Schadenfreude is one of those German words you find in articles about people like Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, David Letterman, and others who find their infidelities have crashed through their careers, marriages, and social standing. Letterman emerged with few visible wounds. The others are, as they say, burnt toast. Back to the German word which derives from Schaden, “adversity, harm”, and Freude, “joy.”
The question is why people seem to experience so much joy as they watch others fall from the high point of success and go splat on the pavement and roll into the gutter. What is it that makes people high on their pain and suffering? And the third question, is schadenfreude one of those Western concepts that doesn’t translate into Asian cultures such as Thailand?
The closest cousin to schadenfreude in Thai is the phrase สมน้ำหน้า, som nam na. It crops up most often in Thailand when there is someone you don’t like who has been visited by misfortune. It might be the cranky, demanding boss who trips and falls down the stairs. Or it might be a noisy neighbor who is arrested for domestic violence. The general translation into English of som nam na is along the lines: “He/She got what he/she deserved”; “Serves him right”; or “I’m laughing at your misfortune.”
The heart of the Thai view is one of cosmic justice being visited. The person who is judged to be a bad person or disliked is punished and the larger forces of the universe are thought to be the agency for such justice.
But this isn’t really in the same league as full-blown schadenfreude. As in the schadenfreude cultures, the person who has fallen is not disliked or hated; he or she, to the contrary is greatly admired. And that admiration is often closely linked with the person’s starring role as following the strict moral codes of society. The trio of Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford were banished not for a failure of job performance. They stumbled and fell over the moral code they had come to be associated with. Their brand image was honed as being the best shining examples of the moral values of their culture.
With schadenfreude in the Western sense is the person who assumes the mantle of virtue and then violates the moral code of upon which virtue rest is pretty much destroyed. It’s not in the same league as the hated boss who stumbled over a stray soi dog and scrapped his hands. Tiger Woods is out of the game of golf—at least for an immediate future. Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford wander the earth like Marley’s ghost in the afterlife of politics. Because they were caught with having sex with women other than their wives. And the press was happy to play the part of Scourge.
Studies in the West have demonstrated the reality of this delight in ruin of the lives of others who fail to live up to their moral hype. One theory is watching a powerful person fail due to a gotcha moment of destruction increases their self-esteem. I am more inclined to the view that secretly many people in morally strict cultures are happy to see the high and mighty to preach a good sermon end upon on tabloids next to a picture of a smiling hooker. It redeems their secret belief that no one can ever fully meet such a demanding code and those who seem the most pure are simply faking it.
This makes sense in a weird way once we concede that like other primates we live in a complicated social, economic and political hierarchy. There are those above us and those below us. There are those on your own level. Your friends, neighbors, family are mainly at the same level. You may know someone who sweeps the streets for a living and someone who is a famous singer, comic, movie star, politician, or (sound of clearing of the throat) professional golfer. But if the guy sweeping the street is caught in an infidelity and his wife leaves him you are unlikely to feel schadenfreude. You will more likely feel pity or compassion. But if that famous guy everyone admires is caught in a short time hotel and it broadcast on the BBC, CNN, Huffington Post and The NewYork Times, you may be quietly dancing and singing with joy. “You see, the guy can hit the ball 400 feet in a straight line but will jump into the bed of a pretty waitress faster than a short order cook can deliver a ham and cheese sandwich.”
Is this emotional reaction to the disclosure of moral lapses hard-wired in our species? Or is it a product of our distinctive culture? On the surface, it doesn’t appear that every culture has the same appetite for Schadenfreude. But going below the surface it may be that, given the chance, we are all candidates for experiencing the joy that is schadenfreude. The more stringent the moral code, the harder the fall; the more joy in watching the front men for that code tumble to the ground.
People—regardless of culture—live inside a fairly confined power structure. Most people learn (and are taught) it is in their best interest to keep their head down, get on with their jobs, families and lives. Not to make waves. Go along to get along. But there is a class of individuals who seek to break out from the pack. Let’s call them the strivers. These are highly ambitious people we remember from school who actually studied and wanted to do well and make us look like slackers. We never forgave them. Even though we admired their accomplishments, their discipline, their efforts, and courage, in our heart of hearts, they made us feel inadequate. Faithful, loyal, always correct and proper, never out of line. We wished to be them and held a secret grudge against them for our own failings.
It gets worse. One experiment suggested that it’s men who get the adrenaline high of super job in seeing someone up the social chain kicked in the teeth. Women, as it turns out have more empathy. The major cause is the envy men feel toward the accomplishments of other men and the access successful men have to women. The joy is released from the dark place of secret envy. Not that Thais are immune from envy. It is a human condition and it is certainly present in social life. The issue here is envy coupled with another person’s fall or failure that inflicts pain and suffering on that person. Thais, in this case, don’t feel the same sense of joy. The reason is the Tiger Woods of the larger world don’t build a marketing empire based on following the precepts of Christian morality. When they fail and fall, it isn’t because of a sexual moral lapse. They may have been caught cheating, lying, stealing, murdering, maiming or other like sins. Sexual adventures don’t figure into the picture as they do in the West. This frees the Thais to be more detached emotionally as they interpret what has happened to the person as the result of cosmic justice. The ledger has been balanced. The ying and yang restored.
In Buddhism there is the Pali concept of mudita or “sympathetic joy” or “happiness in another’s good fortune,” which is the reverse of schadenfreude. A case can be made that women have the mudita gene and men don’t. Thailand being a Buddhist country, the idea of mudita may have taken seed and in that garden of schadenfreude, like an evil weed, simply hasn’t done all that well. There is another Thai concept somphet that translates as feeling pity for another’s misfortune. The downfall evokes sorrow or sadness, mixed with pity and compassion, and possibly a little bit of contempt. Someone who induces the feeling of somphet is called na somphet: pathetic. What is absent, though is a sense of joy as in schadenfreude.
Another possibility is that schadenfreude is way to judge the way men accept their place in the existing power structure. If that power structure is contested, and men down the hierarchy feel a sense of unfairness, then the fall of someone powerful offers them a rare opportunity to experience joy of seeing another humbled. That person, after all by falling, merely proves that those above them are no different or better, and all the money and power and wealth can’t protect them from their own excesses. In Thailand, until recent events, most people have accepted with a kind of fatalism their place in the hierarchy. In the West, strivers use the moral code to fast track up the success ladder. Sponsors and voters love the family man who only has eyes for his wife, kids and law mower.
In Thailand if someone above them fails, it doesn’t really give a sense of joy. Just the opposite; it is a sense of fear and gloom as there is security in a power structure where everyone knows their place, rank and status. If one leads a good life, then there is a chance of being reborn to a higher place in the hierarchy. Conversely, if someone with higher standing does something bad, that person will suffer by being reborn to a lesser rank. Schadenfreude has a cosmic, more long-range implication. It is part of the long-range missile system that locks on and shoots down the moral offenders, giving the audience a reason to stand up, applaud and dance with joy.
If the Thai power structure was more egalitarian and moralistic about infidelity, Thais might share the experience of schadenfreude in seeing their fellow Thais fall down from the upper echelons of society. But I suspect that the more rigid Thai power structure may have prevented such a fall in all but the most serious cases. Some sections of society contain people who are too big to fail. The place in the structure doesn’t necessarily correspond to highly ambitious striving individuals but people who occupy a position in the structure for other reasons. Morality is a personal matter. It doesn’t figure into downfalls that produce joy. This isn’t just a peculiar feature of Thai culture, I’d venture to say it is prevalent in many non-Western cultures. China comes to mind.
Those who are allowed to fail are a narrower category than in the West, where anyone can suffer a self-inflicted loss. There is no structured protection in the protection. The other woman can get paid money to spill the beans on anyone. No one in that system is safe from such a scandal. But in Thailand it is more natural to feel sorrow or pity for those who do fall, as they are the ones who, as it turns out, weren’t powerful enough to be granted immunity to the fickle gods who visit failure.
We envy other people’s luck, success, and power. We have an emotional reaction when such a person falls. We can call it schadenfreude. But it is raw emotion. The longer and harder the fall, the more joy and delight. With the Thais, they also feel this joy and delight but the nature and degree of the fall is different. The low-ranking Thais have no dreams of reaching for the stars. Opening a beauty salon or corner store is a common aim. But ambition, in the Western sense, is looked upon in a negative way in Thai culture. You stay at your station in life. Your expectations are to improve your lot but not to reinvent yourself into a high status person. This is a big divide between Thai culture and Western culture.
What rubs Thais the wrong way is when an individual tries to break free of the existing power structure and to go far beyond their rank. An ambitious ‘commoner’ politician using populist techniques to reach to the sky is viewed by many as highly unbecoming and grating to the Thai sensibilities. When such a person fails, the Thais say som nam na, but don’t necessary feel any joy or delight. They have more a feeling of satisfaction that the social universe remains intact. If such a person is married and has a string of lovers on the side, no one takes notice. And there is a good reason: that striver isn’t putting himself on a moral pedestal.
Some years ago when the overwhelming majority of Thais who supported the official policy of extra judicial execution of so-called drug dealers. The murder of these people brought the community a sense of justice. The policy personalized a collective sense of justice to kill the so-called bad guys. Even if a number of the murdered people turned out not to be drug dealers, that was thought to be a small price to pay in order to justify the larger sense of communal justice.
People who are truly powerful in some cultures are never allowed to fall. The social and political system provides them with cover, immunity, and protection. There is little or no opportunity for schadenfreude to operate within this protected class. To fall in the Western sense, means exposure to failure follows a person up the ladder of success. In Thailand when someone fails it means they had no real status or power so there is little joy, perhaps except among his enemies. Because that person has been thrown to the hungry dogs is not so much a cause for joy but either a cleansing by the community as a whole or reinforcement that those who strive for the stars are playing a dangerous game which in a system structured with a high probability such a person will fail.
What did the person do to cause his down fall? As mentioned before, in each case of Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford, it was the exposure of their infidelity that was the cause of their fall from the height of power and fame. In the Western media there were reports of enough schadenfreude if harassed to a power grid, the joy could have fueled electrical generators from New York to London. But the lights in Bangkok would have required the old-fashion supply of energy to shine. It is not just how a culture protects and defines its social structure, it is also about what kinds of activities that subject a person to humiliation of the sort that will destroy their career.
A case can be made that Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer and Mark Sanford’s extra-martial activities wouldn’t have set off the same reaction in Thailand, and in many other places in Asia. Certainly there would have been those who would have condemned the actions, and they would have had their say. But would the three men have been abandoned by all, forced into an exile from their careers, separated from their fame and power? The answer is schadenfreude based on the moral values in one culture doesn’t translate directly into how another culture’s elites are wire for success and failure. And that is a cause that leaves people in both cultures scratching their heads trying to understand the emotional reactions of the other.