...
    (2) I can feel a second-hand embarrassment...

    I think they both get the point across, but I run the risk of not being understood if I were to use the former, because of the word "vicarious", right?

    Not right, I think. Both versions would be understood, and the use of "vicarious" in this context would be even more common than that of "second-hand."
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Thanks for your answer, MuttQuad. The results produced by Google, if it's anything to go by, made me believe that the version using "second-hand" is more common, but I'm glad to find out that both would be readily understood.
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Thank you Kate. So what's the most common way to convey this idea? Maybe simply "I feel embarrassed for...", as suggested by one of the members in a private message? :)
     
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    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I would tend to say vicarious. That being said, most English speakers aren't even aware of what the word means. :)

    I am, however, biased. Vicarious is one of my favorite English words. :)

    Maybe simply "I feel embarrassed for...",
    This would be acceptable. I often hear someone say, "I am embarrassed for him!"


    *A side note*

    I might also say, "I feel awkwardly embarrassed for that guy."
     

    Biffo

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I you are talking to educated people, use 'vicarious' or "I felt embarrassed for him."

    If you are talking to someone who won't understand a four-syllable word then use "I felt embarrassed for him."
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    "I feel embarassed for" is fine, but I think both "vicarious embarassment" and "second-hand embarassment" are vivid and meaningful, so you don't have to use "the common way" if you don't want to.

    I do share Filsmith's trepidations about vicarious.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I might use "vicarious embarrassment", but not, I think, "second-hand embarrassment".

    I'd be most likely to use Filsmith and Biffo's "I felt embarrassed for him".
     

    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Thanks :) Any particular reason for disliking "second-hand embarrassment, Loob?

    If I may, this is just one of those instances where a text book definition is just a bit "awkward" when spoken in common vernacular.
    Though it would be technically correct, most would just not say it this way.

    It would almost sound too technical. At least to my ears. :)
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    If I may, this is just one of those instances where a text book definition is just a bit "awkward" when spoken in common vernacular.
    Though it would be technically correct, most would just not say it this way.

    It would almost sound too technical. At least to my ears. :)

    Yes, I can imagine. The thing is that I didn't even look up those phrases, I just thought of the way of conveing this idea and my mind miraculously come up with those. I must've come across them in the past.
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    Any particular reason for disliking "second-hand embarrassment, Loob?
    I think it's because both "I felt vicarious embarrassment" and "I felt embarrassed for him" mean "I felt embarrassed on his behalf": in other words, neither says anything about whether 'he' felt embarrassed.

    Whereas "second-hand X" implies that X is not new: someone has owned X before you, and has transferred X to you. So "I can feel a second-hand embarrassment" could work if Person A felt embarrassed and transferred his embarrassment to you - in other words, if you empathised with Person A's embarrassment. But even in that situation I'd be more likely to say "Person A felt embarrassed and I felt embarrassed for him".

    (I'm embarrassed at how incoherent this is - but it's the best I can come up with, DL!:D)
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    I'm sorry to disagree with both Loob and Filsmith, but I don't see anything even slightly awkward about "second-hand embarrassment." It conveys the idea perfectly well, and that it does so in a slightly unconventional way is, for me, a strength, not a weakness.

    I realize English learners need to learn to say things in conventional ways, too, but I don't think that should mean they have to say everything exactly the way such things are usually said.

    Let me put it this way: If someone said "I felt embarrassed for him," that would be fine. But if he said, "I felt second-hand embarrassment," I'd remember that. "Second-hand embarrassment" is just so much more vivid. It isn't always good to have people remember your exact words, but it definitely isn't always a bad thing, either.
     
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    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    in other words, if you empathised with Person A's embarrassment. But even in that situation I'd be more likely to say "Person A felt embarrassed and I felt embarrassed for him".
    We might've reached the bottom of the matter! Let's assume that in most instances in which I might want to use those phrases people who did something awkward don't even realise that -- they should be embarrassed for how silly their behaviour is, but they're not, and then I feel vicarious embarrassment - for them. It's not that I empathise with their embarrassment, but this, of course, also can be the case sometimes.


    I'm sorry to disagree with both Loob and Filsmith, but I don't see anything even slightly awkward about "second-hand embarassment." It conveys the idea perfectly well, and that it does so in a slightly unconventional way is, for me, a strength, not a weakness.
    Yes, there's no denying that it's quite colourful phrase, but it connotes "second-hand shops" too much to me! :D
     
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    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    I'm sorry to disagree with both Loob and Filsmith, but I don't see anything even slightly awkward about "second-hand embarassment." It conveys the idea perfectly well, and that it does so in a slightly unconventional way is, for me, a strength, not a weakness.

    I realize English learners need to learn to say things in conventional ways, too, but I don't think that should mean they have to say everything exactly the way such things are usually said.

    Let me put it this way: If someone said "I felt embarrassed for him," that would be fine. But if he said, "I felt second-hand embarrassment," I'd remember that. "Second-hand embarrassment" is just so much more vivid. It isn't always good to have people remember your exact words, but it definitely isn't always a bad thing, either.

    I agree with your basic reasoning for it. However, don't you think it would sound very non-native and almost "robotic" to say it this way? I agree that vivid vocabulary is a great thing. I just feel this is so very technical and would cause her to sound "foreign" if she used it. :)
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I agree with your basic reasoning for it. However, don't you think it would sound very non-native and almost "robotic" to say it this way? I agree that vivid vocabulary is a great thing. I just feel this is so very technical and would cause her to sound "foreign" if she used it. :)
    Who are you referring to, Filsmith, just for the sake of clarity? :D
     

    JustKate

    Senior Member
    I agree with your basic reasoning for it. However, don't you think it would sound very non-native and almost "robotic" to say it this way? I agree that vivid vocabulary is a great thing. I just feel this is so very technical and would cause her to sound "foreign" if she used it. :)

    "Robotic"? Nnnnoooo....

    I don't quite see how something can be both vivid and robotic.

    We often talk about experiencing something second-hand, and I guess I just don't quite see how this is so different. But if everybody else has such a negative reaction to it, there's no more to be said.

    I do like vicarious embarrassment even better, so long as it was said to someone who one is fairly sure will know what vicarious means.
     
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    Hau Ruck

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Who are you referring to, Filsmith, just for the sake of clarity?
    biggrin.png

    I meant that you (Dreamlike) would not sound as aware of native English vernacular, were you to use this phrase. ;)
    Yes, they'd hear your accent, and know you are not "native", but no one wants to sound "foreign". ;)
     

    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I meant that you (Dreamlike) would not sound as aware of native English vernacular, were you to use this phrase. ;)
    Yes, they'd hear your accent, and know you are not "native", but no one wants to sound "foreign". ;)
    My forum name might have led you astray, but I'm a "he", not 'she"! :)

    I'm diligently working on my pronunciation skills and accent, so well, maybe in the future, they won't be able to tell me from a native speaker :)
     

    radosna

    Senior Member
    English- USA
    Hi dreamlike!

    I know it's rather late and you thought that you'd reached the bottom of this, but I will jump in.

    I think Loob's explanation of "second-hand embarrassment" was excellent. To me there is a slight difference between "vicarious embarrassment" and "second-hand embarrassment". I think vicarious would suit what you're trying to communicate much better. To me, there's a timing factor that's also involved here that's related to Loob's explanation. If you pass something on to someone else, one person has it one moment and then the other person has it the next moment. For me, when you experience something vicariously, you're experiencing it simultaneously.

    I'm also slightly biased because I, too, love the word vicarious. As a bonus, if you rephrase your sentence slightly, you can challenge your listeners/readers to a five-syllable word: "I felt vicariously embarrassed." :D

    I love when non-native speakers challenge the native speakers with their vocabulary!

    As for your desire to sound like a native English speaker, I think it is an admirable goal and I, too, work very hard on my accents in other languages as well. (It was particularly important as an actress because of stage-work I did in foreign languages.) But I've also learned that having a slight accent can work in your favor. People are often more attentive -- and if you go to America, chances are, they'll adore your accent. :)
     
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    dreamlike

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Hi Radosna!

    Thanks for your detailed answer, you can never have too many insights. :) You're the second person to state that "vicarious embarrassment" and "second-hand embarrassment" differ a bit and should not be used interchangeably -- in which case, on the rare occasions I might want to use them, I'll go for the former.

    You made a good point about accents, but at my University, they expect us to have none the moment we graduate (which is not to say I'm going to be successful in that)
     
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