On Schadenfreude

Imagine, if you will, a cold, blustery day in the city. With the wind howling and the rain coming down in horizontal sheets, the interior of the bus seems positively luxurious. From your vantage point on the plush red seats, you watch as a bedraggled young man runs towards the bus stop, arms flailing and suitcase flying. Just as he reaches it however, the bus takes off, and he is left on the sidewalk; a profoundly disappointed and sopping figure. What’s that you feel; compassion? Empathy? No; instead, schadenfreude, that deliciously guilty, almost inhuman sense of glee at someone else’s misfortune.

          Schadenfreude is a loanword from German. Its literal translation being ‘Harm-Joy’, schadenfreude encapsulates perfectly that slight sense of elation one feels watching lost tourists reading maps, or stressed waitresses dropping warm soup into the lap of restaurant patrons. Tumbling ice-skaters, Kim Kardashian’s weight gain and news anchor gaffes are other instances in which one savours a gratifying sense of amusement. Schadenfreude differs from loathing or true malice in that it is not malevolent but rather mischievous in nature.  An expression with a similar meaning is Roman Holiday, derived from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Here, an atmosphere of debauchery and sadistic delight is created when a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday’.

According to the medieval church, ‘morose delectation’ (the Latin equivalent of schadenfreude) was a grave sin, and indeed the Book of Proverbs warns us: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” Why then are we thus inclined? A number of scientific studies of schadenfreude are based on the social comparison theory proposed by Leon Festinger, which claims that when those around us encounter bad luck, we appear better to ourselves. In keeping with this theory, it has been found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than people with high self-esteem are.

         Schadenfreude, like every emotion, has the tendency to range in intensity from the benign to the outrageous. Perhaps the most harmless example of schadenfreude is the tendency to giggle when someone slips on ice. Personally, while I like to think of myself as being generally above evil intentions and pure malice, I do savour the slight amusement derived from watching my brother walk into a glass door. Far more chilling however are the more serious examples of schadenfreude: the insatiable curiosity we have for bad news in the media. Events such as fraud, embezzlement, shootings, earthquakes and tsunamis evoke within us an avid fascination, and perhaps a sense of relief that we’re not the ones suffering. While an admirable few might turn away, many watch the sad exploitation of others’ suffering from the happy comfort of their living room, unthinking, uncaring.

Although the English language does not have a word for it, schadenfreude is undoubtedly an emotion we recognise. While schadenfreude is deeply repressed within our culture for its primitive and often cruel nature, one might argue that increased awareness of schadenfreude will help us to be more compassionate and sensitive. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.” In the case of a cream-pie to the face, devilishly satisfying, perhaps.

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Toddlers and Trolleys

It’s 3:45 pm on a Tuesday afternoon when chaos erupts in the Vegetables aisle of New World as a particularly mischievous child upends a display of Wattie’s baked beans. Clutching a shopping basket to my chest and brandishing a roll of Budget toilet paper, I summon my courage and wade into the throng of trolleys and toddlers. Six minutes later, I emerge virtually unscathed into the comparatively sedate toiletries aisle, having lost only a can of spaghetti and half my dignity on the way.

Grocery shopping wasn’t always this exciting. Back in the stone age of retailing, all one had to do was ask the pretty assistant in the greengrocers for a pound of pears and after two minutes of smiling small talk, a neat little parcel was ready. Moreover, prior to 1937, one did not have to negotiate the politics of trolley head-ons, let alone the intricacies of eftpos machines. Piggly Wiggly, the first self-service grocery store, was opened in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee by the entrepreneur Clarence Saunders. Piggly Wiggly enabled a much smaller number of clerks to service the customers while also speeding up the shopping process. Very swiftly, supermarkets sprang up all over the globe, and with the proliferation of new technologies the grocery store evolved into the monstrosity we know it as today.

While one could argue the modern shopping experience is less personal than the good old days of silver scales, brown paper and string, the supermarket aisles of today undoubtedly abound with human interaction. Even Wallis Simpson, King Edward VIII’s mistress, acknowledged the allure of the supermarket, finding them “more fascinating than any fashion salon.” Flatmates debate the value of opposing noodle brands, while harassed young mothers chide their wayward, chocolate-clutching children. Sweet old dears toddle slowly down the aisles while anxious stockers eye teetering displays. The general hum of human interaction is interspersed with shrill beeps of the checkouts, culminating in rather awkward conversations with the cashiers.

For all the lost shopping lists, spilt milk and general hustle and bustle of the average supermarket, grocery shopping is undoubtedly integral to my life. As a rambunctious two year old, I sat in the front of a shopping trolley, gleefully throwing items out of the cart while Mum wasn’t looking. As a particularly sticky five year old, I relished the sugary guilt of the pic’n’mix corner, while Mum handed my brothers luncheon-sausage straight from the bag. As a sulky tween, I hounded my mother for the latest edition of whatever new fashion magazine was making the rounds. Now, as a half frozen and perpetually hungry university student, I relish the aromas wafting from the baking cabinet while picking up the flatting necessities. I may have outgrown the trolley and the pic’n’mix corner, but the casual pandemonium of the Vegetables aisle never fails to enthrall.

Image source: http://wastelessthinking.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Supermarket-shopping-cart.jpg