Mamihlapinatapai: Or, “That Look”

Mamihlapinatapai is a word I came across on Big Think in an article about relationship words for which we don’t quite have an English equivalent. It’s described there and elsewhere on the interwebs as a Yagan word, with Yagan being an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego, down in the southern part of Argentina. The meaning? Says Big Think, “The wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start.”

A cursory web search tells me that this look need not be limited to sexual desire, sexual behavior, love or lust. Wiki, for example, references it in terms of game theory and the volunteer’s dilemma. Most sites that I stumbled upon, however, seem to highlight the looks and feelings about sex and love that many of us know all too well which says something, I think, about a shared human experience of desiring and wanting and yet feeling some kind of restraint or uncertainty.

There are, of course, many reasons that people want someone, and have a sense the other person wants them, and yet they hold back. People may be afraid of rejection and may not trust their gut instinct that the other person wants them, too. Or else there may be complications – maybe one or both of them has a significant other. Or isn’t quite over an ex. Or there are people around. Or they’re not sure what they want (a one-time kiss? a hook-up? an affair? to date? to fall in love? to find someone to marry?) let alone what the other person wants. And all of these things get weighed in an instant, in a look, in the ways that people hide their eyes so that the other one won’t see that they’re falling in….something (like? love? lust? an enormous crush?).

So, mamihlapinatapai. “That look.” I’ve certainly been there. Have you?

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at