Open letters and the death of empathy

Medium has been inundated with open letters this week thanks to one post that rubbed so many people the wrong way, it subsequently spurred hundreds of impassioned, and sometimes plain nasty, open letter responses.

The original open letter—penned by 25-year-old Yelp employee Talia to her CEO Jeremy Stoppelman—vents Talia’s grievances about her low-paying salary, the ridiculous cost of living in the Bay Area and the snowballing financial stress under which Talia is being crushed. Yelp fired Talia only a few hours after she posted her open letter.

All of a sudden, Talia’s post went viral and the open letter responses poured in. While hundreds of people took it upon themselves to publicly respond to Talia’s post with varying combinations of support, critique and disgust, many of the responses shared similar themes—Millennials, like Talia, are whiny, entitled, narcissistic, lazy brats who should be more like me! (You can read the most popular response letter to Talia’s original open letter here.)

Part of me hates what Talia wrote. Way to pour fuel on the fire and give thousands of readers the means to perpetuate the incredibly-agitating and untrue stereotype that Millennials and constant bitching go hand-in-hand, Talia! But part of me also has no problem with Talia’s piece. What the hell is the point of a platform like Medium if its users constantly filter their harmless, personal opinions so they aren’t harassed by thousands of equally-opinionated strangers?

The open letter format is becoming one of the more popular digital publishing patterns at the expense of one of the most basic interpersonal principles: empathy. Open letters are typically catalyzed by emotion and strong opinions, encouraging (usually conflicting) responses catalyzed by even greater waves of emotion and rushes of strong opinions. Talia’s open letter responses tended to include all kinds of rash assumptions, accusations and lectures, but very rarely did they include even an ounce of empathy.

I’m more bothered by the numerous ‘you are an idiot and you should really strive to be more like me, Talia’ responses than Talia’s letter itself. To lack empathy for your fellow humans is one thing–to lack empathy, accuse entitlement, and claim this stranger should have a life more like yours because oh, look at what you did and oh, look at all you accomplished and she should really learn from the incredible example that is you, strikes me as an even bigger issue rooted in a total lack of empathy and extreme self-righteousness.

It’s easy to abandon all empathy when you’re just another random account on an expansive platform like Medium. Odds are you will never meet Talia, nor will your rude response ever spread as rampantly as Talia’s letter spread, nor will you be fired hours after posting your response like Talia was fired hours after writing hers.

Let’s try to remember that none of us know how to constantly do this whole life thing ‘correctly,’ though. Talia’s decision to bite the hand that feeds via a public and deeply-critical Medium post wasn’t the smartest choice, as proven by her subsequent firing. But we all still have a choice in how we respond to Talia’s heated words.

  1. We can shred Talia’s words and highlight every little privileged and whiny thing she says, then force feed her our own excruciatingly-detailed stories about how we were in the same position but navigated our circumstances so much better. We can assume we know Talia’s entire story and, based on our assumptions, critique every element of her life then flood her with our own high-and-mighty, most likely irrelevant wisdom.
  2. We can opt for the more empathetic approach. This approach includes recognizing and accepting that fact that…

a) In reality we know absolutely nothing about Talia. You read her open letter? That’s wonderful, because we all know the Internet always portrays people exactly as they are in real life. Reading her post doesn’t qualify us to conclude that Talia is receiving financial support from her family, or that Talia is too spoiled to ever consider getting a roommate, or that Talia knew moving to the Bay Area and working for Yelp would lead to this kind of situation. Let’s not fill in the blank with figments of our own imaginations. We are not entitled to create Talia’s own story—a story we actually know nothing about.

b) We can’t use Talia’s personal words or circumstances to criticize entire demographics, whether that be Millennials, or English majors, or people who ‘knew exactly what they were getting into.’ It’s crazy how almost every story about a struggling Millennial or a successful Baby Boomer inevitably morphs into a generational war. We have to stop lumping vaguely similar, massive categories of people together in over-simplistic boxes, and then slapping these boxes with cliched label after label. Humans are way too individualistic and life is way too complex to group and identify people in this manner.

c) We can’t shove our own success stories down Talia’s throat and assume she’ll miraculously learn how to do better because of us. When we do this, we’re criticizing Talia’s self-righteousness only to turn around and be painfully self-righteous ourselves. Reread a) and b) and, building upon these points, remember we cannot jump to the conclusion that we’re so much wiser or savvier or harder working than Talia. Career pathways, the job market, the housing market, circumstances and privileges are constantly changing. It’s ignorant to assume that just because we ‘did it,’ Talia should be able to ‘do it.’ My cousin recently opened his own restaurant with nothing but a vision, a high-school degree and a two-year jail sentence behind him. If I followed the same path, should I be able to ‘do it’ just because my cousin ‘did it?’ No. That’s absurd because humans don’t operate in these identical vacuums, and I would never open a restaurant, only a food truck.

The fact of the matter is Talia is now an unemployed 25-year-old with a low-paying college degree in an oversaturated job market in a still-subpar economy living in one of the most expensive areas in the US. Did she navigate her circumstances perfectly? No. But there is really no need for you or me or anyone to write some feisty letter tearing her apart because of this. If we can realize none of us are capable of always navigating our circumstances perfectly, similar to Talia, then congratulations–we are planting the seeds of the beautiful flower known as empathy.

Maybe you feel absolutely no empathy toward Talia—maybe you’re one of the people who feels she deserves this shitty situation or she needs to suffer through these consequences to serve as an example to others. But imagine Talia is your daughter who just graduated college and is drowning in the student loans that allowed her to even have a shot at earning a degree in the first place. Or Talia is your sister struggling to pay rent for the dumpy New York apartment she shares with two roommates she hates and that’s an hour away from the best job she could find for herself. Or Talia is your old friend trapped in the dead-end, low-paying job with absolutely no where to turn for career betterment or financial support.

What if someone you know and deeply care for stumbled into a similar situation? Would the condemnation be so harsh and void of all understanding? Would you empathize a little more?

The Internet is the largest and most effective arena for spurring dialogue and debate, but when is it worth abandoning all empathy in order to write some rude response that (let’s hope!) may go viral?

Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, best expresses the problem with the interpersonal digital world during his interview in “Chelsea Does Silicon Valley.”

“We have the opportunity to create a world of curiosity, but instead what we decided to do is create a world of condemnation.”

We all have the power to choose how we respond to abrasive topics and discussions and ideas. Let’s strive to remember that we never fully know or understand what others are going through. Let’s challenge ourselves to practice a greater degree of empathy.