Tag Archives: Language

“Feeling with” and “Sharing joy”

One of the syllabus subtopics in grade 12 psychology is social responsibility, which includes a study of prosocial behaviour: Why, how, and in what circumstances do people do good things for others? As part of this topic, we look at theories of altruism and empathy. My students are very often familiar with the words themselves, but the definitions can be tricky, especially because the colloquial use of these words does not always match their actual meaning, or the way that they are defined for purposes of psychology research. When defining altruism and empathy in class, we also consider the word compassion. According to Merriam-Webster, these three words can be defined as follows:

altruism – unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others

empathy – the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner

compassion – sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it

It follows from here that empathy is feeling for and with others without the reliance on personal experience, compassion is awareness of others’ negative feelings and the desire to lessen pain, and altruism is doing something good for others without the hope for personal gain.

This is one of the circumstances in which I wish English had better words, and in which I am inclined to lean on other languages for their definitions. Learning other languages allows us to learn a great deal about how we see the world due to the language that we use, and I am indebted to my own studies of different languages, as well as exposure to several languages from childhood, in forming this critical understanding.

More recently, I learned the German word Mitgefühl from one of those pithy sayings that sometimes accompanies teabags. I looked up the word and thought, “Aha.” Literally translated, this means “feeling with” and is the German word for compassion. To have compassion is to feel with someone, which therefore clearly implies wanting to lessen the pain of negative emotions. It’s normal, totally okay, and even healthy to sit with negative emotions. We cannot, and should not, be happy and positive all the time, because being so would mean blocking out much of the real world. But it is not enough to wish away the bad; to be compassionate requires doing something to get rid of the bad. I can feel with you and hold your hand, and perhaps this is the action. Perhaps this is the tiny step from just feeling. After all, can I claim to feel with if you don’t know I’m there?

Mitgefühl explains what is required by compassion in a way that the English word does not. When I expressed my delight with this finding to a German friend, he taught me another word that doesn’t exist in English, though the idea certainly does. Mitfreude is not classified as a word in the first German-English dictionary that I checked, but it appears on discussion forums, blogs, and also in other dictionaries. Mit means with and Freude is joy, so Mitfreude can be defined as shared joy. I like that this is a word in German because it sets a tone for the way people relate to one another. Once upon a time, as I was slowly and poetically picking up the pieces of my broken heart, I kept a note on my phone that said, “When those we love are happy, be happy for them.” Mitfreude describes what I felt amidst all the other turmoil, and I remember feeling lighter as I wrote myself that note. Maybe having a word would have given me a place to situate myself without needing to come up with my own inspirational saying.

One thing I am learning about Germany, and this is demonstrated by words like the two described here, is that there is an emphasis on the collective. There is a focus on others, on being part of a group, and on togetherness. This is reinforced by the German school system, reflected to some degree also at my school, in which classes move as a group for the entirety of their time together, making them a bit like a family in which they are attuned to one another and responsible for each other. Upon learning the word Mitgefühl from a tea bag, I had a better appreciation of why this is the way that it is.

Language and culture are inextricably linked and it is through learning one that we can access the other. It is then through learning that we come to better understand ourselves, where we come from, and how we fit into the different worlds in which we wander.

“Learning another language is like becoming another person.” – Haruki Murakami

From the Heart: Learning German Idioms

Learning a language is about much more than vocabulary (there are common words that I have to look up every single time I come across them), grammar (there are between six and sixteen ways to say “the” in German, depending on how you’re counting), and pronunciation (adding “chen” to the end of a word is a common diminutive and my tongue just doesn’t do this properly).

Learning a language is about understanding how the language flows and how it feels. It takes time to learn common slang, filler words in casual conversation, and the appropriate feedback noises to indicate that you’re listening, or whether you agree or disagree. I’m often really quiet in groups of German speakers (which is admittedly sometimes also the case with English speakers), both because it helps just to listen and because once I’ve crafted a comment or a response, the conversation has probably moved on. Interjecting in a group of more than three people remains a challenge.

But after over a year of learning German and almost nine months living here, communicating in German is becoming easier, more comfortable, and much more aligned with what I actually think and feel rather than being determined by my language acquisition skills. I find myself dreaming in German, particularly when I know I’m going to be in a setting where I am the only non-native German speaker. While this is not entirely relaxing, it does indicate that my brain is processing this language and I find the neuroscience fascinating.

Making progress in German has also led to learning the idioms that make up far more of language than I realized. I remember learning idioms in French but I don’t remember using them, perhaps because I studied French in school surrounded by other French learners whereas I’m learning German surrounded by native speakers. I’ve been particularly taken by the frequency of German idioms that refer to the heart (das Herz) and I think they do a lovely job of dispelling the stereotypes of Germans as stiff and unfriendly, law-abiding and bureaucratic, and lacking in a sense of humour.

Some German idioms that reference the heart are similar to those that do so in English. The literal translation of sein Herz ausschütten, for example, is to pour one’s heart out. But rather than wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, the German version, das Herz auf der Zunge tragen, literally translates to carrying one’s heart on one’s tongue. And whereas an English speaker knows the feeling where the heart drops into the stomach, the German sensation is the one in which das Herz rutscht in die Hose, or the heart drops into the pants.

Interestingly, the preoccupation with the mind in English becomes that of the heart in German. While English speakers would refer to being of one mind, Germans would say ein Herz und eine Seele sein, to be a heart and a soul. There is also etwas auf dem Herzen haben, literally to have something on the heart. In English, something is on the mind. To ask someone what is troubling them is to ask, “Was liegt dir auf dem Herzen?” I wonder if it feels different when something lies on the heart than on the mind. Additionally, rather than the idea that great minds think alike, Germans would say “Du sprichst mir aus dem Herzen.” The translation, you speak to my heart, conjures a different sense of understanding an individual and I like this very much.

German also has several expressions surrounding the idea of striking up the courage to do something or getting up the nerve to do something. In German, an individual can grip one’s heart (sich ein Herz fassen), take one’s heart into one’s hand (das Herz in die Hand nehmen), or give one’s heart a prod (seinem Herz einen Stoss geben). There is no question here about where courage or nerve comes from.

My German friends speak excellent English but I so enjoy just sitting back and listening when they speak to one another in German. Modes of expression are different, emotions and opinions are conveyed differently, and humour takes on a different tone. When commentary is provided in English, either before or after a discussion in German, the commentary is similar rather than the same. The languages embody different ways of being and are therefore different ways of knowing one another.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I decided to learn German so that I would be able to meet people where and as who they are. That my social interactions occur in a combination of languages provides an environment that I haven’t been in before, and one in which I occupy a different place than I might otherwise. As a person, I am often looking to understand rather than to be understood and the shift in focus is compelling. To speak to a person’s heart takes time, patience, and practice, and I am grateful to have a supportive community with which to do so.


The first person to call me a treasure lied to me.

The second had just met me but somehow saw me.

The third loved me.

It’s a funny thing, love, and you know it,
don’t you, you know it because it makes people do
crazy things
they wouldn’t otherwise do,
or so they say.
But it’s not magic, you know, as much as we might like to
it’s hormones, not magic
and that makes it even more infuriating because you know exactly,
how it works and
and why it still gets to you is beyond you. But
well, it’s gotten to everyone at sometime or another.

Or not.

And it’s funny because what swells the heart now is not love,
but a dream of what could be
what isn’t
what might
what isn’t a dream but sometimes a
dare you think –

Easier to skip it.
Easier to skip it and move on and
“one way ticket ’round the world”
like you said
because if you don’t want any part of it that’s
fine that’s
fine. That was clear from the start.

It’s a mantra, a meaning, a purpose
and it doesn’t even exist,
not yet, not today, not with you, but it’s a
it’s the
it’s like they asked, “what do you want most?”
and “what are you afraid of?”
and you smiled and hedged and then
answered the second question to answer the first.
They asked the questions and
you knew the answers more deeply than
you’ll ever admit
to anyone but yourself
because you’d be naked without the armour
and you’ve been there before.

A sudden wave of clarity and you’ve slept better since.

A sudden wave of clarity and it’s easier to laugh and to think,
well, at least it happened
at least there was a minute
at least you got lost for a while.

The paper is still there, after all, and it’s a shame,
really, a shame
because that could have been, well, a dream.
They (who?) say that when you know, you know,
but all I’ve ever known is that that’s what they say.
And you?
Because it’s not fair to you either, is it?

The English language really could use more variation on

After all you’re no longer –
you’re not –
flip the pages on the calendar –
more pages than you’d thought.
I’m glad I found you.

And you?
You know the neurochemistry and you know
that look and sometimes –
but you can’t go there
won’t go there
and in the end don’t want
to go there because
if you did,
you’d be there already. That’s just
the way you are, you said,
and when you know,
you know.

Schatz is the German word for “treasure” and it’s used as a term of endearment. I like this word very much and I’ve been familiar with it for a long time, though it came as a shock when I encountered it again after many years away. There are certain things we’d simply rather not remember, associations we’d rather not have.

The English language doesn’t tend to use “treasure” in this way. In English, pirates, children, and some playful adults search for buried treasure, but it’s rarely something you’d call somebody. I certainly never have. The fact that I can count three occasions in which this word was used says something about it. Not common. Reason enough to remember.

I have a funny relationship with this word, simply because I have had three very different experiences with it. I would assume that everyone prefers some terms of endearment over others, and that we all have such words that we’d rather not use or rather not hear. Our experiences in friendships, romantic relationships, and long-term partnerships shape how we approach new people and the ways we interact with them. These experiences shape the choices and decisions we make, and what we will or will not accept in others. One thing I have learned about myself is that I know who I am and I am not looking for anyone else to affirm that. In some ways, this makes me much more vulnerable because I’ve already lost what I had to lose, so I am more open than I might otherwise be. In other ways, I can feel the walls I’ve wrapped around myself because I’d really rather not go through such loss again. There’s a constant balance in shades of gray, and if I’m honest, I’d rather not balance. The language of interaction matters, and language is not only words.

I’ve been called a treasure three times.

Perhaps I was a different person each time.

Perhaps all of those versions of myself are somehow contained in this self.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there is another word.

Weimar, Germany – February 2022