In short – ‘qué pena’ is a Spanish expression used to express embarrassment, sadness, and disappointment. Some English phrases that communicate similar feelings are ‘too bad’, ‘what a shame’, ‘that’s a pity’, ‘bummer’, ‘so sad’, and even ‘this is so embarrassing’, it all depends on the context and tone of voice.
According to the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (RAE), the (main) definitions of the word ‘pena’ are ‘a great feeling of sadness’ or ‘a punishment imposed on those who commit a crime’ (‘una pena de cárcel’ = ‘a prison sentence’).
HOWEVER, in some Spanish-speaking countries, such as Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela, the word ‘pena’ is also related to a sense of shame.
And the phrase ‘qué pena’?
Well, it expresses a feeling related to the word ‘pena’, of course!
Let’s have a quick look at both ‘pena’ and ‘qué pena’ in action –
Siento una pena muy grande por el fallecimiento de mi abuelo.
I feel really sad because my grandfather passed away.
Punishment for a crime
Fue sentenciado a una pena de cinco años en prisión por el robo del dinero.
He was sentenced to five years in prison for the theft of the money.
Ayer me subí al escenario y me caí enfrente de todos, ¡qué pena!
Yesterday I got up onstage and fell in front of everyone, how embarrassing!
Uses & Meanings of ‘qué pena’
If you’re looking to fully understand this expression, you might find the following uses and meanings helpful –
- As a way of saying ‘too bad’ or ‘so sad’
- As a way of saying ‘what a shame’ or ‘what a pity’
- To express embarrassment
As a way of saying ‘too bad’ or ‘so sad’
If something bad happens to someone that you’re perhaps not that close to, or isn’t part of your immediate social circle, you can say ‘¡qué pena!’.
In this sense it’s very similar to the English ‘(that’s) so sad’ or ‘(that’s) too bad’.
For example –
Carmen – Ayer me enteré de que falleció el esposo de Claudia y se quedó sola con su hijo de tres años.
Lorenzo – ¡Híjole!*…qué triste situación. ¡Qué pena me da por ellos!
Carmen – Yesterday I found out that Claudia’s husband passed away and that she’s now alone with a three-year-old child.
Lorenzo – Oh, wow … what a sad situation. I feel so bad for them!
Erika’s note – in this context ‘híjole’ is a bit like saying ‘oh, wow’! Mosey on down to our article on all things ‘híjole’ if you wanna know more!
As a way of saying ‘what a shame’ or ‘what a pity’
When someone loses something or doesn’t achieve something that he/she has worked hard towards, often people will express their empathy (or even lack of it if sarcasm rears its ugly head) by saying ‘¡Qué pena!’ (‘What a pity!’).
For example –
Laura – ¿Supiste que reprobaron a Jorge en el examen para terminar la carrera?
Carlos – ¡Qué pena! ¡Tanto que se ha esforzado por terminarla!
Laura – Did you hear that Jorge failed his finals?
Carlos – That’s so sad! He worked so hard for them!
Erika’s note – another way of saying ‘qué pena’ is ‘es una pena’ or ‘es una profunda pena’, the latter being useful if you feel REALLY sorry for someone!
Used to express embarrassment
Have you ever had a really embarrassing experience?
I think we all have, and probably on more than one occasion!
Well, when a Mexican feels embarrassed, they almost always say ‘¡qué pena!’.
It could be because they said something inappropriate, tripped up in front of loads of people, or were poked fun of at a stand-up comedy event.
Anyway, their response will invariably be ‘¡Qué pena!’.
For example –
Carolina tropezó con un escalón y se le cayó el helado
Rolando – ¿Estás bien?
Carolina – ¡Qué pena!
Carolina tripped on a stair and dropped her ice cream
Rolando – Are you ok?
Carolina – How embarrassing!
Most of the time ‘qué pena’ is reserved for situations that are kind of embarrassing but probably didn’t have you walking away with your head hung in shame.
For EXTREMELY embarrassing situations you can use ‘Qué pena tan grande’ (‘I’m REALLY Embarrassed’).
‘¡Ay, qué pena!’ meaning
‘Ay’ is an extremely common interjection used to express surprise, annoyance, or pain. It’s often used to preface other words or expressions.
‘Ay, qué pena’ is used to emphasize that the feeling, whether it be shame or sadness, is a big surprise for the person speaking; it also makes the phrase ‘qué pena’ sound more emphatic.
‘Qué pena’ vs ‘qué lástima’
Both phrases can be used to express sadness or pity, but ‘qué lástima’ is less empathetic and shows little to no attachment, whereas ‘qué pena’ DOES show that we care (even if the situation still doesn’t affect us directly).
It’s also important to note that ‘qué lástima’ is NEVER used to express shame or embarrassment.
Here are some examples –
Rodrigo – Roberto, el hermano de mi amigo Dante, tuvo un accidente y se rompió la pierna.
Mariana – Qué lástima, ojalá se recupere pronto.
Rodrigo – Roberto, my friend Dante’s brother, had an accident and broke his leg.
Mariana – That’s a shame, I hope he recovers soon.
Dante – Mi hermano tuvo un accidente y se rompió la pierna.
Rodrigo – ¡Qué pena! Si necesitan algo avísenme.
Dante – Roberto had an accident and broke his leg.
Rodrigo – I’m so sorry! If you need anything let me know.
‘Qué pena’ pronunciation
Thankfully, ‘qué pena’ isn’t difficult to pronounce, ‘qué’ is said like ‘keh’ and ‘pena’ like ‘peh nah’.
Therefore, ‘qué pena’ is pronounced as follows:
/ khe peh-nah /
Super easy, right?
Similar expressions to ‘qué pena‘
There are a quite a few expressions similar in meaning to ‘qué pena’ … I mean, it does have quite a few different meanings after all!
Here are a few of my faves –
This one’s perfect for when you´re really ashamed of something that you just said or did, or you feel ashamed of another person’s actions.
‘Trágame, tierra’ also expresses shame; it translates to ‘ground, swallow me up’ in English!
Una mamá está bailando desatadamente en un baile escolar
Hija – ¡Trágame, tierra!
A mum is dancing wildly at a school dance
Daughter – Ground, swallow me up!
¡Qué gacho! ¡qué feo!
‘Qué gacho‘ is what we say when something really bad happens to someone. It’s used to express both horror and pity.
You can also call a person who’s been mean to you a ‘gacho(a)’.
This one’s used to express physical or emotional pain, it means something along the lines of ‘it’s so painful’.
‘Qué pena’ is an expression used to demonstrate three different feelings, so it’s not as easy to use as one might think, but with practice you’ll pick it up pretty quickly and it’ll definitely help you sound more native.
Make sure to check out our article on ‘ya me voy‘ if you wanna get to grips with another super common Spanish expression!
Now get out there and practice!