The Significance of Sonder

Posted on Mon November 7, 2022.

Of all the words, in all the world, why Sonder? Of all the clever catch phrases, why this one? In this essay, I (aka Michelle, co-founder of both Casa del Sonder and Sonder Cafe) reveal the significance of the word and what it means to me.

In 2009, I discovered a word that would go on to change my life.

Of course, back then I didn’t know that. Back then I was just an angsty teen, scrolling through tumblr, seeking connection deep within the internets cavernous rabbit holes. I’d spend hours sifting through blogs, reposting quotes and poetry, all in an attempt to feel a little less confused about my place in it all. When I stumbled across this particular word, I remember feeling as if the world suddenly made a little more sense. That perhaps there were other people out there who just like me, found themselves yearning to unravel the secret worlds hidden within the faces of the people who passed them by on the street or in their school corridor.

It was odd that a word that wasn’t even in the Oxford dictionary could possibly offer me so much comfort. But I recognized something in it – a feeling I’d felt many times. This notion that although I was at the center stage of my own existence, the protagonist of my book, the main character in the swirling cosmos that was my internal universe, that there were in fact millions upon millions of other stories playing out at the exact same time.

Often I would find myself engrossed in the act of watching people. Of observing their obscure habits and idiosyncrasies. Airport lounges, doctors offices, trains, planes, bars and cafes – all of these common places engendered this sensation within me. Some may simply term it “people watching”, while others, namely John Koenig, have coined it: “Sonder”.

An author, filmmaker and graphic designer by trade, Koenig first began to compile his list of made up words onto the social blogging site, Tumblr, as far back as 2008. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, as he named it, was his attempt to define all of the complex emotions and feelings so many of us feel but lack the words to express. Today it currently has over 700 words.

One example of a word in the dictionary is:

Vemödalen” n. taken from the Swedish word ‘vemod’, meaning, tender sadness, and 'vemdalen', the name of a Swedish town, which is the kind of thing that IKEA usually borrows from to name their products:

Vemödalen: “the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.

Or perhaps you resonate more with,

Midding”, v. A feeling of tranquil pleasure being near a gathering but not quite in it—hovering on the perimeter of a campfire, chatting outside a party while others dance inside, resting your head in the backseat of a car listening to your friends chatting up front—feeling blissfully invisible yet still fully included, safe in the knowledge that everyone is together and everyone is okay, with all the thrill of being there without the burden of having to be.

The book itself is a juicy tapestry of descriptive words that helps to bridge the gap in our language of emotion. It’s most popular word, ‘Sonder’, (derived from the French, meaning to probe or plumb the depths) found its way into the viral regions of the internet and subsequently into my orbit. And just the way someone with a mysterious illness breaths a sigh of relief finally learning their malady has a diagnosis, I relished in the fact that my relentless curiosity of strangers, actually had a name.

It’s a feeling all of us have felt before, at least once, but especially when we travel.
 When temporarily suspended in the passage of time, stuck in an airport departure lounge, we are forced to observe the herd of fellows humans spilling out of the security lines. We notice our differences first, our opposing hair colour or skin tones, body shapes, fashion choices and physiognomy. But the longer we observe peoples behavior, their mannerisms, their impatience and frustration, exhaustion or excitement, we also begin to witness all the tiny commonalities we share.

Remembering that everyone around you is living a life as complex as your own is a fantastic way to humble yourself. To step outside of the limitations of our constructed reality, out of the systems we have built for ourselves, out of the seriousness of the game and into a realm of fascination. Whenever the world feels too heavy or overwhelming it helps to look around and remind oneself that none of us have any idea what we are doing.

This is all of our first time here.

It is surely is one of the true joys of travel, to fly thousands upon thousands of miles away from home only to discover that people in faraway corners of the world are just like you and me. That they too love to watch soap operas, play football on the beach, hold hands when they cross the road or sing at the top of their lungs in the shower. That they too love to swim in the sea, hug their friends or gather around heaped tables of homemade food.

But one doesn't have to travel to experience sonder either. In fact I like to play a game with myself when I am stuck in traffic. I’ll focus on a specific vehicle, scan the face of the driver and try to imagine the intimacies of their story. What will they go home to tonight? An empty house, a bare fridge filled with old condiments and leftovers, a cold-shouldered partner, or a lover waiting to rip their clothes off, a house filled with the loud cries of children, a pot of spaghetti bubbling on the stove or a weeks worth of washing waiting to be folded. When they lie in bed at night what do they dream about, worry about, wish for?

Witnessing a snapshot into someone else life often feels like watching moving art. I’ll wander past houses, shopfronts, backyards and peer into the lives of others, wishing I had the power of X-ray vision. To notice the things people do when when nobody is watching. Not in a creepy way, but simply to bare witness to the banal. For these moments, the folding of the laundry, cooking dinner, washing ones hair, often possess an ethereal magic. Upon witnessing them, the mundanity simply seeps away and instead I am left comforted by the truth of our binding similarities. As if the ordinariness of it all extinguishes any loneliness that may be lingering inside of me and replaces it with a knowing sense of reassurance. We are all in this together.

Working in hospitality, one gains a special kind of insight into the lives of others that most occupations do not allow. Besides psychology. And perhaps being an Uber driver. Meeting different types of people from all walks of life forces you to break through barriers and ask questions, to see people, their habits, their true ways of being. Through this you start to glean insight into the little things we do that make us instinctively human.

I guess that is a long winded way of explaining why we chose to name both our cafe and hotel after this feeling. Because it is constant reminder that although one might not know the intricacies of the lives of those around them, the man sipping coffee across from you, the couple in the room next door, they are probably far more similar to you than you ever imagined.

The truth is, to truly try and imagine the magnitude and complexity of almost 8 billion stories is harder than perceiving the true size of the universe. To think of all the simultaneous timelines playing out across oceans and great expanses of land. All the rejection and celebration, the endings and beginnings, the pain and the exultation. To imagine it all is truly an unobtainable task and yet still, what immense comfort it brings to remember that despite everything, it is always happening.

A constant humdrum, a never ending murmur in the background.

We are the main characters of our own story. We are the only version of us that can ever exist, all the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of our own stories will always play out as the most important thing to us. It is all we will ever know. But when I am too deeply caught up in my own narrative, when I am wrapped up in my head and my unnecessary woes all I have to is focus in on the billions of humans doing things right now.

I do this especially, when I am flying somewhere, soaring through the skies, looking down at some unknown city with its twinkling yellow lights. And I smile to myself as I imagine that down in that small town i'll never visit, in a place i'll never know the name of, there is a girl who probably feels similarly to me, looking up out of her window imagining someone flying through the sky, and wondering what they could possibly be thinking about.

I'll end with another of my most treasured words, second to Sonder of course, derived from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Suerza: n – taken from Spanish, suerte, meaning luck + fuerte, meaning force.

A feeling of quiet amazement that you exist at all. A sense of gratitude that you were even born in the first place, that you somehow emerged alive and breathing despite all the odds, having won an unbroken streak of reproductive lotteries that stretches all the way back to the beginning of life itself.