English makes a distinction between embarrassment (for something awkward that you’ve done) and shame (for something immoral you have done). Spanish can express both of these ideas with a single word, pena.
Centro Histórico, Mexico City
Me da pena
Remember that things give you pena, so you’ll often see pena with dar.
- Me da muchísima pena, pero bueno, fue la única manera de … I’m embarrassed to have done that, but it was the only way I could accomplish ….
- Me da pena seguir aquí en su casa. I feel embarrassed about living in his house, not paying my way.
- Ay, señora … con la pena de que no está. I’m terribly sorry, she (the person you are looking for) is not here. (answering the phone, telenovela dialogue)
Me da pena contigo
Spanish has a convenient way of specifying the person who you feel embarrassed or ashamed in front of, the person whose reaction you are worried about.
- Me da pena contigo. The person I’m feeling embarrassed in front of is you. I am worried about disappointing you. For example, if you are asking to borrow money from a friend.
Pena, robar y que te cachen
A cute reply to any confession of pena is: Pena, robar y que te cachen. What you did isn’t that embarrassing. What would be truly embarrassing would be stealing something and letting yourself get caught.
- Ay, me da pena pedirle su teléfono a ese chavo. I’d be so embarrassed asking him for his number. Pena, robar y que te cachen. Here the speaker is trying to be encouraging, saying that asking for someone’s number shouldn’t give you pena, that it’s no big deal. Note the subjunctive.
Qué pena is a good response to an awkward situation you find yourself in, for example, when accepting an undeserved gift.
- Híjole, qué pena, pero es que, pues como vi la puerta abierta …. Gosh, how embarrassing! I saw the open door and I figured no one was home, so I just let myself in. I hope you don’t mind too much.
Sharing Bad News
The expressions me da pena, qué pena and con la pena can all be used when when sharing news that may be disappointing for the listener. It makes sense the pena plays a role here, since delivering bad news can be unpleasant for the speaker as well. Sorry is often a good translation. As you can see, most of these examples are followed by pero: I’m sorry, but ….
- Con la pena, pero cancélala. I hate to do this, but cancel the order.
- Con la pena, eso ya no es tu bronca. Sorry, but this really isn’t any of your business anymore (this problem).
- Con la pena, señora, pero ….. Forgive me, ma’am, but I don’t like my workers to be distracted.
- Qué pena, pero es que no está. I’m so sorry. The person you are looking for is not here. No genuine embarrassment is felt. It’s just a way to show politeness towards your listener, acknowledging that they may be disappointed with your news.
Pena ajena is a concept that isn’t expressed as neatly in English as in Spanish. Pena ajena refers to the kind of embarrassment or shame that you feel because of the actions of others. Ajeno, as you may know, refers to something that belongs to someone else. Casa ajena = someone else’s house. Here the pena belongs directly to the person who did something embarrassing but you can feel it indirectly, especially if their behavior reflects poorly on you by association.
- ¡Qué pena ajena! Commenting on a friend who has just made a fool of himself somehow, for example, but getting drunk and naked at a party. The slangier ¡Qué oso! works as well, although that can apply to yourself or to someone else.
- (Me) das pena ajena, wey. I’m embarrassed for you. I’m embarrassed by you. You’re embarrassing me.
Keep this difference in mind:
- Me das pena ajena. I’m embarrassed for you. You did something that embarrassed me.
- Me da pena contigo. I’m embarrassed because of something I did. I’m worried that my poor behavior could make you think less of me.
Apenado is ashamed. Estoy apenadísima contigo. I’m really ashamed of something I did to you. Estoy muy apenado con todo lo que te he hecho psar esta noche. I’m embarrassed about everything that happened to you tonight. It was all my fault. Also with sentirse: Me siento muy apenado …. All of these basically mean Me da pena contigo.
Penoso is one way to say shy, tímido, easily embarrassed. Such a person avoids doing things that might give them pena.