Mamihlapinatapai: The Look of Unspoken, Shared Desire

While I’m typing away on my laptop, two people are sitting together right in front of me and they are obviously in love with each other. Everything about them says that they should be way more than friends, but here’s the catch: it’s also obvious that neither of them have told the other person how they feel. It’s all there. So what words can you use to describe this phenomenon?

Well, the English language is sadly lacking when it comes to a word that accurately describes that feeling between two close friends that both like each other but are afraid to start anything since it might ruin the very foundations of their friendship. Because of this, we go to Tierra del Fuego (yes, there is an archipelago off the southern coast of the South American mainland called Land of Fire) and dig through the words of the beautiful Yaghan language. Here’s where we’ll find what the Guinness Book of World Records considers as the most succinct and one of the hardest to translate word in the world: mamihlapinatapai.

In the words of that hipster photo that’s been circulating for quite a bit now, Mamihlapinatapai is a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin. It’s when you’re out with a girl that you really like and your eyes meet–one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippis too long–and you smile awkwardly and then look down because you have no idea what just happened and it scares you.

I’ve always been amazed at how other cultures manage to squeeze so much meaning into a single word, which is obvious in this article on the 10 Coolest Foreign Words The English Language Needs. The English language is all well and good, but it needs a few updates.

Anyway, going back to the little scene unfolding in the coffee shop that I’m at.

I first noticed the couple when I was waiting in line to order coffee. They were standing in front of me and they were talking about nothing in particular. The girl was a pretty girl, obviously of Chinese descent, and very energetic and bubbly. She was wearing one of those concierge outfits that told me she might be an HRIM student from DLS-CSB. The guy was a tall, hunky dude in shorts and a T-shirt. He was trying to convince the girl to let him pay for her coffee, but she wouldn’t let him and she actually wanted to pay for his coffee.

So back and forth they argued while the cashier just looked on with a bemused smile on her face.

Finally, they decided that no one will pay for anyone’s coffee so they paid for their own coffees and sat at the table just beside mine. From their conversation, I gathered that they were best friends and they spend a lot of time together. Also, the guy does not have the moves. He tried to put his arm around the girl but stopped midway and pretended to finger-brush his hair. The hell?

I’m having a hard time putting this into words (which doesn’t happen often, thus proving that this phenomenon is seriously hard to describe), but it’s obvious based on the chemistry between the two that they like each other. The long looks they share are evidence of that. Yet it’s also obvious that they are still at the friendship stage and they’re both hoping and praying that the other one will start something so they can move on to relationship heaven.

This got me thinking.

Basically, there are two types of people in the world. There are the go-getters–people who will run after the things they want like Son Goku after his first love, food. These people are not afraid to get their hands dirty or to get hurt in the pursuit of their goals, and usually these are the people that you’d find in history books. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the shy guys who are too afraid of rejection to try anything new or to even toe the line between their comfort zone and the rest of the world. These people torture themselves because they don’t have the things they want, even though it is because they are incapable of getting up the nerve to ask for it.

In the words of the article I linked to earlier, this is the quintessential story of the “shy dude and the insecure girl, sitting there at each end of a park bench, perhaps glancing every now and then at the other and blushing whenever eye contact is made, forever making trivial conversation, each imagining the two of them fucking like wildcats”.

That, basically.

I’m pretty sure everyone reading this knows what this feels because they’ve either gone through it themselves or they know people who obviously like each other but aren’t doing anything about it to the point that you just wanna say, “Duh! You like each other!” then bang their heads together. So what’s your story?


4 thoughts on “Mamihlapinatapai: The Look of Unspoken, Shared Desire

  1. Pingback: Celebrating the Love Month: A Valentine’s Day Anthology | Coffee and Keystrokes

  2. Pingback: Foreign Relationship Words That Should Have English Counterparts | Coffee and Keystrokes

  3. I am experiencing this phenomenon with a co-worker. We are both married and have shared this sentiment for 6 years now. It’s torturous to put it lightly. We have such an intense ridiculous connection, yet we are both in decent marriages. We have encountered one another miles away after both stating that we were just thinking of each other. I hate that he means so much to me and the feelings are euphoric, but I cannot share them. I am a tortured soul, but I love feeling of connectedness.

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