June 20th, 2008

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; talking empathy...

I've been reading -- with great interest and pleasure -- your thoughtful comments and responses about Amanda Robb's article at
http://www.cnn.com/2008/LIVING/personal/06/18/o.empathy/index.html . Your discussion is so thorough and so clear that I'm not sure there's anything I can add to it. I'm just going to quote a few of the things you've said and try to respond to them. [And I want to say in advance that I'm with all those who would say "empathic" instead of "empathetic"; I'm not going to try to switch to "empathetic."]

One thing that happened immediately was the predictable split into two groups: (a) those whose perception is that Amanda Robb's strategy for communicating empathy is dishonest and manipulative, and (b) those whose perception is that the strategy is acceptable as an effective way for her to learn how to feel the emotions she is doing her best to express.

One comment included this sentence:
"I find this picture of what empathy means to be ... corrupt is the best word I can come up with. Empathy is not about being fake or disingenuous; it is about opening yourself beyond yourself."

By contrast, indefatigable42 commented:
" 'How do you feel about that' is a canned response that rubs me the wrong way. But the author is talking about 'faking it' as a stepping stone to real caring, and I think that makes sense -- if someone stops themselves from saying something tactless and says 'how do you feel' instead, they'll have their eyes opened to a world of stuff they didn't know about."

istemi quoted briefly from the article, and then commented:
" 'If you want to act more empathetic, you follow certain steps: Instead of telling people what they ought to do or becoming tyrannically optimistic, you offer sympathy, inquire about feelings, and validate those feelings. You'll be giving comfort to the other person, even if you yourself can't feel what they're going through.' In other words, you listen instead of talking. Too bad she labeled this 'faking'."

And melleecat responded with:
"Yes, she should have come up with a more positive term."

I agree that "faking" is an unfortunate name-choice for Robb's strategy -- but the anecdote that the article opens with makes it clear that at first what she was doing did feel to her like faking. My choice for that name would have been "practicing." And I don't perceive practicing the use of utterances that express empathy -- even when you don't yet feel the emotion that goes with them -- as dishonest.

incandescens asked:
"Or should I only express empathy when I genuinely feel it?"

A "yes" answer to this question is the position of absolute honesty. A friend or relative says, "I got fired today," and you know that person is financially secure and has job skills that will get him or her another job without difficulty, so you don't feel any sort of concern; therefore, you don't express any concern. Saying "How do you feel about that?" puts everybody's back up instantly -- mostly, I think, because we are all so repulsed by seeing journalists stick microphones in the faces of people who've just suffered a tragedy of some kind and ask them that question, or some variant of that question. My suggestion would be that it costs nothing to ask the person "Is that a problem for you? Are you upset about it?" And if the answer is yes -- even if your opinion is that the person's perception is logically unjustified -- it should be possible for you to feel concern because he or she is upset. That feeling of concern would let you say something empathic without setting off your own dishonesty alarms.

Finally, I agree completely with wyld_dandelyon's comment:
"The fascinating thing, to me, was that the unempathetic woman found that by faking empathy she started to develop the capacity to FEEL empathy -- or maybe stopped being so afraid of it that she became able to let herself be aware of feeling it. Also, even faking it meant that the people she cared about KNEW she cared about them. Both good things."

As always, the fact that what we have for data is only written language, without tone of voice or intonation or any other body language, makes it hard to be sure what the quoted utterances would have sounded like. Some of us -- in our mind's ear -- are hearing utterances like "That must be hard for you" in radically different ways from the ways others among us are hearing them.

That's more than enough for a start....