Stephanie Balzer | October 20, 2023

The Emotional Language Edition

On the shortcomings of language, travel, and hospitality

Steph Balzer (SB) is a writer, coach, and founder of Mission. She recently wrote the The Metaphor Edition edition, among others.

Steph here. A recent episode of the Huberman Lab podcast featured Lisa Feldman Barrett—a neuroscientist, psychologist, author, and distinguished professor at Northeastern University—speaking about the science of emotions. I listened to it on my way to the gym—then also on the treadmill, in the car to meet a friend for lunch, and later while I made dinner, washed dishes, folded laundry, and got ready for bed. 

Kidding. That’s a joke for Huberman fans who can attest his conversations run long. But if you’re curious about emotions, I highly recommend this episode. One insightful gem is that language often isn’t sufficient to capture the complexity and nuance of our emotional states. Right, it doesn’t seem like we need an expert to confirm this, but let me continue.

Andrew Huberman began describing a recent trip to New York with his sister, in which they had a wonderful time. After she left, he explored more of the city, then out of nowhere, was hit with a feeling of “intense loneliness.” He journaled, and that helped, though he was still not feeling like himself. He couldn’t find a single word to describe his emotional state.

So Huberman asked Feldman Barrett if language is sufficient to capture the complexity of emotions? 

Here’s her response:

This simple answer is no, language is not sufficient. Period. Or I should say one language isn’t sufficient—so English is not sufficient, and probably French on its own is not sufficient, and probably Swahili on its own is not sufficient. Although it’s very interesting—the states that we mark with words in each culture. Some overlap but a lot of them don’t. 

She went on to cite examples of words from languages other than English that describe nuanced emotional states, including a word drawn from a tribal culture in the Philippines that captures the communal complexity and intensity of military experience—liget. Or a Japanese word specific to getting a regretful haircut—age-otori.

Why is this interesting?

The same day I was listening to this podcast, a WITI friend inquired, over Slack, if living in Las Vegas felt like I was always backstage at a performance? I attempted to describe the feeling of living here with analogies and examples, but wasn’t quite yet able to say what I meant.

My opening bid is that it’s rather ordinary, the day-to-day, like life in any sprawling city in the Southwest. But when, for example, I look up at the sky at eight o’clock at night, I see a string of ten or so helicopters flying like giant dragonflies toward the Strip. It’s not a conscious thought, but in noticing them, I am aware that each is filled with people who may have seen the Grand Canyon for the first time. In fact, where I live near downtown, the distant rumble of airplanes is ever-present—except during the pandemic; the silence was so eerie. So possibly, what it feels like to live here is to hold a bit of space in one’s mind for the nearly 40 million people who visit annually, and to offer something like a secular prayer, a wish for all good things, for their experience. 

The Stratosphere from my neighborhood at sunset. This is the flight path of the helicopters returning from the Grand Canyon; this is their view at the north end of the Strip. 

And yet, when people visit—whether it’s to see me or to attend a concert or conference—I am often a witness to the moment in which their awe of the absurd, outsized spectacle that is Vegas turns inward and grows darker. It seems to happen almost in an instant, as if someone flipped a switch. They stop making eye contact, their energy recedes into their frame, and they become a shadow of themselves. What happens? 

Some, introverts or highly sensitive people, seem overstimulated. Others appear to succumb to waves of sadness and grief for the chain smokers plugged into slot machines, or the harmonica player busking for a dollar on the sidewalks, or the young men, amped and fragile, circling the casino floor like packs of coyotes looking for any kind of salve—attention, booze, a party, true love. Others of my guests have finished the work they came to do yet have hours to kill before their flights home. Take, for instance, a colleague who was in town a few weeks ago from Baltimore: “It’s so hot here,” he said. “I just need a pizza.” Then I watched him succumb to exhaustion before my eyes.

I don't point out what I see happening in the moment. But I am getting more adept at recognizing when to steer people to a place that’s a little more quiet—a secret nook, a quiet bar, back to my house. The thing is, one never knows when this feeling will hit. 

If there was a word for it, a way to anticipate it, to let people know this is practically universal, then we’d all feel some relief. Maybe the word I want is dépaysement, French for the feeling of disorientation while traveling—in both good and bad ways. 

And maybe what I feel, what it’s like to live in Vegas, is hospitality, though we often think of this as an act or a job—not a feeling. It might be different in, say, Spanish or Greek or Japanese. I also wonder if it’s a distant, wilder cousin of hygge, from the Danish meaning to make cozy and comfortable. (SB)


Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Steph

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