Schadenfreude

Human emotions fascinate me. I’m not talking about the kitschy, universally cliched emotions of love or greed, but about the niche emotions. Things like “gallows humor” or “compassion fatigue”. The ones we feel in very specific circumstances – or maybe don’t feel at all, because they have never been named in the particular culture we grew up in. (And as a linguist, I believe that we don’t recognize the existence of something until we have a name for it.) I can think offhand of four such cultural emotions here in Austria that would be foreign or non-existent to Americans, and not coincidentally, the names of these feelings are almost impossible to translate. The first one is “Gemütlichkeit”.

The dictionary tells me that this means “coziness”, but that is a physical sensation for English speakers – not an emotion. To feel “Gemütlichkeit”, you first have to spend 5 hours climbing up a mountain, arrive at the little mountain tavern near the top, take your seat on a wooden bench, order a tea with schnapps, drink it, order another, and then link arms with others and sway back and forth singing folk songs accompanied by an accordion.

The second Austrian emotion is “Schadenfreude”.

Literally translated it would be “Harm Joy”, but the dictionary calls it “malicious joy” and it means taking pleasure in other people’s troubles. The closest English speaking equivalent is the phrase “It serves (him) right!” which is more of a judgment than a feeling, if you ask me. In order for “Schadenfreude” to become a feeling, you have to live in a small village and be perpetually disturbed for years by the fact that your neighbor two doors down doesn’t wash his windows often enough and then discover one morning to your delight that someone has thrown a rock through one of them.

Schadenfreude is intrinsically connected to the next two cultural emotions: “Angst” and “Neid”.

“Angst” is something different from what the dictionary translates as both “fear” and “anxiety”. Fear is the sense of looming danger and involves physical/emotional reflexes of fight or flight. Anxiety is the fear that you have something stuck in your teeth and everyone is secretly laughing at you. In contrast, “Angst” is the feeling that everyone in the world other than you is somehow off – especially that neighbor two doors down with his dirty windows – and that the thing stuck in your teeth was put there deliberately by an unfair world.

And then there is “Neid” – which the dictionary tells me is “envy”. It seems to me that when an English speaker feels envy, he/she thinks “I want to have that too!” whereas a German speaker thinks “I don’t want him to have that either!” My initiation to Germanic “Neid” came during my first year here. I was fresh out of university and had a job as an English teaching assistant in a school outside of Graz, Austria. I was in a class where the teacher was handing back the tests from the previous week and announcing the grades.

“Markus – C, Susanne – C, Joshua –D, Mario – F, Katrin – C, Sophia – A . . . “

“STREBER! STREBER!” the kids yelled out.

“Streber” means “striver” – or in other words, a kid who works hard to do well. Except that it was clearly an insult. I wondered why they were yelling this. Sophia had worked hard and earned her “A” and her classmates were turning it into a moment of shame. She had risen above the pack and they had to pull her back down.

German speakers often praise the American lack of envy – the way they don’t begrudge the super-rich their pleasures and extravagances. At this moment in time, though, a little Germanic “Neid” would be really useful. No German or Austrian politician could ever campaign on the platform of “I’m so smart. I’m so rich. I’m a winner and everyone else is a loser.”

If Americans felt the Austrian emotion of “Neid”, Donald Trump’s campaign would be over. And I would feel a great amount of “Schadenfreude”.

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3 thoughts on “Schadenfreude

  1. 🙂 I saw tiny bits of the republican candidate debate last night. This guy is a joke. Why is anybody in their right mind listening to him? For entertainment? I guess you might want to translate fremdschämen, too.

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  2. I don’t think people are listening. They are tuning in. The American election is now officially a reality show.

    “Fremdschämen” is not a word I have heard before. Please explain. Is it like “scapegoating”?

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  3. Oh, it is widely used here. Popped up with stupid, so-called “reality-shows” on TV, I guess. It means, you watch someone so bad or stupid, you feel shame instead of the person, you watch. On behalf of them.

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