Spanish-speakers have a term for it: pena ajena. Much cleaner and snappier than English’s clunky “secondhand embarrassment” (a term cobbled together by laypeople, as it’s not even in the dictionary), pena ajena describes shame or embarrassment one might feel on behalf of someone else. It’s that latter part that’s the juice of secondhand embarrassment, that makes pena ajena the singularly skin-crawling experience that it is: you, the unwitting bystander, are utterly helpless. You are not in control.
You cannot stop your goofy friend or that drunk yelling guy at the bar or that hysterical fan at the Taylor Swift concert or your dorky but well-intentioned parents from doing exactly whatever it is they are doing because, news flash: you are not them. You are only you. So you’re left to sit there, powerless, as the tsunami of adjacent shame tumbles over you. And maybe that tectonically embarrassing individual stops doing whatever it is they are doing, and you survive the onslaught. But then again, maybe not. Maybe there is no escape from the incoming wave of shame. Maybe this is where you die: drowning in the hot, sticky, clammy waters of secondhand embarrassment.
I have died many, many times from pena ajena. These deaths are sharp and small and they come at any moment from any place, so I am always gobsmacked: I am never prepared to die from the radiating, incandescent shame I feel from (what I perceive to be) someone else’s foolishness. You’d think I would have some kind of bodily alert system by this point, like maybe antennae or a weather vane or an app that attunes to the oncoming pena ajenapocalypse. But no. I will be going about my day, minding my own business and living my own personal best life, and then I scroll nonchalantly through Instagram and I see this video:
And I evaporate. All of my molecules immediately and collectively vacate this plane of existence in favor of finding another where they cannot be caught unawares by such raw, unvarnished displays of self. To be clear: I have a lot of respect for the woman in the video. She has chutzpah. She is putting herself out there. She is asserting her self-worth (to the King of Asserting Self-Worth, no less) and she is seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get her name known. And yet: deeply intertwined with my respect for her is a slimy, viscous discomfort. I am viscerally embarrassed for her: for the gall that she has to approach Kanye on the street, for the pleading tone of her voice, for her inability to recognize when to stop, for the fact that this moment of vulnerable self-promotion was even documented and then posted for all the world to see. I can’t even watch the video all the way through without having full-body shudders, plugging my ears, and singing “LALALALALALALALA” at the top of my lungs to drown out the sound.
I sort of hate how susceptible and prone I am to secondhand embarrassment. My threshold for it is so low that even calling it a “threshold” is generous; really, pena ajena and I have more of an open-door policy. What’s more interesting to me, though, is that I think I’m in the minority with this. If you flip through channels on TV on any given weeknight, you’ll see a bevy of reality shows that traffic heavily in secondhand embarrassment: The Voice, The Bachelor(ette), American Idol (especially those early rounds… eek), Chopped, America’s Got Talent, Dancing With the Stars, Real Housewives, Project Greenlight… the list is endless. Of course, these shows are ostensibly about something other than exploiting people’s foibles for entertainment, and I bet a lot of audience members don’t have my paper-thin skin when it comes to secondhand embarrassment. But here’s the thing: there is a very fine line these shows toe between pena ajena and that other, more malevolent loanword: schadenfreude.
Schadenfreude, as the musical Avenue Q so delightfully singsplains to us, is “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.” Schadenfreude is pena ajena’s gothier, sadistic fraternal twin. When we watch reality shows, when we witness a coworker flailing to answer the boss’s surprise question when seconds ago they were just playing Candy Crush on their phone, when we watch Rick Perry fantastically botch his own talking points at a debate, when we see our friend’s mom on Facebook over-eagerly comment on a photo with too many exclamation points and all caps—a thick feeling of “thank god that’s not me” or “look at that asshole” or “got what was coming to you, eh?” may come over us. This feeling could be from pena ajena or it could be from schadenfreude but, like a terrible traffic accident, we simultaneously cannot look away and do everything in our power to look away.
What it comes down to, I think, is this: when we see others reveal themselves in any kind of vulnerable, unguarded manner, we are unsettled and surprised. And in that very first millisecond of surprise, we react: with red-hot secondhand embarrassment, with ice-cold schadenfreude, or some weird and roiling combination of both. I basically become a turtle, shooting back into my shell, scuttling as far away as possible from the source of shame. And while none of these reactions and feelings are wrong, per se, it’s important to notice and be aware of them. Both pena ajena and schadenfreude are easy shortcuts to avoid you or another person feeling and being vulnerable. But we should remember: there is real power in vulnerability and in the witnessing of it. Because just like me scrolling casually through Instagram on my sunlit patio, we’re all just trying to live our own personal best life, you know?