Exchanging Egos for Empathy

A lesson on harsh words, open eyes and weak little butterflies

An international airport can give you a fascinating glimpse at humanity. People from all over the world collect in one space for a brief, transitional moment. They are all heading somewhere, carrying their backups, worries, and stories.

As a market researcher at an airport, I am starting to believe that the way people react to a stranger approaching them is the way they react to most things in life. Occasionally, people act annoyed — how dare I approach them while they scroll Facebook? I imagine I am one of the many inconveniences of their day. Yet the overwhelming majority of people receive me with genuine smiles and kind eyes.

They share their travel sagas with upbeat attitudes, remaining positive despite the hours upon hours they’ve already spent commuting. I wish I had something more to give these people; the gems whose tired eyes still see the glass half full.

I find it both strange and delightful how much information our eyes can give. A simple moment of eye contact can spark human connection. Sometimes, it can even change enemies into humans and egos into empathy.

At the gate heading to Amsterdam, I approach a man with dark hair and thin glasses. He is energetic and warm.

“I am not going to Amsterdam, but the woman with me is!” he tells me with an eager smile.

The seat next to him is empty, but the excitement in his voice is all the evidence I need. Say no more, this man is lusting after his mystery woman.

New love is endearing, so I pass him a survey to give to her when she returns. A little conversation piece to kick start the next round of flirting.

A few minutes later, a woman with bleached blond hair and thick eyeliner struts over. She carries herself confidently with wisdom and sass. I now understand my dark-haired friend’s admiration.

“How long will this survey take me?” she asks.

“Ten minutes, depending on how quick you can do it!” I say.

“Oh okay! Let me get to work!” she says, smiling at the man next to her.

I appreciate her enthusiasm and continue passing out surveys. Each time I look their way, she is talking while he leans in, grinning.

She finally brings her survey over to me, but this time her gaze is different.

“This survey did not take me 10 minutes, it would take me 30 minutes. You are asking the questions all wrong!” she says, visibly angry.

“This has nothing to do with the airport! You are doing this all wrong. You will learn nothing from this survey. I do this stuff for a living, and this is all wrong!” she says sternly, asserting her authority as she stares me down.

Caught off guard, I want to tell her more about this survey; that it has been conducted every month for the past 34 years; that the questions haven’t changed for consistency; that it is not about the airport, but the travel trends in and out of the US. But I say none of this, because I am a weak little butterfly and confrontational situations crush me.

I see through the facade, how she speaks loudly to impress her dark-haired friend and prove just how important she is.

I wonder, have I ever been that woman and made someone else feel small?

“I am just the messenger,” is all my butterfly brain can tell her in between her rapid-fire strikes.

She stops mid-sentence, tilting her head like a confused puppy trying to figure me out.

“Oh, yes I know,” she says, extending her hand onto my shoulder. “Of course, I won’t shoot the messenger. I just wanted to tell you this,” her eyes and voice soften.

For the first time, she sees me. Not as the enemy, but a human. And this makes me want to cry, because I am a dumb, weak butterfly and somehow, a total stranger just went from trying to crush me to giving me an arm to rest on.

No matter how you’ve acted in the past, it is not too late to reach your arm out to a stranger. Let go of your ego and really see them; speak from a place of empathy, not authority. We are all doing the best we can to figure this out.

Perhaps basic human connection is the simplest form of love. This Valentine’s day — and everyday — let’s not only be kind to the ones we know dearly, but also to the strangers that cross our paths. May we smile, open our eyes, and make no one feel small.

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