The phonetics of flop sweat?

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The general reaction to Sarah Palin's interview with Katie Couric has been a sort of displaced embarrassment.  I thought that Timothy Burke expressed it well ("Trade Secret of Teachers", 9/25/2008):

Bluffing at knowledge is kind of like a bad pick-up line in a bar: it may be amusing, it’s usually off-putting, and most importantly, it’s almost always ineffective.

Watching Palin’s interview with Katie Couric felt like being in a classroom with a bad bluffer. In fact, a bad bluffer at their worst moment, which is about five minutes before a final examination is about to begin. […]

My first reaction to watching the video wasn’t political, it was much more like how I feel seeing this as a teacher: a sympathetic wince.

English doesn't have a good standard expression for this emotion, which is called vergüenza ajena in Spanish, and plaatsvervangende schaamte in Dutch; but "sympathetic wince" pretty much covers it. Rod Dreher got the same "unprepared for the final exam" vibe, from the side of the student rather than the teacher ("Palin debacle on CBS Evening News", 9/25/2008):

I remember the morning I woke up in my college dorm room and went in to take my final exam in my Formal Logic class. I knew I was unready. Massively unready. And now I was going to be put to the ultimate test. I sat down in Dr. Sarkar's class and resolved to wing it. Of course I failed the exam and failed the class, because I had no idea what I was talking about. I wasn't a bad kid, or even a stupid kid. I was just badly unprepared, and in way over my head. Seeing the Palin interview on CBS, I thought of myself in Dr. Sarkar's exam.

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers has the same empathetic reaction:

The Couric interview reminded me of an episode in the 5th grade when I tried to fake my way through an oral presentation on a book I hadn’t read. Neither of us pulled it off.

Others have expressed the same idea with phrases like "cringe-inducing", and "well and truly embarrassed for her". Kathleen Parker's empathy is more maternal ("Time to admit it", 9/26/2008):

Like so many women, I've been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I've also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.

Some have suggested that John McCain's puzzling and damaging decision to stand up David Letterman, in favor of his own last-minute interview with Katie Couric, was an attempt to keep Gov. Palin's interview off the evening news.

What is it about the Couric/Palin interview that triggers these sympathetic winces and cringes? Many people complain about the recital of irrelevant or empty talking points (Peter Sellers' Party Political Broadcast has been quoted) — but politicians and others do that sort of thing all the time, without reminding anyone of the embarrassing classroom failures of their students, or their children, or themselves.

Others have pointed to the disfluency of some of Gov. Palin's answers, using phrases like "Those aren't talking points; they're babbling points". Passages like this one get special notice:

That’s why I say I-
like every American I’m speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been
put in, where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out.
But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed
to help shore up our economy
um, helping th- oh!
it’s got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy, and- and putting it back on the right track.
So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to
accompany tax reductions and tax relief
for Americans.
And trade — we have st- we've got to see uh- trade as opportunity, not as
uh- uh- competitive um scary thing,
but one in five jobs being created uh- in the trade sector today
we- we-
we’ve got to look at that as more opportunity.
All of those things under the umbrella of job creation.

But in just about any unscripted conversation, you'll find filled pauses and repetitions and false starts, and sentences that start one way and end another way, and occasional non-sequiturs. And I'm generally skeptical about attempts to tag particular politicians as unusually disfluent, and Geoff Pullum has observed that giving incoherent and embarrassing answers in public is something that could happen to any of us. Still, it seems to me that there really is something especially cringeworthy in these passages. Like Timothy Burke and Rod Dreher and Kathleen Parker, I get the sense of someone who is trying hard to do something that she herself doesn't think she can do, or perhaps to present herself as someone that she doesn't think she is.

The incoherent content, in response to questions that Gov. Palin could have anticipated and had clearly tried to prepare to answer, is certainly a large part of this. But I think that there are also things about the performance itself that suggest a bluffer who knows that the bluff isn't working very well. Unfortunately for the cogency of this post,  I'm not sure what these features are.

The emphasis on unexpected words might be one, but that's certainly not all of it. Suggestions for things to look at in more detail — or arguments that I'm entirely wrong about this — are welcome in the comments. As Sarah Palin said cheerily about John McCain's efforts to improve regulatory oversight of financial institutions, "I'll try to find you some, and I'll bring 'em to ya!"

Timothy Burke again:

Whoever is sitting down and trying to cram with Palin is making a bad mistake. She’d be a lot better off if she didn’t to try to seriously talk about how Putin is rearing his head and floating into Alaskan air space and so on. I suspect that her personal instincts about how to answer these kinds of questions are better than the staffers who are trying to infuse her with Stature [tm] at the last minute. She’d be better off if she just laughed and said, “No, of course I wasn’t serious that proximity to Russia gives me foreign policy experience. What’s important in foreign policy isn’t prior experience, it’s common sense and a solid confidence in who we are as a people.” If someone threw a gotcha at her, rather than bluff at an answer, she’d be better off just saying, “Tell me a bit about what you mean?” or “I’m not familiar with that term, I have to confess”. Socratic reversals and humorous self-deprecation are stock in trade for the talented bluffer. As is knowing when you’re in over your head: the skilled bluffer knows when to leave some important matters in the hands of those ready to handle them.


  1. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    The reaction you describe is quite similar to one I used to experience with regard to another politician: George W. Bush. (I say "used to" because I can no longer bring myself to listen to him.)

  2. Claire said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 10:46 am

    My friends and I call this feeling "the embarrassment squick." "Squick" refers to a burst of aversion — you're surfing the net, you accidentally stumble across erotic Pokemon fanfiction, and you are "squicked." An "embarrassment squick" is a combination of aversion and identification. You watch someone make a really pathetic joke that fails spectacularly, and you think, "Oh my god, if I were in her shoes right now, I would be so embarrassed; in fact, I am feeling that embarrassment right now. I can't look! Embarrassment squick!"

  3. Mabon said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    It reminds me of someone putting on a fake accent and really missing the mark, as if they are wearing a mask that's slipping off the face.
    This is more than simple disfluency — it's nonfluency.

  4. Chris said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 10:52 am

    I would compare F0 plots between Palin's recent "bluffer" interviews and her earlier pre-VP candidate interviews (there aren't many, but she did do some debates in Alaska). I think you'll find some systematic tone correlations with bluffing (tho0ugh it's not clear to me what those correlations might be).

  5. Johan Anglemark said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 10:53 am

    I have a feeling that this ineptitude will be to her favor in the election, because by now US voters have demonstrated clearly enough that they value being able to identify with the candidate more than the candidate possessing any skills that makes him/her better equipped to lead the country. GWB is a good example of this.

  6. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 12:10 pm

    I'm not the first person to be reminded of Miss Teen South Carolina's infamous interview.

    I agree it's an interesting challenge to try to quantify what conversational features contribute to this particular type of cringe-inducing disfluency, and I'm having trouble thinking of how to make it a bit more concrete.

  7. Joe said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    The electoral projections I see on show McCain's campaign collapsing due both to this and the economic crisis. Yes, the election is a month away, but several important states allow you to mail in ballots early, and both campaigns are taking full advantage of this. But that window is *right now* so you can guess which way the votes will lean.

    Back to the point of this, I have to think there's some cognitive dissonance going on. So she's being asked to say a number of things she doesn't truly believe on some level and it's coming out all garbled. I've taken tests I was unprepared for. I've actually written a mini-essay on a math test and gotten points for it (I was incredibly sick and too confused to get the equations to work out, but I had SOME idea of what I was supposed to be doing). But at no time did I babble quite so incoherently, even when I went to the Toastmasters and was forced to give surprise speeches.

    So I'm going to stick with my analysis that she's been told too many contradictory things and her mind just hasn't sorted them out yet, leaving her to segue from one to the other as if uttering snowclones that take her to adjacent parts on the talking points sheet, rather than close words and phrases.

  8. John Laviolette said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 2:37 pm

    There may be some facial expression/body language signals that people are catching from her performance. I'm not particularly good at spotting body or facial queues, for various reasons, but there is something about her expression right before her response that I refer to as the "deer in the headlights" look. It's combined with a significant pause that suggests hesitation, exactly the sort of "Oh no! What am I going to do?" moment that people remembered from school days.

    There may also be something about the tone that distinguishes between times she is merely reciting something and times she is truly speaking her own thoughts, or paraphrasing and owning a talking-point. At the beginning of the full interview, when Couric asks Palin about accusations against a lobbyist and campaign contributor who was financially linked to Fannie Mae/Freddy Mac, Palin repeats a talking-point without stumbling, but there's something flat about her delivery; it didn't sound conversational, like she was investing any emotion into what she was saying. Furthermore, when Couric provides a counter argument, Palin visibly hesitates, then repeats exactly what she said before. Compare that to the end of the interview, when she says "I'll try to find you some, and I'll bring 'em to ya!" It's delivered quicker, has more tonal variety, and conveys some emotion. It might be kind of flippant and might itself be a talking-point, but she owns it, and puts some emotion into it (cheeriness mixed with a little disdain.)

  9. Rubrick said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    English doesn't have a good standard expression for this emotion

    It will if we try hard enough, though:

    Writer and blogger Daniel Radosh uses the term in reference to the Palin interview here:

  10. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

    Vicarious embarrassment? Ebarrassment by proxy?

  11. Mal said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 3:36 pm

    Aside from the fact that she's under pressure to rescue the ticket, her prior experience with the media seems to have been entirely with local, friendly Alaska media that were amenable to her folksy generalities. Also she seems to be fully aware that nothing she's saying is sincere or representing her own personal views. It's all rote-learned talking points, some of which apparently aren't persuading her either. Given her own politics, she most likely was not a McCain supporter.

    The emotion one feels watching her is sort of the opposite of Schadenfreude. Maybe it could be called Freudeschaden: The faint shame one feels for enjoying the humiliation of an enemy.

  12. Adam said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    Most people I know call this "sfeff" – meaning sympathetic embarassment,
    i.e. embarassment for someone else who is perhaps completely unaware that they
    should be feeling it.

  13. J said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    I, too, think of this as "embarassment squick" – a sort of vicarious embarassment brought on by watching someone make an ass of themselves. Which is why I can't watch sitcoms.

  14. mollymooly said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

    For the causative performance, I think "cringeworthy" and "cringe-making" are both pretty standard words; the former doesn't even need the telltale hyphen of the temporary compound.

    For the induced emotion, I suggest "proxy cringe".

  15. not feeling very nonymous said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    Which is why I can't watch sitcoms.

    Thank God! I'm not alone in this.

  16. onosson said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    Joe (above) is onto something, IMHO. Palin doesn't seem to really believe what she's saying, that's what is so galling. The insincerity of it all. She is trying to say what she thinks people want to hear, and failing miserably. Trying to say what you really think, and failing at that, is a lot less painful to watch.

  17. John Cowan said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

    ObTotallySelfServingComment: A year ago, I wrote the following line for a fictional Senator in a '50s-style culture. He's just been charged at a press conference with smuggling, deceit, breach of promise, and adultery — by his former mistress:

    "Well, I'm sure there's much to be said on all sides, but we mustn't allow the shadows of the present to override the promise of the future or the solid record of the past. And there's no point in crying over split milk, er, spoilt milk, and of course we are all by our just and generous laws considered to be innocent until proven guilty, and …"

    Naturally, that's the end of his ambitions. Cringeworthy indeed.

  18. Erin Jonaitis said,

    September 26, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

    I only saw the segment on Russia and foreign policy, so I apologize if what I say wasn't the case in the rest of the interview. For me, what made that segment so cringeworthy was something about the social context between Palin and Couric. I had the extreme sense that Couric was talking down to Palin, and that Palin didn't notice and/or didn't challenge that choice — which was the most distressing part. If you can't get the upper hand of a social situation like that, you can't lead a nation.

    I'm reminded of some stuff I heard about, but never read, in grad school, pertaining to the register in which adults talk to toddlers, and toddlers talk to infants.

  19. dr pepper said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 12:02 am

    Hmm, i usually just say there are parts of sitcoms that are "too painful to watch". The frequency of such incidents in the premiere episode is how i decide whether or not to watch any more. It would be convenient to have a single word to describe the feeling, but not necessary.

  20. Kate said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 10:36 am

    Two points about this that I think are worth mentioning:

    * Politicians use "gonna" all the time, whether as a part of their native dialect or as a rhetorical flourish. Why doesn't the media consistently quote them as having said "gonna" or "gotta" when they say it?

    * I think the "conversational feature" that makes Sarah Palin's answers so cringeworthy has a LOT to do with lack of understandable content.

  21. Maria said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

    After reading this post, I noticed throughout the debate last night that Obama consistently said "gonna". So it may be as Kate says that politicians do it regularly.

  22. Markus said,

    September 27, 2008 @ 1:43 pm

    To make the list of 'vergüenza ajena' and 'plaatsvervangende schaamte' complete:

    There is also an equivalent German expression: fremdschämen (a verb). It means to be embarrassed / ashamed ('schämen') in behalf of someone else / of a stranger ('fremd'). And now that I look it up on Google, the first hit is: "Fremdschämen mit Sarah Palin"!

    The verb is relatively new, as far as I know. It came up in recent years. I read it in 2007, about a TV entertainer, Thomas Gottschalk, who is preceived as embarrassing ( And it comes up all over the place now, especially in blogs etc.

  23. Nathan Myers said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

    Vicarious embarrassment is the heart and soul of English comedy. I wonder if Brits found that interview particularly tasty, or a bit too unpackaged.

  24. stella reese said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

    I'm a native Dutch speaker and a phrase I picked up a while ago that seemed an adequate translation of "plaatsvervangende schaamte" was "contact embarrassment".

    Now I'm wondering whether that means something else altogether or if it's just one of those obscure-corner-of-teh-intarweb things.

  25. Giles said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:20 pm

    Nathan: no, this kind of thing is painful for Brits too. Some (far from all) like it in comedy, but that's different because it's fiction. When it happens in real life, we cringe just as much as Americans.

  26. Anonymous Cowherd said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

    @Giles: I think you're right, but I also think Brit humor might just possibly be slightly more prone to the depiction of embarrassing situations. I particularly remember the climax of "The Lavender Hill Mob" as evoking that "embarrassment squick" feeling and thus ruining an otherwise okay movie.
    On the other hand, done right, simulated embarrassment can lead to brilliant comedy; cf. Fry & Laurie's "Hedge Sketch" (or about half of their entire oeuvre, really).

  27. Sabine said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

    On the internet, I've frequently read the word "fardo" for precisely this emotion. Urban Dictionary agrees.

  28. Landon said,

    October 3, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    The dynamic we see Palin caught in–that of not publicly displaying recognition of the reality of her situation, her speaking situation in this case–reminds me of Erving Goffman's discussions of performance & display of normalcy. For example, if one trips walking down the street, one invariably turns to look at the offending sidewalk crack–even if it isn't there–to unconsciously signal to other people on the street–even if they're strangers–an awareness of this tripping, this false move. To move ahead without recognition–robot-like, perhaps?–is a far more distressing signal than the original tripping.

    So I think our discomfort–which I feel in the extreme like so many other people–is being compounded by Palin's refusal to admit that she's tripping. Put simply, it's not _normal_ behavior; and, therefore, because she makes great claims to being _normal_ herself–hockey mom, main street, small town, etc.–I feel like I'm watching _abnormal_ behavior when she answers questions. Very discomfitting.

  29. Janice Huth Byer said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Timothy Burke, having closely observed her performance, nails it. "Bluffing" is the perfect word, imo.

    Natural sympathy may have urged him further to speculate: "I suspect that her personal instincts about how to answer these kinds of questions are better than those of staffers trying to infuse her with Stature (TM)…" He has no way of knowing that, which strikes me as the chivalrous projection of an honest man seeking to excuse our damsel in distress.

    "She'd be better off if she just laughed and said, 'No, of course, I wasn't serious that proximity to Russia gives me foreign policy experience. " Well, yes, but she pointedly didn't. She emphatically repeated it, suggesting not manipulation by staffers, but a manipulative M.O.

  30. Janice Huth Byer said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Okay, I gotta state the politically incorrect obvious. Beautiful, charming women like Palin learn different lessons than ordinary pols. Audiences, women even more so than men, react so positively to a beautiful, highly-personable woman, that a confident attitude may well be all she wanted to risk striving for. It had worked for her, and historically, women have had to avoid crossing that line that had Hillary "hated". With some justification, Sarah undoubtedly "knew" the "media elite" couldn't take away what they didn't give her. Unlike, say, Ron Paul, she might well have assumed answering Katie Couric's questions wasn't what she needed to ready for. Better she should worry about getting herself and her daughters to Bergdorf Goodman's. I'm only serious.

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