I recently succumbed to peer pressure and binge-watched the entire first season of Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives – the latest scraping from the bottom of Netflix India’s barrel.
The show gives us a rather cosmetically-enhanced peek into the lives of three Bollywood nobodies and a Bollywood has-been. The four women – Maheep Kapoor, Neelam Kothari Soni, Seema Khan and Bhavna Pandey — plod through some un-relatable, rich-people problems that our middle-class asses can’t fully comprehend but can’t stop watching either.
But every time Maheep Kapoor opened her trap to bellyache about nepotism, or Seema Khan about DMing Kim Kardashian or Neelam about anything (that godawful accent!), I felt an old, familiar ache returning.
I’ve experienced it countless times before – when I waved at someone and the wrong person waved back, when a classmate fumbled through a badly-made presentation in front of the whole class, when someone tripped or when I unwittingly caught a friend in a lie.
More recently, I experienced it while thumbing through the infinite scrolls of Tiktok and Instagram Reels.
Still holding the grimace on my face, I glanced over at my husband and my friend, who were browbeaten into watching the series with me. I realised they were feeling it too. So I was clearly not alone.
Why do we cringe?
Second hand or vicarious embarrassment means feeling embarrassed witnessing the actions of others. In other words, you feel embarrassed for someone.
You will feel it even if the person in question is oblivious to his or her embarrassment. It’s the opposite of schadenfreude, where you feel delighted by somebody’s embarrassment or misfortune.
As the cliché goes, humans are social animals. We feel pain for others’ misfortunes and happiness for their success. We are also disgusted by revolting experiences of our fellow humans. It’s all a part of our social experience, even though we don’t move in the same social circles as the glamorous Bollywood wives.
Cringing is associated with neural activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, the anterior insula and sometimes, when it’s really embarrassing, in the somatosensory cortex areas of the brain. These areas form a network that helps us feel second-hand pain and empathy. It helps us gauge physical pain and the level of embarrassment felt by the other person.
In another theory, vicarious embarrassment is a form of projection. When a person watches another act in reprehensible ways, the former will project onto themselves the appropriate response to such an embarrassing action.
But social relationships play an important role in such responses. A study says that parents cringe more when their children act out in public. They may be comparatively unaffected if others’ children misbehave.
So the closer you are to someone, the stronger your feelings of embarrassment are. That’s probably why viewers could finish the entire series with relative ease. Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives will be far more difficult for us to watch had our own moms been among the four.
While cringing may make us feel bad, it probably says something good about you. Studies say that people who have more empathy feel a higher degree of second-hand embarrassment. However, they also rank higher on social anxiety.
It also has a purpose. Embarrassment can be humiliating for the victim. But second-hand embarrassment can help the observer develop a more sympathetic view of the victim. In this case, Maheep Kapoor, Seema Khan, Neelam Kothari and Bhavna Pandey? I’ll play the smallest violin in the world for them.