Competitive Envy

There is an icky US car commercial that is being aired during this year’s Winter Olympics season. I feel as if it is taking on a problem of international relations that does not need to be played out in this way.  The commercial harnesses international clichés to be ironic.  And it makes me very ill at ease. 

Here is what happens:  A rich American guy is seen standing next to his swimming pool, outside of his luxurious (but, FYI, totally soulless) house.  He ironically refers to the materialism of the US.  Then he notes that some countries criticize Americans for working so hard (thereby financing materialism).  Those countries, the guy reminds us further, take the entire month of August off to go on vacation.  If you do enjoy working, and take just two weeks off in August, then you too can own a Cadillac. 

The guy gets into his Caddy, winks at the camera, and says “N’est pas?”  Subtle, huh?

Hello.  You can go see it, if you really need to, right here:

It is an embarrassing, cloying, commercial, but it points to something very important, negative, and intractable in international relations. I call it “competitive envy” because it involves people trying to elicit envy -- over goods, institutions, and experiences -- in people for whom those particular things are not important and sometimes even frankly abhorrent.


This behavior occurs at the country level, but you might have experienced it on the individual level, so you know it when you see it. The sport of eliciting envy for competitive reasons happens when the person you are talking to tries (without subtlety) to make you envious of something.  That something is not a thing you desire.  Not even remotely.  You are happy for them, but very far from envious.  And you deeply wish that they would not desire you to be envious about something you do not want.  This type of competitiveness is very un-pretty.

For example, an acquaintance tells you in great detail about how their child was accepted at a school that is everything you distain in education.  The children you have met from that school make your skin crawl and you are often tempted to recite to them or their parents empirical findings showing that emotional and social intelligence (not nurtured in their school) is far more important to success than standard analytic intelligence.  You are not defensive (you can afford that school and your children would probably be accepted).  You are annoyed.  Their motivations are transparent.  And being told what to value in a competition you didn’t even enter is unbearable.

Or someone tells you in that “please envy me” way about a 1000-acre ranch they just inherited in Montana.  “Sorry,” you think, clenching in order to refrain from blurting it out, “While I am happy for you, I don’t like the outdoors.  And the closest I would get to a horse would involve a ticket to ‘Equus.’  Let me be happy for you without envy.  ‘Kay?”

I am not an envious person. I am very happy with what I have and if I want something else, then I go out and get it.  I can be happy for others, but never envious.  Envy seems to me to be a passive and hopeless state that I am not familiar with.  I was a child totally without envy because all of the things around me that might have elicited envy were simply too far away to elicit this emotion.  Pretty girls? I was a chunky girl in an era and in a place where anorexia and bulimia were just a fact of life.  My hair, as I have written in a recent post, was not a good candidate for the “shag” haircuts of the time. Straight, long hair, parted in the middle, was the look; my hairstyle resembled a Brillo pad.  I didn’t have any of the looks; I had none of the "in" clothes.  So when I watched “the Brady Bunch” on TV, I thought that Marcia and her sisters were otherworldly beings.  I wasn’t envious; envy would have required some distant possibility, some remote similarity, where there was none.  So I spent my childhood learning to find the things I really wanted and to go get them.  Not to wish I had something completely randomly valued by someone else, and to envy them that thing.

I also don't want anyone to envy me.  My assumption is never that others want what I have or what I have experienced. Wishing someone were envious of you is akin to wishing they were holding their hand to a hot iron.

At the country level this game gets played all of the time, and it is even more cartoonish.  It is Americans saying that the French should envy their US luxury cars, and the French saying that Americans should envy French vacation time.  What do you say to this?  If pushed, you finally have to say (if you are French) that you don’t care about Cadillacs (they are big, gas guzzlers), and to say (if you are American) that you wouldn’t trade work situations (because more vacation would involve accepting workplaces riddled with conflict, party politics, and people who don’t want to work).  This is what the car commercial is saying.  It isn’t pretty.

I suffered through these conversations face-to-face when living abroad.  French people wanting me (as American although living and working in France) to envy them their schools or their café-sitting. Or even just assuming that I do.  What if I don’t?  How could I possibly respond to this without starting an international incident?  European researchers have tried to make me envious of the fact that their job involves no teaching of university students at all. I had that job for 14 years myself.  It in no way made me happy.  I became a university professor in order to teach university students, so why would I be envious?  And do Americans do this to others?  They must, because the car commercial that I just described must be speaking to someone.  Not everyone is catching on to the creepy irony of it; some people want to play the sport of competitive envy.  People all over the world do this.

Is it too much to ask people to get over their belief that others value the same things that they do? And is it too much to ask people to be satisfied without it occurring at the psychological expense of others?

Being the envy of others should not be a goal.  N’est pas?

Posted by Paula Niedenthal at 5:13pm Feb 16, 2014