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"My Bad – Let’s Definitely Catch Up Soon!": Or, the Art of Combating Fremdschämen

By Christine Keith

Germans. They have a long, silly-sounding name for everything, including emotions that the English-speaking world has yet to identify. (Schadenfreude? Check.) It's unsurprising, then, that they already have a name for an emotion we Americans are just becoming aware of. Fremdschämen. It translates more or less to what it sounds like: "friend shame," or the condition in which one becomes embarrassed as a result of another person embarrassing himself. Some Americans call this “secondhand embarrassment,” but fremdschämen sounds worldly, intelligent, and obnoxious – so let’s use that.

If you haven't heard of or experienced fremdschämen yet, you will soon. Why? Because of our new national pastime, social networking.

Social networking sites have enabled us to know way more about one another than we used to. This is good for some things, like stalking (the harmless, more-than-100-yards-away-at-all-times kind). But they also make it possible to veer into the creepy, informational over-share realm. Last vacation my kindergarten crush took? Machu Picchu. Driver's ed teacher's dog's name? Bitsy. What my former coworker had for lunch? Allegedly salad, but I suspect McDonald's (super-sized).

Don't get me wrong – I usually love rooting around in people's social network drawers. But sometimes I learn things about people I hardly know (second cousin Alex) that cause me to squirm (he is battling a hemorrhoids flare up again). Curiously, the online forum causes people to shed their personal information filters, so they post just about anything – even if it makes them look bad/weird/insecure/depressed/crazy/hungry to everyone else. Cue fremdschämen.

Fremdschämen can manifest itself in many social networking situations. Take, for example, my recent visit to an old college friend in another city. The problem? Apparently I actually had a dozen “friends” there, to whom Facebook was happy to tattle via photo trail after my trip. This resulted in a barrage of “Wait – you were here?! How could you not tell me??” wall posts.

While I felt – sort of – bad that they were hurt I didn’t see them, I found their expressing offense in this way fremdschämen-ish (new word!). Because their posts’ subtext was, "You don't care about me enough to mention that you're coming to my city, yet I care about you enough to publicly announce my hurt that you didn't tell me you were here or want to see me."

With another trip looming on the horizon, and no desire to waste it speed-socializing with mere casual acquaintances but also not wanting to cause a fremdschämen pandemic, I realized I needed a game plan. One that allowed me to avoid people and awkwardness in equal measure, while also pacifying egos. (Why I care more about their egos than actually seeing them? Unclear.) So I created a system of social classification for all Facebook friends in a given city to determine whom to see, whom to not see, and how to minimize social damage.

The first step was to divide friends in the other city into one of three categories: high-priority, low-priority, and no-priority. This, while possibly ruthless and Darwinian, is also just plain efficient, 90% of the battle, and hurts me more than it hurts you. Plus, the delegation to low- or no-priority groups is often based solely on the suspicion that they would put me there – despite all wall posts to the contrary.

Category 1: Person I’m Visiting. You are the chosen one! Chances are that I genuinely want to see you and knew where you lived without the aid of status updates involving some city landmark (“…is thinking the Space Needle looks especially phallic today ;) ”). You’re in on the ground floor of plan-making, which, though started with vague "Come see me!" wall posts, has escalated to actual one-on-one, real-time communication. Odds are good that I knew I could count on you for some combination of tour guide/transportation/social connection/spare bed. Odds are also good that I secretly borrowed your toothbrush or used liberal amounts of your most expensive hair products in the shower.

In return for temporarily revolving your tiny planet of a life around the important sun goddess existence I lead, I’ll be exceptionally fun, cool, and novel. So much so that your Bikram yoga classmate and that new guy you’re kind of seeing will be temporarily obsessed with me, friend me from their Blackberries while we’re out, pepper my wall with inside jokes, and then tag me in only the flattering pictures. Some day (okay, the day after I've left), we’ll click and comment our way fondly through these pixels of happiness, regarding them as saccharine preservatives of our shared moments. Then we'll miss each other for about a week before succumbing to the powerful vacuum of our self-centered little worlds. Fin.

Now on to the other, more high-maintenance categories, full of friends that require coddling, pacifying, and straight-up lies to save us all from secondhand embarrassment.

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