Vicarious embarrassment - Fremdschämen

Vicarious embarrassment is part of what non-disabled people may feel stressed out about when meeting a disabled person. They are not embarrassed that much about themselves as they seem to be in a more related, social way.

Expectations of a non-disabled person towards the disabled person may not be met - the disabled person may not be pretty, drop a knife, laugh too loud, be self assured, show their handicap openly, not show their handicap as they are embarrassed themselves, and so on. And as these expectations are not met, embarrassment sets in.

Obviously, some things are not working or possible for that disabled person as they should be in the expectation of the average human, hence "dis-ability"! It is pretty obvious. But then, social issues seem to go further than that. So we get to the complicated but relevant issue of vicarious embarrassment.

Vicarious embarrassment is best dealt with through knowledge and humor. But not the rude loud type. Here are some free associations (I'll sort them and embed them later, this is work in progress).

  • Vicarious embarrassment is the heart and soul of English comedy. To go about a social situation with dry English humor is indeed a fine way to go about things. "There is nothing here that a person with two hands could not do better" is one of my favorite inventions and saver of any moments.
  • The sensation of being highly empathetic toward someone who is himself suffering from acute vicarious embarrassment for someone else could be inherently funny.
  • When I swim and my colleague yells to me "Don't act as if being a cripple was an excuse to go that slow" - would you be able to see the very dark and aggressive satire in that or would you directly fall into a deep moment of vicarious embarrassment?
  • "Not only ideas, but emotions too, are cultural artifacts." Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic.
  • Social arrangements are usually governed by "feeling rules," which prescribe (or discourage) certain emotions. Consequently, people often do "emotion work" on their feelings in an attempt to arouse the emotions they think they should feel; and this continual "socialization" of feelings brings about considerable social control of affect - Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1975. "The Sociology of Feeling and Emotion." Pp. 280-307 in Another Voice, edited by Marcia Millman and Rosabeth Moss Kanter. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor.
  • Just as there are pressures to establish the 'correctness' of an opinion and the 'goodness' of an ability, there are pressures to establish the 'appropriateness' of an emotion or bodily state. - Schachter, Stanley S. 1959. The Psychology of Affiliation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press
  • Four major tenets of symbolic interactionism are especially appropriate for explaining an individual's construction of affect: 1. Study of an individual's definitions and interpretations is essential for an understanding of human conduct. When reflective human action is concerned, independent variables do not automatically influence dependent variables. Instead, their impact is mediated by interpretation and definition, which are not just intervening variables but "formative or creative process[es] in [their] own right". Hence, definitions and interpretations are essential to social behavior and must be included in most sociological considerations. 2. Human behavior is emergent, continually constructed during its execution. The meaning of an act is somewhat volatile, since acts are interpreted and defined continuously (by the acting individual and others) while being carried out. Consequently, human conduct is actively constructed and can be transformed in its making through reinterpretation and redefinition. 3. The actions of individuals are influenced by their internal states and impulses in addition to external events and stimuli, for an individual's perceptions and interpretations are shaped by the former as well as the latter. Physiological or psychological impulses, once noticed, form the beginning of an act and motivate the individual toward its consummation. In no sense does the impulse determine the act, but it is a significant component of action and adds to its dynamic character. 4. Social structures and normative regulation are the framework of human action rather than its determinant, shaping behavior without dictating it. Structural features (culture, systems, stratification, roles, etc.) shape behavior only insofar as they influence the situations that are the setting of action and provide the symbols used to interpret situations; they do not determine human conduct.
  • Alterations in taped heartbeat rates, believed by male subjects watching Playboy slides to be their own, influenced subjects' ratings of the attractiveness of the slides. - Valins, Stuart. 1966. "Cognitive Effects of False Heart-Rate Feedback." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 4 (October): 400-408. - - Valins (1974) also found, in a later study, that debriefing was ineffectivein changing subjects' evaluations of the slides. To account for this, he suggested that subjects sought objective features of the slides to justify the heightened appreciation indicated by the altered heart rates. Hence, they were "actively involved in validating the information conveyed by the false feedback and were not passively inferring liking or disliking from their autonomic behavior" - in symbolic interactionist terms, they actively constructed and reconstructed their affective definitions of the situation. Evidence favoring this interpretation is given by Barefoot and Straub (1971), who found that only subjects given time to examine the slides more closely were affected by the false heart rates. This clearly suggests the constructed, emergent character of definitions and interpretations of feelings. - Valins, Stuart. 1966."Persistent Effects of Information about Internal Reactions." Pp. 116- 24 in Thought and Feeling, edited by Harvey London and Richard E. Nisbett. Chicago: Aldine.
  • Both movies Borat and Brüno massively draw upon vicarious embarrassment. Yet these are superficial distractions and in the way of discovering far deeper social issues than one would assume. - The scene of Brüno's video presentation to a test audience has them shake their heads and judge the presentation badly - yet, these may be the very same people that let all the other televised nonsense (that is not one bit more valuable) pass through. - The presentation of a lifestyle accessory black baby has a black audience get really upset - that is the same society that appears to revere celebrities that do just the same, while Brüno massively attracts negative reactions for issues that society seems to have well accepted. -
  • Guilt, shame, and embarrassment check and punish deviant behavior; each, however, is evoked by different circumstances. Guilt is the feeling that accompanies the "negative self-evaluation which occurs when an individual acknowledges that his behavior is at variance with a given moral value to which he feels obligated to conform". Hence, it is evoked when one commits or contemplates some "immoral" action, then takes the role of the generalized other (or some significant other) and accepts its perceived judgment of oneself as morally inadequate. Shame, however, does not stem from the sense of moral inadequacy that is the foundation of guilt; rather, it results from "an actual or presumed negative judgment of [oneself] resulting in self-depreciation vis-a-vis the group". Riezler (1943) suggests that shame occurs when one is forced, by taking the role of others (or, less frequently, the generalized other) to see that others do not accept an idealized self-image that one has built up. Shame is not the same as embarrassment, even though embarrassment is often treated as a form of shame (e.g., Lynd 1958; Kemper 1978). Shame is provoked by the realization that others (or the generalized other) consider one's self deficient, while embarrassment arises from awareness that others (or the generalized other) view one's presentation of self (and not the self)  as inept.

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Vicarious embarrassment - Fremdschämen; published 16/07/2009, 23:50; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1620296684, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{Technical Below Elbow Amputee Issues - Vicarious embarrassment - Fremdschämen}}, month = {July},year = {2009}, url = {}}