Secondhand Embarrassment

One evening after school, I walked into my family’s living room and to my great astonishment, found Jim, my brother-in-law, setting up his television for us to watch. He informed me that he and my sister Agnes and their baby, David, were moving away so they wouldn’t be needing it. “Moving?” I questioned.

Jim kept working on the backside of the second-hand television he was giving us. “Yep,” he answered absent-mindedly, “I’ve reenlisted in the army.”

Being a typical ten-year-old, I never read the front page of the newspaper, or listened to radio news. But that didn’t stop me from knowing something bad was going on. I had heard grownups talk in quiet tones about something called “the Berlin wall crisis.” Being an intelligent kid, I knew that Berlin was a European city located in Germany, the homeland of my grandparents. Just what was going on, I didn’t know.

Trying not to think about my sister moving away, I made a point to learn what shows were available, what days they were on and whether Mom would let me watch them or not. We had only one channel and I wasn’t allowed to turn the television on before 6:30 in the evening. One thing I discovered about watching television was that I needed to turn some knobs to make the picture stop rolling.

My only experience with televisions to that point was occasionally being able to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings while visiting my neighborhood cousins. One memorable afternoon after ice skating on their pond, we watched ‘Zorro’, the masked man with a swift blade who avenged all wrongs.

I loved watching television shows but something weird happened to me very often when they were on. No one else watching with me ever seemed to have the same problem. One evening while watching Mr. Ed the talking horse, the weird thing happened. The show was about Wilbur doing something really stupid because of his horse. Wilbur didn’t want his wife or neighbors to find out what he was doing. As an inevitable confrontation approached, intense anxiety and embarrassment filled me. Feeling like I was going to explode, and not wanting to see the end of the show, I jumped to my feet and raced out of the house.

Pacing around the orchard, waiting for Mr. Ed to be over, I wondered to myself, “What is wrong with me? Why do I feel so embarrassed when I watch people do stupid things? Why do I hate watching angry people fight and feel like a member of my own family has died when someone on television dies?”

Even though I am now an adult, this weird thing still happens to me when I watch movies and television shows. I’ve noticed that my daughter Tammie displays some of the same uneasiness I feel.

My daughter and I were watching a show on television recently. Fifteen minutes into it, I sighed. She turned to look at me and said, “It’s making me feel that way, too. Let’s turn it off.”

I complained, “Why can’t we watch this show? Other people actually enjoyed it!”

Tammie pointed out, “Did you know that there is a name for what we’re experiencing? It’s called secondhand embarrassment.”

Picking up my phone, I Googled ‘secondhand embarrassment’ to see for myself. The article I pulled up mentioned a psychiatrist, Gayani DeSilva, who said, “Sometimes secondhand embarrassment is even more powerful than anything you’ve experienced yourself.” She also added, “People who are empathetic feel (secondhand embarrassment) more often.”

I marveled, “Wow! The Germans have a word to describe the feeling! It’s Fremdschamen.”

Putting down my phone, I asked my daughter, “Do you think empathetic people can tolerate watching an HGTV remodeling show?”

Tammie shrugged and quipped with a giggle, “Let’s try it, but I might get emotional if they decide to paint their house glow-in-the-dark orange.”

One thought on “Secondhand Embarrassment

  1. Interesting analogy—most of us feel the same way often, but I didn’t know there was a name for it. Most of us just chalk it up to stupidity & look away or leave or do something else (as you did). There sure is lots of stupidity on TV & some call it “entertainment” or news!!!!

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