Select Page

Spanish has at its disposal an expression “vergüenza ajena” which indicates that you were embarrassed on behalf of another person. It has an element of pity, in that you feel sorry for the other person, and also of disdain, as if the person for whom you feel the emotion is not aware enough of his/her gaffe to feel embarrassed him/herself. It’s a simple expression, adding embarrassment (vergüenza, not embarazada, much to many a first-time Spanish speaker’s astonishment and verguenza) to the word for “alien” or “beyond my control” or “not mine,” which is ajeno.

But it’s a complicated emotion. Do you really, really feel embarrassed for the other person, or is it a type of schaudenfraude, where you’re secretly enjoying the other person’s misstep, and you say you feel vergüenza ajena because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do? And because other people can commiserate about exactly what a buffoon the person is?

Apparently the correlate expression in English is “Spanish shame,” which perhaps is a distant cousin of “Catholic guilt,” though I admit familiarity (though not personal) with the latter much more than the former.

But I always asked myself why you can feel embarrassed for someone, and why it’s got its own expression, whereas the opposite, pride for something that is not yours, or over which you have no control, does not exist. The expression would be orgullo ajeno, and I propose that we bring it into wide circulation.

Of course, we’ll have to be happy to have other people succeed, and where’s the schaudenfraude and the joy in that? How can we be crabs in a bucket, each pulling the other down so no one escapes if we’re busy applauding our little claws as one gets out?

Last night A, a friend from my yoga class found out that she’s been selected for a very competitive scholarship for a master’s degree in either Australia or New Zealand. The corresponding hugs were given, and when An came into the yoga room, she asked “is it her birthday?” And I said, no, but let her tell you. And when A said the words, “me gané la beca” (I got the scholarship), and I saw the sparkle in her eye, I got chills. And I knew just what they were. This, I told my friends, is a “orgullo ajeno.