Monday, April 18, 2011

Schadenfreude Culture

Schadenfreude : From German Schadenfreude, from Schaden (“damage, harm”) + Freude (“joy”). Malicious enjoyment derived from observing someone else's misfortune.

A few years ago, as a new teacher armed with a freshly minted credential, I was too preoccupied with my instruction and my classroom management to put much thought about furniture arrangement and classroom setup. It meant that, sometimes during instruction, I stepped on and pushed aside cables in my work area as I moved about the room. They were out of the way of the kids so no one was in any danger ... except me. It's clear now that it was only a matter of time before my reflexes would be tested. I weaved my way through the clutter for at least a semester so it was a surprise to me when it finally happened. Fortunately, I was youngish and healthy so I took a few loud steps forward and avoided the fall. No face plant. No thud. Whew.

I was surprised and disappointed that some kids laughed at me. But for some reason, I didn't get upset or angry at the students or played a victim. I thought about "teaching" them a lesson about how inappropriate it is to laugh at other's misfortune. The Golden Rule crossed my mind. Instead, I walked up to the board and wrote Schadenfreude. I had them repeat it a few times and then I explained its meaning. I didn't tell them what they were supposed to learn. The students figured it out. It was at that moment that I knew I would make it as a teacher. I didn't catch a hint of it for the rest of the year, but I digress. Apparently the word/concept was so useful that students asked me about it several more times before the year ended.

Popularity of sites such as, the extensive collection of "fail" videos on YouTube (1.2 million by last count), and even 160 new tweets with the hashtag #fail in the time it took me to write the above paragraphs are signs of this schadenfreude culture.

Yes. Some are funny without being malicious, but my guess is that's probably not true of the intentions of the person clicking it hoping to have a laugh at the expense of someone else.

A more recent example is Rebecca Black's Friday. In the Nightline segment below, it's clear that schadenfreude was one of the main reasons for her rise to fame.

Starting about 2:57
Andrea Canning (Nightline reporter): Rebecca became a viral star.

Doree Shafrir (senior editor, Some people look at her and say why this girl? why did this girl make it and other people didn't. But I think she is cute and the video is kind of just silly enough that it seemed like she could maybe be in on the joke herself.

Andrea Canning: But it was when a comedy central blogger made fun of the song that it really took off.

Andrea Canning: When did you realize that things were really getting out of control.. that this video had gone viral?

Rebecca Black: Probably after seeing it go from four thousand views to seventy thousand views in one night and then waking up and then it was at two hundred thousand views that was when I realized this was going to be big.

Andrea Canning: But at first it was for all the wrong reasons. In fact, so many viewers and critics panned Friday it was dubbed the worst song ever.

Before I saw the Nightline segment, I caught Stephen Colbert singing Friday on Jimmy Fallon. Being a fan of Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon, I was a little worried that their stunt to raise money for DonorsChoose where Colbert would be "punished" by having to sing Friday on Fallon's show if Fallon also raised $26,000 would turn out to be a schadenfreudefest. It may be great for their shows but not so great for the girl. Somehow, they actually managed to turn it into something entertaining without the malice that I saw in some YouTube videos.

Lastly, here's a video that lifted my spirits the other day. In the middle of the national anthem, the mic goes out on a little girl. After a few laughs, the crowd joins in to support her. Kudos. Videos like this reinforce my faith in humanity. (Note: The owner of the video does not allow embedding, click on the picture below to go see it.)
How this applies to teaching and education is left as an exercise to the reader.

PS: Question for the ELA teachers! What's the adjectival form of this loan word? I've gotten schadenfreudal, schadenfreudian, schadenfreudic, and schadenfreudistic. The last one sounds more like a portmanteau with sadistic.

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