Our Empathy Problem

Dan O’Neill | Feb 6, 2015

If you could indulge me for a minute I’d like to tell you a couple of stories.

A man queues for some time to pay for his items in a small supermarket in Dublin. He’s got a small bag of hot chicken from the deli counter and an avocado, or a lime maybe. He seems a little nervous, and counts his money again, that way you do when your making sure you have enough when you get to the till. He’s counting small money, small coins, its coming to the end of the month, and it looks like he scraped together enough for some hot food on a cold Dublin evening.

He gets to the top of the queue and the girl behind the counter scans his items and asks for money. He presents his little pile of coins, only to be told “You can’t pay with that - you’ve got to use the coin machine and get a voucher”. The man doesn’t really understand. She tells him again that she’s not taking “all those coins” and to use the machine. He says its his dinner. She again tells him to use the machine. The man, leaving his food at the counter, walks to the machine and slowly works out how to use it. The next time you see him again, he’s holding his voucher and at the end of the queue again.

Now, any of you who’ve seen these machines at your local supermarket, you know these machines charge an extortionate fee to change your money into a voucher. 10% the last time I looked. That’s fine if you’ve just been popping change into a jar and don’t want to have to count it yourself. But if you’ve scraped together coins for a hot meal, 10% is a massive amount of your money gone.

So he’s queueing again, but is it just so he can pay for his chicken now, no fruit? His food’s getting colder at the till, and he’s been embarrassed by the cashier in the busy store.

A few miles away, there’s a girl sitting in an apartment in Dublin. She’s flicking through wedding magazines quietly smiling at the dresses and the perfect venues. People in suits and dresses smiling for photographers, drinks are being shared, and people generally having a good time.

She imagines her wedding day, her dress, her perfect venue. But afterwards she won’t be able to tell people that she is “married”, because she loves another woman. Her relationship will not get the same protection in Irish law because she loves another woman. 160 statutory differences between her “partnership” and other peoples marriage.

Two very different stories, I’ll grant you. But caused by the same problem. Our lack of empathy.

An inability to put yourself in another persons shoes. Whether that inability is through ignorance, hatred, or simply not having enough time to consider that person’s point of view, it eventually comes down to empathy.

It’s an easy thing to do - to lose that empathy at important times. I’m not going to say I’ve never gotten angry towards another human, or blindly considered my position to be much more important than those around me.

Look at all the stories in the news, and think about how the story might be different if the people in it could just think about points of view other than their own.

But we have to change, if not for everyone else who dearly need us to change, but for ourselves too. Empathy is so important. We have to be mindful of the position that other people are in, and try to accommodate them - especially when it would mean absolutely no difference to our lives. Count some change. Vote yes to marriage equality.

Or start somewhere else entirely. Start very small. Something as small as just indicating properly while in car. I know that sounds weird. But as Chris Coyier said:

Its small thing and people do it without thinking, but your indicators are all about telling other people what you’d want to know if you were in their position. If you can’t make the leap to “bigger” empathy struggles, start small and move your way up. I guarantee you, everyone around you will thank you more.

Got something to add, or something to complain about? Contact me on Twitter: @dan_oneill or email me dan.oneill@live.ie

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