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Why Germans have a word for ‘enjoying other people’s pain’ but not ‘sorry’

The German Bundestag in Berlin

Being a German in the UK can be awkward at times. I learnt this very quickly after moving here from southern Germany almost ten years ago. One of the first things a new colleague said to me when I told him I was German was: “Is your surname ‘Hitler’ then?” These kinds of comments are always presented as jokes, but when you hear something over and over again, even if it’s in a jokey way, you realise that there’s more to it.

Every time I successfully organise something or suggest a better way of doing things, someone has a joke to make about German efficiency. And every now and then, people start saying random words to me in German – but always with a menacing and aggressive voice. Favourites are: ‘Nein!’ and ‘Schnell, schnell!’ – all exclamations that are meant to allude to Nazi Germany. Most recently, a good friend of mine said ‘Sorry’ and wanted to know what the German word for it was. The German equivalent would be: ‘Es tut mir Leid”, which is slightly more than ‘sorry’. The most accurate translation, I think, is: “I feel bad about it” – or just “I am sorry about it.”

Before I could finish my explanation, he laughed and said: “You Germans don’t have a word for ‘sorry’, but you have a word for ‘enjoying other people’s pain’!”. Schadenfreude. It’s created another one of those joyous occasions when Brits (and probably loads of other nationalities who don’t have that word in their language) can depict Germans as a nasty, horrible people you want to stay away from.

But, let me make something clear: we have a word for Schadenfreude, because the German language has something called ‘compound nouns’. It means forming one word out of many. It’s a very efficient – yes, I said it – way of expressing things. So the word Schadenfreude is a compound noun formed out of the noun ‘Schaden’ (meaning harm) and ‘Freude’ (meaning happiness). Naturally, you wouldn’t be happy about your own harm, or if you were, the word would be masochism – or Masochismus. So, translated literally this word would mean Harmhappiness. But, in English, that doesn’t make much sense, hence the more accurate translation of ‘enjoying other people’s harm’, or you could also say it means ‘Getting enjoyment out of other people’s misfortune’.

And now to the more significant bit of my friend’s jokey comment: We don’t have a word for ‘Sorry’, because we don’t use ‘Sorry!’ in the same throw-away manner as Brits. When we say ‘Sorry!’, we actually mean it. In Germany, if someone runs into me I don’t say ‘Sorry!’, because I’m not – it’s not my fault! In Germany, if a bus isn’t in service, it doesn’t say ‘Sorry!’ on its front because, let’s be honest, the bus doesn’t know what it’s saying, it’s a machine for God’s sake! In Germany, when someone asks if I have something, say, the time, and I don’t have it, I don’t say ‘No, sorry’ like all Brits would, because I didn’t plan on not wearing a watch to make their lives hard, did I?

The fact that Brits say ‘Sorry!’ all the time doesn’t make them a more apologetic, likeable and more considerate people. It makes them less sincere. Brits even say ‘Sorry!’ when what they actually mean is ‘F*ck you, you #[email protected]&%*!#[email protected]&%*!’. It was only a few months ago that I learnt this.

When I was working in an office, a co-worker asked me one afternoon if I’d seen the card everyone was supposed to sign for another colleague who was leaving the company. I was so engrossed in my work and had heard nothing about this card before, so I was very confused and baffled for at least 30 seconds. And, because my thoughts immediately manifest themselves as facial expressions, and because my confused face is often mistaken for an angry look, the woman must have taken offence. But instead of saying something to me, she walked off and wrote in an email: “Sorry for the confusion – I had only asked because I am off after today so had hoped to sign it and contribute. Laura said that you were getting it but was going to go out and get one the other day but I said not to rush on my account. I didn’t mean to cause the look of distain you just gave me so wanted to explain.”

I couldn’t believe the email. Not only because she emailed me from two desks away, she also managed to package what was clearly an insult, as an apology. What she really wanted to say was: “There’s no need to give me that look you moody b*tch, I just thought you might know”, but even so, she managed to throw in a ‘sorry’. And let’s not even make fun of her for misspelling ‘disdain’.

From that moment on, I’ve started to think about what people mean when they say ‘sorry’. I have come to the conclusion that, mostly, they want to shout insults at you. You can tell from the tone in their voice whether it’s a sincere ‘sorry’ or whether it’s British English for ‘F*ck you!’. One give-away is that if a British person is really actually sorry about something, he/she will repeat it over and over again, probably blush and make numerous attempts to justify or explain themselves and promise to do things to make up for whatever they did to prompt this flurry of apologies.

So maybe next time I introduce myself to someone new I should just say: “Sorry, I’m German” and the other person would take that as: “I’m German and if you make so much as one joke about German stereotypes or the Nazis, I will get a lot of enjoyment out of the pain I will be inflicting on you.” Just an idea.

1 Comment

  1. Mazzle

    This is brill :)

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