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The ABCs of Fake Empathy

Empathy: what it is, what it isn’t and how to cultivate it.

Empathy has never come naturally for me.

As a teen, I felt like there was a psychic barrier, an invisible wall of emotional glass, that kept me from cultivating friendships, from ever feeling like I belonged. For a long time, I blamed this on others. Later, I learned the truth — the wall was of my own making; the loneliness, my own reward.

For me, empathy has always been a skill rather than a talent. What I’ve learned, I’ve learned from practice — and part of that practice has always involved books.

One interesting read that explores empathy is Leslie Jamison’s essay collection, The Empathy Exams: Essays, which debuted at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list.

To understand what empathy is and how to cultivate it, it helps to first understand what it is not.

What Empathy Isn’t

In one essay, Jamison writes of her time as a medical actor, where she would pretend to be a sick patient in front of medical students. For 15 minutes, students would talk to Jamison and try to extract medical information from her. Afterwards, she would grade their performance.

The first part of her evaluation graded how much information the students got from her. The second part graded how well they did it:

“The second part of the evaluation covers affect. Checklist item 31 is generally acknowledged as the most important category: ‘Voiced empathy for my situation/problem.’ We are instructed about the importance of this first word, voiced. It’s not enough for someone to have a sympathetic manner or use a caring tone. The students have to say the right words to get credit for compassion.”

Why is it so important to voice empathy? Why is it not enough to simply stand around, believing strongly that you care?

With experience, I think I understand a little bit about why.

Three months into my first serious relationship, my girlfriend at the time said, “I love you.” I couldn’t say it back to her. I just couldn’t. So I played it off with a joke. She got angry.

Weeks later, she asked me why I wouldn’t say the words to her. “It’s too early,” I said. “We haven’t even been together a year.” She got even angrier.

Even later, she asked again. “Why won’t you just say you love me?” she said. “I shouldn’t have to say it,” I replied, annoyed. “Can’t you see how I feel from my actions? Isn’t that enough?”

In retrospect, that was a bad idea.

We’re all insecure about something. Hell, I’m insecure about many things. To have someone voice that they care, is entirely different from having to, on faith, believe that they do.

The ABCs of Fake Empathy

But simply voicing, says Jamison, is not always enough. After all, we all say things that we don’t mean.

In Japan, the art of fake caring has been polished and packaged into an easy to remember acronym, roughly translated as the “sa-shi-su-se-so of flattery.” Women are taught to use certain phrases to please men and potentially score a future husband:

  • Sa: Sasuga! — As expected!
  • Shi: Shiranakata! — I didn’t know that!
  • Su: Sugoi! — Amazing! Awesome! Wow!
  • Se: Sensu ii desu ne! — You have good taste!
  • So: Sou nan da! — Really? I see! Is that so?

Though I bet some guys love it, it’s clear to me how empty conversation filled with such phrases is. It takes more than canned responses to understand, to empathize and (I hope) to win over a man.

But many medical students don’t do much better, says Jamison:

“[Some] students are all business. … These irritated students take my averted eyes as a challenge. They never stop seeking my gaze. Wrestling me into eye contact is the way they maintain power — forcing me to acknowledge their requisite display of care. I grow accustomed to comments that feel aggressive in their formulaic insistence: that must really be hard [to have a dying baby], that must really be hard [to be afraid you’ll have another seizure in the middle of the grocery store], that must really be hard [to carry in your uterus the bacterial evidence of cheating on your husband]. Why not say, I couldn’t even imagine?“

From the Abstract to the Provincial

Empathy is not just about voicing care. Canned sentences are not enough. Empathy is also about voicing care with a degree of finesse:

“…empathy isn’t just measured by checklist item 31 — voiced empathy for my situation/problem — but by every item that gauges how thoroughly my experience has been imagined. Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

The two keywords here, I think, are “inquiry” and “imagination.”

Empathy requires that we understand how people feel in the particular, not in the abstract. To do this, we need to imagine and, to imagine, we need to ask questions.

Perhaps we can compare empathy to an archaeological excavation. To extract fossils from the earth (I imagine), you need to do more than beat at the soil with a shovel. You also need complicated machinery, tarp, brushes, dust pans, trowels, wheelbarrows, and, most importantly, interns willing to work for no pay.

Jamison prefers to compare empathy to a kind of travel:

“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia — em (into) and pathos (feeling) — a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?”

Each question we ask — ”What’s it like to grow up on a farm?”; “Do you ever get scared to go on stage?”; “I’m terrified by the idea of having children. Oh you were too? How do you get over it?” — is an opportunity to dust away another layer of the abstract, a chance to see another person’s world a little more clearly.

Humble, But Brave

These two actions: inquiry and imagination are not possible without two qualities of character.

One quality we need, argues Jamison, is humility:

“Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see: an old woman’s gonorrhea is connected to her guilt is connected to her marriage is connected to her children is connected to the days when she was a child. All this is connected to her domestically stifled mother, in turn, and to her parents’ un-broken marriage; maybe everything traces its roots to her very first period, how it shamed and thrilled her.”

A few selfies in front of Tokyo Tower or the temples of Kyoto won’t be enough to understand the Japanese people. To understand them, you must be willing to live with them, eat their food, work alongside them.

This is one reason, perhaps, why the arrogant end up with few genuine friendships. How can you connect with someone when you think you know everything there is to know?

A second quality we need for empathy is bravery.

Empathy is always a risk. On one hand, we risk asking the wrong questions and, as a result, hurting or insulting someone. On the other hand, we risk creating a connection, an emotional two-way street we cannot close, that forces us to feel someone else’s pain and suffering.

Always a Choice

One last quote. I like how Jamison suggests empathy is never something passive, never something that “just happens” to us. Rather, empathy is a choice:

“Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. … This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always rise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.

Empathy is a choice, a risk, an effort. It’s up to you to ask, “Is it worth it?”

Read the Jamison’s original essay, and many others, in her first essay collection, The Empathy Exams.


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