Sunday, July 25, 2010

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.


  1. As a wife of an officer I have to say I too have noticed this. But what's more unsettling, for me at least, is the fact that the guys will put each other down to each other's faces. There is nothing off limits. I often wonder if this is to build a bond between the teams, as there is more of this face to face name calling done among the different groups. The S.O.G is the worst, they will poke fun at any little miss steep. Behind the words I am sure there is some truth, some "get your self together man, you should have my back!" Between the name calling and the general "Mind in the gutter" attitude that is going on I am sure it's to keep things as light as they can be.

  2. Dear Jeff,
    Hmmm, I notice this too in political situations. I think trashing the guy that's not there is a way to bond (and not fight) with the predator left in the room. However, the more desperate you are to bond, the less it works.

    People with addictions do the same thing only opposite: take smokers. They will always bond on the porch at four degrees F. That is more about being outcast, though, I think--the bonding object is the shared experience.

    So interrogation/interview of malefactors also involves Schadenfreude--separate the B.G's and then create that intimacy and trash the other B.G.

    Between the sometimes outcast feeling that LEOs often have, and the usefulness of Schadenfreude in other situations, I would imagine it's hard to turn it off.

    Also I think it has a 'hazing' nature (not like fraternities though) in that it's used to teach how to not be knocked off your socks under stress. It wouldn't work for me, but (curiously) I think it is similar to what ghetto mothers do to their kids. Train them to not expect anything from anybody.

    Not that I know a damn thing, just thinking out loud. I think this word is darn useful.
    Thank you.
    Ann T.