Are we getting nastier or is our nastiness simply getting more Google-able?

Like kitsch, schnauzer and – to a lesser extent – gemütlichkeit*, schadenfreude is one of those excitingly guttural expressions that has hitchhiked its way from Germany into English-speaking countries such as Australia.

The loanword is a combination of Schaden (harm) and freude (joy), and describes pleasure taken in other people’s misfortunes.

It’s a phenomenon which can be observed with increasing frequency on internet sites such as which revels in human error, embarrassment and outright idiocy.

FAIL blog’s categories include dodgy repairs (for example, a car whose headlight has been replaced by two gaffed-on torches) and tacky tattoos (my personal favourite is an eye-patched frankfurter holding a smoking gun).

There’s also an extensive section devoted to “Engrish” – the strange and at times oddly poetic solecisms made by non-English speakers on signs and product labels intended for Anglophiles.

Consider the Japanese warning sign which reads: “Spray of salt water appears by jump of dolphins. Because there is danger that it is involved in a dolphin, Please do not grow a hand in a fence.”

Similar enjoyment can be obtained at the expense of those talentless internet translators which promise to convert foreign phrases into English but instead produce coleslaw-strength word salads.

For reasons which should be patently (as well as flatulently) obvious, I recently requested that Wikipedia translate its German page for the audio book Seefahrt Ist Not! by Gorch Fock.

In a surreal stutter, it revealed that the 1912 novel was about the son of a deep-sea fisherman who “pulls it out to sea” in the Waterkant’s “dense atmosphere of sea wanderlust”.

“He tried everything to hire at his father as a ship’s boy,” the page continued. “His efforts pay off and he allowed his father to catch fish on the North Sea to accompany. Not even when the father comes back from a trip, it keeps Klaus not to land. He goes on successfully to the sea and at last owner of the finest oyster smack on the Elbe.”

Hurrah! I mean, Ausgezeichnet! I mean, OK, I’ll stoppen now.

While the laughter prompted by these sorts of sites and cyber scenarios is definitely of the at rather than with variety, the schadenfreude involved is mostly harmless.

Sure it’s kinda snide to snicker at those who accidentally ice “Happy Hole Days” on Christmas cakes (, or who mishear the song lyrics “smoke on the water, fire in the sky” as “slow motion Walter, fire engine guy” (

Yet such web sites seem to be a celebration rather than a vilification of the stuff-up. And, in an era obsessed with success, there’s something wonderfully therapeutic in embracing our multitudinous missteps rather than fixating only on our grand victories.

Those who laugh also seem to know they aren’t too far removed from those being laughed at.

Certainly I am not the one sporting the fluffy mullet, the clarinet and the matching sparkly gold bow tie and cummerbund on But that’s just because no-one has broken into the youth orchestra section of my dusty family photo album lately.

There but for the grace of a scanner and modem go us all.

Unfortunately there are many dark corners of the cybersphere where the delight taken in other people’s upsets looks far more like sadism than a harmless appreciation of slapstick.

One site – and I won’t further its popularity by naming it – has attracted an obscene number of visitors to a page showing a video clip of an anonymous high school athlete falling from a human pyramid during a public gymnasium performance.

“Watch the two girls in the audience give each other five when the slut falls on her face,” reads the text accompanying the video (which is also posted in slow motion).

Readers give the accident an average rating of three-and-a-half-stars, offering observations such as: “Haha stupid c—”; “she’s use [sic] to bouncing her face on Wood [sic]…so it’s okay” and “don’t feel sorry for her. I’m sure she got on her boyfriends [sic] motorbike and asked where the pedals are?”

You’re absolutely right: one of those waxy aeroplane vomit bags would be handy round now.

The increasing volume of this sort of e-poison raises the question of whether society is getting nastier or whether our nastiness is simply getting more Google-able.

It’s an impossible question to answer definitively, but fortunately scholars are looking into the schadenfreude issue by conducting über specific research such as:

* spraying the hormone oxytocin up people’s noses to see what happens when they are exposed to “unequal monetary gain conditions”;

* using magnetic resonance imaging to observe the (for want of a much more neuroscientifically sound expression) “sucked in” sectors of the brains of right-handed Japanese science undergraduates when a diner in a fancy French restaurant gets food poisoning; and

* suggesting that schadenfreude is not merely some neo-liberal superstructure but is intimately related to autistic economic culture and therefore highlights the tension between integrity and the marketability of the self.

(Quick question: do the authors of the latter feel schadenfreude when those of us who have no idea what they’re banging on about feel like inferior dummkopfs? Quick answer: I’m betting ja, though obviously we’d have to intranasal and magnetically resonate them to know for sure.)

The ethical dilemmas associated with schadenfreude are particularly interesting in the blood sport of politics where American research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests many misfortunes are appreciated solely for their implications for party victory or defeat.

This is true for political embarrassments such as George W. Bush falling off his bike (Australian equivalents include Kevin Rudd’s ear wax nibbling and Tony Abbott’s budgie smuggling).

But – disturbingly enough – the research reveals that party hacks may experience a degree of satisfaction in the face of economic catastrophes and even troop deaths if these misfortunes and tragedies are seen to further their political objectives.

It’s difficult to think of a moral for this story given that a disconcerting degree of emotional ambivalence and self-centredness is hard wired into the human condition.

I can’t help but wish, however, that there was a readily identifiable antonym for schadenfreude which enjoyed equal attention and enactment.

In the meantime, stay tuned for my web site featuring people who never fall over, spell strangely or use gaff to hold important bits of cars together. Then try not to gloat when it remains comprehensively unvisited.

* In case you were wondering, gemütlichkeit translates roughly as “coziness” and captures feelings of amiability, belonging and warmth. Of course, mortification, alienation and rage will also be involved when others ridicule you for incorrect pronunciation.

- originally published in The Australian on 17-09-2011.

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