We need a new word, people.
Schadenfreude is one of those words that lets people know you’ve been to graduate school. It is an extremely useful word in that it gives a name to a phenomenon which we had not heretofore had a name for. (Well, technically, there is the Greek word epicaricacy, but that’s still a borrowed word, isn’t it?) We needed schadenfreude because it is rather common in our complex society to take pleasure in the suffering and misfortune of others. Celebrity culture is primarily a machine which produces individuals who are built up, adored, and then summarily destroyed. We like seeing the beautiful and the famous humiliated. Closer to home, the thought that a co-worker who seems more on the ball than you gets passed over for a promotion makes us giddy. Yes, we’ve all had the feeling, even if we didn’t have the word. Having the word, however, makes it all somehow more delicious because it suggests that this is a natural, and therefore common state of mind. We don’t need to feel as though we are bad people because we take Satanic joy in the miseries which befall our fellow human beings. After all, if we name it, we can assume that many people claim it.
But as common as the schadenfreude experience is, there are other equally common states of mind having to do with our interactions with others. I feel these states of mind should have a noun into which we can collect their aspects. For example… think of a person you are acquainted with on a casual or professional basis. You see them occasionally and are not close by any means. Whenever you meet them, the small talk quickly turns to this person unloading their problems on you. Thus, a passing conversation which ordinarily would take approximately thirty seconds, soup to nuts, stretches on and on like a real engagement…. like you would have with your friend. But you are contributing. You are not asking searching questions. And you are certainly not curious.
I experience this in the workplace Without going into the particulars, there is someone for whom I occasionally do some work. This person brings me the works. I do it. This person then pays me. That is the extent of the relationship. The face time should last about twenty five seconds… tell me what you want me to do; tell me how soon you need the work back, and have a nice day. But in the midst of this I am made to suffer through the minutiae of this person’s personal travails – children running rampant… husband with a goiter… aunt with loose bowels… car with achy oil filter… wood-chipper at midnight… cat with goiter… exhausting. And I am sure all these things are causing maximal stress…. but why me? Is my face that kindly? Do I look like someone who’s got it together enough to give advice? Do I sell Calgon?
But between sympathy and simply ignoring these agonies. I find that what I want is for this person’s sufferings to be amplified so that I can experience schadenfreude. In other words, this person communicating her problems perverts empathy and sends it to the Bizarro world. I want this person to suffer so that I can receive some recompense for having to listen to the moaning.
Yes, I know it sounds evil, but it really isn’t. It isn’t because I don’t really have that sort of power. If I did, chances are I wouldn’t want to experience this anti-empathy will-to-punish. But the helplessness of being in the midst of this upchucking of problems and catastrophes creates the perversion. It does not come from me.
So we need a word for this sensation… this anti-empathy will-to-punish. Something like “punitive empathy.”