Have you ever experienced this phenomenon? A character does something embarrassing in a book or movie or TV show, and you just can’t look (or continue reading) because somewhere deep inside, you’re embarrassed for them? I like to call that secondhand embarrassment, and it afflicts me deeply.
Sure, the main reason I don’t watch reality shows is because I find them insipid and much worse than watching nothing at all. But a close runner-up reason is because I can’t bear secondhand embarrassment, and it seems like all anyone does on a reality show is embarrass themselves. Take The Bachelor, for instance. A couple dozen women throwing themselves at a guy they barely know, and for what? 15 minutes of fame? Money? (Honestly, I don’t actually know what the prize is, other than the guy.) How are you not embarrassed for these women? And if you are…how do you continue to watch it?
The same goes for fictional characters. We’ve all read books that are utterly cringe-inducing for one reason or another—cheesy romances, clichéd dialogue, obvious lack of research—and it’s likely that, at some point, you’ve had to put a book down for a second because it was just too much. Same for TV and movies, sitcoms/romantic comedies in particular. You just know that, at some point, someone is going to do something stupid and they’re going to hate themselves for it. Andrew feels it, too, and will often hide his face on my shoulder if he knows something particularly awkward is about to happen.
Why do people enjoy this? I suppose there’s some schadenfreude involved, and I can see that (I watched and enjoyed exactly one season of “Tool Academy” with my college roommates thanks to schadenfreude)—but in most cases, for me, the secondhand embarrassment just makes it soooo not worth it.
How about you? Do you suffer from secondhand embarrassment, or do you enjoy schadenfreude?