13 Jun 2023

Is it ever good to gloat?

We’re getting used to being fed a daily diet of downfall: big figures who are cut down to size; arrogant egoists whose relentless self-promotion ends in ignominy; high achievers who make a fatal error. But how are we meant to react to this information?

Schadenfreude is a German word for harm (Schaden) and joy (Freude), which denotes the delight we take in other people’s downfall. We all experience it at one time or another and it can range from the mean-spirited pleasure we take in an enemy’s travails, to full-blooded delight when the super-arrogant and super-complacent get their comeuppance.

What is the difference between schadenfreude and gloating? Broadly speaking, gloating means to observe, think about or comment upon something with often malicious delight and satisfaction. The main feature that distinguishes it from schadenfreude is that it denotes an action rather than a state of mind. Gloaters generally communicate their feelings of malicious pleasure and superiority to other people, often with an exuberant lack of inhibition. While the emphasis in schadenfreude is on the pleasure taken in others’ misfortune, gloating goes one step further, because it is often an opportunity for the gloater to dwell on other people’s predicament whilst displaying a large dose of smug self-satisfaction.

You need to be very careful about gloating, as it can come back to haunt you. It can come across as unseemly and inappropriate: should you really be that thrilled by another person’s disaster? Does your obvious delight make you look like a mean-spirited person?  Are you confident that you are immune from failure? It’s easy to be smug about your own sense of superiority, but when things go wrong you may well be left with egg on your face. Are you sure that your gloating target is down and out? It can be very hard to find your way back from a gloating cul-de-sac – once you’re outed yourself as gleeful gloater it’s very hard to recover.

Articulating your pleasure in the fact that someone you dislike is suffering is a short-term game and can prove counterproductive. If you actually want to change people’s minds or bring other people round to your own point of view, you may find that gloating has the opposite effect, driving your wounded targets into a defensive position and making them into lifelong enemies. It would be much more effective to take the high ground, to remain calm, empathetic, considered and thoughtful. Concealing your gloating beneath a mask of impeccable good manners is an excellent way of ensuring you never put a foot wrong socially.

On the other hand, we all tend to see public figures as fair game. We have a penchant for gloating about the downfall of public figures and feel we can do it with impunity. Unless we are public commentators our malicious pleasure will never find its way to the victim’s ears, and it is a good way of letting off steam and bonding with fellow like-minded gloaters.

But what about closer to home, for example in the workplace? Gloating about your colleagues’ misfortunes and mistakes could make you look petty and unprofessional and might make fellow team-members nervous about trusting you. So follow these recommendations to ensure you don’t come across as an inveterate gloater:

• Learn from the failure of others

Rather than indulging in some pleasurable gloating, try to understand what went wrong. If you appreciate what you can learn from other people’s mistakes you will be thinking positively. Ultimately, you may ensure that you do not fall into the same trap.

• Be sympathetic

It may be tempting to adopt an “I told you so” tone when a colleague makes a mistake, but it is certainly much more constructive to provide a sympathetic ear, and to offer help and advice if it is sought. Wait until you are asked; unsolicited advice can all too easily mutate into “I wouldn’t have done that” gloating.

• Don’t badmouth your colleagues

Pointing out your colleagues’ errors and failings is a poor strategy. You may think that gloating over other people’s failings makes you look good, but in fact it makes you look disloyal and unsupportive and might do irreparable harm to your reputation. It would be much more politic to demonstrate a sympathetic willingness to solve any problems and support your team.

• Think carefully about getting involved

Sometimes, when there has been a major disaster at work, it is best to steer clear of the situation altogether. If you bear no responsibility for the debacle, then you might do well to stay untainted by the fallout; using a bad situation to make yourself look good can be a high-risk strategy.


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