Schadenfreude and Encouragement

Schadenfreude and Encouragement

(part one of a two part series)

I walk around my department like an undercover social scientist, taking mental notes about what works to improve wellness and what...well, doesn’t. Having grown up in an alcoholic family, I’m pretty good at reading people. For example, when my dad came home I knew there were three options: 1) sober and morose, 2) drunk and violent or 3) drunk and maudlin. Back then, I had to read him real quick and take immediate action, otherwise bad things could happen. So, I’ve learned to trust my observations.

I’ve noticed cops (including myself) have an almost insatiable appetite for hearing and talking about our co-workers’ fuck ups. We love it.

Cop 1: You heard about Joe Blow, right?

Cop 2: No! What?

Cop 1: He got three days at the beach for a negligent discharge in the locker room.

Cop 2: That Joe is such an idiot, ha ha ha!

I love the word for this phenomenon: schadenfreude. It means taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. And don’t we do that? I always feel a twinge of guilt after I get done thrashing one of my colleagues. Somehow my personal wellness quotient dips just a touch.

When I worked narcotics we had a ‘team approach’. Our unit of about ten meat eaters conducted dope operations, each one offering multiple chances to fuck it up. The first thing that went through my mind after blowing something would be, “Oh shit, here it comes.” My Nextel would start blowing up. “Shannon, did you get the dope?” No, he got it down. “You’re a fuckin’ IDIOT...have you ever got dope off anyone? Ha ha ha ha!”

When an NFL QB throws a particularly poorly timed interception, have you noticed what happens? The guy trots off the field with his tail between his legs, finds an private spot on the pine and sits....alone. People leave him alone ‘cause they know he just pooched one.

Not so in law enforcement. When we screw up we get creative cartoons on the white board, new nicknames and a full round of “good job!” dripping with sarcasm. It’s a rough crowd.

An old family therapist and hero of mine, Murray Bowen, described schadenfreude as a way to reduce anxiety in groups. He calls it ‘triangulation’. For Bowen, any time two or more people are in the same place a certain amount of intimacy is floating in the space. This creates anxiety. Even if you don’t feel it, it’s there.

A very common method, albeit unconscious, people use to decrease the anxiety is to focus attention on someone not in the room. That should sound familiar. Inexplicably, when the group begins talking about the poor bastard that’s not there to defend himself, the tone is almost always critical. It seems to put everyone more at ease to join together in beating the shit out of Joe Blow.

To get a sense of how pervasive triangulation is, try an experiment. For one day, see if you can avoid disparaging a co-worker who isn’t in the room. Yeah, that includes administrators. If you’re Buddha Jr. and are able to do this without a problem, then notice it in others. Oh yeah, and share with me how you’re able to do it. I could use some help.

Next week we’ll discuss schadenfreudes’ opposite: encouragement.