What is Empathy?

Yesterday, I was checking out at the grocery store when I heard the cashier and customer in front of me complaining about how cell phones are ruining this generation of “kids” (read: twenty-somethings). The customer just prior had been talking on her phone for the length of their interaction and both men saw it as very rude, so they spent the better part of 7 minutes “not in my day”-ing and generally being curmudgeonly. When it was my turn, the cashier (let’s call him “George”) attempted to engage me in the same complain-space, and I just couldn’t do it. The negativity felt icky. Plus, I didn’t even know the woman! I gently suggested that “people get busy and distracted and it’s not right, but maybe she had something important going on.” He didn’t buy it. He gave me 3 more examples of customer rudeness, and I offered him a “Yeah, that is really tough,” but we both knew I didn’t mean it. He gave up. So did I.

I’ve been thinking about this and feeling bad that I didn’t do more. George just wanted what we all want – to be seen and understood. He wanted empathy. He talks with people all day long, but these interactions are brief and shallow, and he’s not getting what he needs from his fellow humans, so when that millennial offered him not even a superficial interaction, it nearly broke him. The man in front of me opened up the wound by offering him some understanding, but then that ended, and George wasn’t done. He came to me and I rebuffed him. Woops – selfish millennial.

Above, I use the term empathy. The word itself has only been around for a century and author Susan Lanzoni does a good job in this article of summarizing the history of the word and its varied uses. She’s spent a lot of time researching it for her book, Empathy, A History. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll be using it generally to mean “the taking on of others’ perspective and offering of understanding” – something which is paramount to individual mental health and the health of society.

I hope you come along with me as I explore the applications of empathy in our classrooms and our lives.

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