6 Minute English
The benefits of schadenfreude
Episode 190110 / 10 Jan 2019
Do you take pleasure when someone undeserving of their success has a spot of bad luck? Not even a little pleasure? Well, if you do (like, apparently, most of us) you might like to learn the word 'schadenfreude' and the concept behind it. Rob and Neil talk about this German word also used in English and teach you new vocabulary.
This week's question
False cognates – also called false friends - are words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. In English we have the word 'rat' but what does that mean in German? Is it...
a) a big mouse
Listen to the programme to find out the answer.
the satisfying feeling you get when something bad happens to someone else
a word from one language that is used in another language without being changed
a person's misfortune that is considered to be deserved punishment for something bad that they have done
punishment someone receives that is fair for what they have done
people who claim to have certain moral beliefs but actually behave in a way that shows they are not sincere
expressing sympathy to someone about their bad luck
Note: This is not a word for word transcript
Hello and welcome to 6 Minute English, I'm Neil. This is the programme where in just six minutes we discuss an interesting topic and teach some related English vocabulary. And joining me to do this is Rob.
In this programme we're discussing schadenfreude.
Hold on, Neil – schadenfreude – that's a German word.
Schadenfreude is what we can call a loanword - a word from one language that is used in another language without being changed.
So you're right – schadenfreude is used in English and am I right in thinking it describes the satisfying feeling you get when something bad happens to someone else?
You're right, Rob. Imagine you're in a queue at the supermarket and someone pushes in, but when they got to pay, their credit card doesn't work – think of the feeling you might get just seeing their misfortune – another word for bad luck.
Yes, that is a very satisfying feeling – but it's quite a mean feeling too.
It is but we'll be discussing why that feeling could actually be good for us. But first, let's set a question for you, Rob, and our listeners at home, to answer. This is about false cognates – also called false friends - words that look the same in two languages but have different meanings. So in English we have the word 'rat' but what does that mean in German? Is it…
a) a big mouse
b) annoyed or
That's tricky because I don't speak German. So I'll guess and say b) annoyed.
Well, I'll have the answer later on. Now, let's talk more about schadenfreude. Enjoying someone's misfortune can certainly make us feel good.
And studies have shown this feeling is quite normal – particularly when is happens to someone we envy. If we see a wealthy celebrity suffering on a reality TV show, or are exposed for not paying their taxes, we feel good. We say they've had their comeuppance.
That's a good word – meaning a person's bad luck that is considered to be deserved punishment for something bad that they have done.
Let's hear from psychologist Wilco Van Dijk from the University of Leiden, who's been talking about this on the BBC Radio 4 programme, All in the Mind. What have his studies found about our enjoyment of others misfortune?
Wilco Van Dijk, psychologist, University of Leiden
People especially feel schadenfreude when they think the misfortune is deserved. Then the question is where this joy arises, is this actually joy experienced towards the misfortune of others or is it also at least partly about a just situation – that this misfortune of another actually appeals to a sense of justice. That's also the reason why we like the misfortune of hypocrites because if they fall down that also is a deserved situation.
OK, so Wilco Van Dijk's studies found we get joy when someone's misfortune is deserved – there is justice – in other words, the punishment someone receives is fair.
And a just situation means a fair situation – it is right. So I guess he's saying we're not just being mean.
Yes. And he also mentioned the type of people whose misfortune is just and deserved, are hypocrites – people who claim to have certain moral beliefs but actually behave in a way that shows they are not sincere.
The All in the Mind programme also heard from another expert on the subject – author and historian of emotions, Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith. She talked about how schadenfreude is a subjective thing – based on our feelings – and it's not as simple as deciding what is right or wrong. What word does she use that means to express sympathy to someone about someone's bad luck?
Dr Tiffany Watt-Smith, author and historian of emotions
We don't really experience emotions, you know, as either-or things, it's not black or white. I think it's perfectly reasonable that we could genuinely commiserate with someone else's misfortune at the same time as a terrible sly smile spreading across our lips because, you know, something we've envied about them has turned out not to work out so well or whatever it is. You know, we have a much deeper ability to hold contradictory emotions in mind, much more so than your average moral philosopher would allow.
Interesting stuff. She says when something goes wrong for someone, we have the ability to commiserate with them – that's the word for expressing sympathy to someone about their bad luck.
So overall, Tiffany Watt-Smith thinks we have a range of emotions when we experience schadenfreude – but these are contradictory emotions – different and opposite emotions. Maybe, Neil, we should just be nicer people?
No way! I loved seeing Germany getting knocked out of last year's World Cup – not really! Talking of Germany, earlier we mentioned false friends and I asked in English we have the word 'rat' but what does that mean in German? Is it…
a) a big mouse
And, Rob, you said…
I said b) annoyed.
And that is the wrong answer, I'm afraid. The right answer is c) advice. Well done if you knew that at home. Now on to the vocabulary we looked at in this programme.
So today we've been talking about schadenfreude – that describes the satisfying feeling you get when something bad happens to someone else.
And that's an example of a loanword - a word from one language that is used in another language without being changed. In this case German.
We mentioned comeuppance which describes a person's misfortune that is considered to be deserved punishment for something bad that they've done.
Next we mentioned justice – that's the punishment someone receives that is fair for what they've done. And the word just describes something that is fair and right.
Hypocrites are people who claim to have certain moral beliefs but actually behave in a way that shows they are not sincere.
And finally commiserate is a word that means expressing sympathy to someone about their bad luck. That's the verb. The noun form is commiseration.
Well commiserations, Neil. We've run out of time for this programme. See you soon, goodbye.
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What are some art galleries banning to protect their paintings? Find out with Neil and Harry
Episode 150319 / 19 Mar 2015
An electronic device under your skin?! Workers in Sweden take part in experiment which allows them to get in and out of their office without a key, ID or password. Listen to Neil and Harry’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150312 / 12 Mar 2015
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. He is known throughout the world for his role in defeating Nazi Germany but he also made mistakes. Listen to Neil and Mike’s discussion, and learn new vocabulary.
Episode 150305 / 05 Mar 2015
We live in a richer world. But the gap between rich and poor is still very wide in individual countries. How to change this? Listen to Rob and Harry’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150226 / 26 Feb 2015
The price of vaccines has escalated and some poor countries are struggling to prevent children from catching certain life-threatening diseases, says Medecins Sans Frontieres. Listen to Rob and Neil’s discussion, and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150219 / 19 Feb 2015
Will thinking computers be the end of humans? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150212 / 12 Feb 2015
About 37,000 tourists are expected to visit Antarctica this season. But should they be going to a region with such a sensitive environment? Listen to Rob and Neil’s conversation and learn some new vocabulary.
Episode 150205 / 05 Feb 2015
At a time when more people compete for fewer jobs, are you sure you present your skills and abilities well to a potential employer? Listen to Rob and Neil's conversation and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150129 / 29 Jan 2015
Going to a party where you don't know anyone? Listen to Rob and Neil's advice and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150122 / 22 Jan 2015
We use computers for everything nowadays. Are we forgetting our own abilities - and losing our talent? Listen to Rob and Neil's discussion, and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150115 / 15 Jan 2015
Smoking in cars with children might be banned in England. Listen to Neil and Rob's chat and learn some related vocabulary
Episode 150108 / 08 Jan 2015
Is bullying just an attempt to give a bad name to what is part of human nature? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 150101 / 01 Jan 2015
What would you put in your time capsule? Listen to Rob and Neil’s chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141225 / 25 Dec 2014
When enemy soldiers sang together in WW1. Listen to Rob and Finn’s chat and learn some related vocabulary.
Episode 141218 / 18 Dec 2014
The London school where students speak 42 different languages
Episode 141211 / 11 Dec 2014
Laughter isn't always the best medicine, says research
Episode 141204 / 04 Dec 2014
Are your pictures, documents and videos safe online? Listen to Rob and Finn's chat and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141127 / 27 Nov 2014
Nowhere to park? How the sharing economy is changing the way we use our space
Episode 141120 / 20 Nov 2014
How can science fiction help the world? Rob and Finn discuss a project which aims to inspire through stories of a bright future
Episode 141113 / 13 Nov 2014
Why is eating meat bad news?
Episode 141106 / 06 Nov 2014
Do real-life superheroes exist or are they just cartoon characters?
Episode 141030 / 30 Oct 2014
Rob and Finn discuss the World Health Organisation's recommendations on e-cigarettes
Episode 141023 / 23 Oct 2014
Should we eat less sugar? Listen to Rob and Neil and learn new vocabulary
Episode 141016 / 16 Oct 2014
Is learning English getting easier? Find out what's new
Episode 141009 / 09 Oct 2014
Why do we buy so much food and not eat it all? Learn more about food waste
Episode 141002 / 02 Oct 2014
Is it right to sleep at work? Rob and Finn discuss the benefits of sleeping on the job.
Episode 140929 / 29 Sep 2014
Is the way we see famous people a new thing? Learn about the first 'modern celebrity'.
Episode 140821 / 21 Aug 2014
Bored? You're not alone. Rob and Finn discuss how to deal with boredom and teach some related vocabulary. We promise you won't be bored!