500 Words, but None for ‘Malicious Joy’

Did you know there are over 500 English words that convey emotion?  Yet the truth is we feel more things than we have words to express.  In Germany, for example, people can feel Schadenfreude—a sense of ‘malicious joy’ at the misfortune of others.  This feeling is not unique to Germans; ask any Red Sox fan how they felt in October 2004 as they witnessed the Yankees lose the pennant.  Sure, we were ecstatic about our team’s historical post-season sweep, but we also felt a sense of delight at the Yankee’s defeat.

The gap between what people feel and can say challenges listening efforts, which are further complicated by people’s tendency to omit feeling words in “natural” talk.  As Thomas Scheff notes, Western societies do not readily express emotional or relational content; and when we do voice feelings it is often in ambiguous terms.  One goal of listening is to discover the “whys” driving consumer behavior, which are often emotion-based.  We need to bring more art and science to the act of listening to hear—and help consumers express—emotion in everyday conversation.  Here are three ideas to consider:

  • Create a space where people can explore the everyday intimacy of their lives.  Environments that are respectful and trustworthy are more likely to elicit a range of subtle feelings.
  • Be a person.  When you are actively engaged as a participant, you earn the right to probe conversations and lead by example, sharing your own feelings and fostering candor and respect.
  • Provide multiple modalities for communication.  People can often say more with multi-media than they can with words alone.  So provide people with the tools to give full voice to their experiences: collaging, annotating images, and uploading video can help people go beyond the written word.