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The Anatomy of Envy: A Study in Symbolic Behavior

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Envy is a pan-human phenomenon, universally feared, at least subconsciously, as a particularly dangerous emotion, since it implies hostility and aggression capable of destroying individuals and even societies. Especially in Western society, man has rather successfully repressed his true feelings about envy, which he is taught is the most shameful and reprehensible of all emotions. But even while denying it, man in all cultures has found devices, most but not all of which are symbolic, to cope with his fear of the consequences of envy. In this paper I distinguish between envy and jealousy (the terms are badly confused in English), note the objects that most frequently cause envy (food, children, and health), and analyze envy relationships between both conceptual equals and conceptual nonequals (concluding that one does not "envy down"). I then note the ways in which envy is expressed, including the symbolic "compliment," much feared in many societies because it is recognized as an expression of envy. Particularly striking is the fact that in those situations in which the envy of others is feared, culture dictates a strategy of evasive behavior based on a specific sequence of preferred choices. That is, when an individual fears envy he first attempts to conceal his good fortune; when this is not practical, he falls back on denial that there is reason to envy him; when this is not adequate, he symbolically shares, and only as a last resort does he truly share. This sequence is illustrated with a detailed comparative analysis of food-envy behavior, including tipping, which is explained as a symbolic device to buy off the envy of the waiter. Cultural forms used by an individual to cope with the fear that he is suspected of envy are then noted, as are those used by a person who fears to acknowledge his own envy. Finally, institutional devices to reduce envy are discussed briefly. The paper stresses the ways in which cultural forms have been developed to aid man in coping with psychological problems.

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