Musings of an Existential Pilgrim: Mamihlapinatapai

This column is about words. More specifically, it is about words that have no direct translation in English. If words give shape to thoughts and communication then hopefully these words can provide you dear reader with more eloquent and shapely thoughts. To start things off is a word from the Yaghan language from Tierra del Fuego. The word Mamihlapinatapai [mah-mee-lah-pin-yah-tah-pie] approximately translates as “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.” Derived from the root ihlapi, which means “to be at a loss as what to do next”, Mamihlapinatapai is also sometimes translated as “a meaningful silence” and grammatically should be used as a verb.

Mamihlapinatapai is that moment when you cross eyes with an attractive stranger at a party and sparks fly between you two but no one wants to actually go and introduce themselves first. It’s the two good friends who would both really prefer it if they could just stop with the friendly banter and start making out. Or something. But they are comfortable where they are. One way to understand why Mamihlapinatapai occurs is to apply game theory and see it as a coordination problem. Mamihlapinatapai occurs because in a variety of social situations individual action is not enough. A confession of emotion results in great success if reciprocated but heartbreak if not. To wait and do nothing results in a pleasant surprise if they approach you first and no worse than a lukewarm longing if they do not. The incentives would appear to be in favour of inaction regardless of how the other person felt. Game theory also explains inaction because drawing up payoff matrices and optimising strategies take a lot of time.

Another way to think about Mamihlapinatapai is in terms of existential angst. Mamihlapinatapai is that moment of mutual attraction when you are suddenly confronted with an awareness of the potential futures. To realise these potential futures would require the exercise of choices. Kierkegaard suggests this process of choosing is equal parts empowering and terrifying because of the always present possibility that you choose wrongly. Understood in this way Mamihlapinatapai is about not wanting to approach the other person despite how nice it might be for fear of triggering a sequence of future events and choices over which you have limited control. The sheer number of potential possibilities means that in all likelihood the choices you made were sub-optimal. Kierkegaard was in all likelihood depressing company.

Hopefully you can come to appreciate the finer points of Mamihlapinatapai. Once you are aware of the concept it should not be hard to recognise. For a more lyrical explanation of what goes through the mind of someone experiencing Mamihlapinatapai try “Just the two of us” by Bill Withers.

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Image by Lauren Cawthron