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September 27, 2015 | by  | in Features Opinion | [ssba]

Empathy Politics

“If I were a boy, I think I could understand”—Beyoncé

Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy fail to hit it off for a very long time. Rudeness, arrogance and pride are not exactly desirable qualities in a soulmate. Yet, presuming you have at least had the pleasure of watching Colin Firth romantically dive (somewhat inexplicably) into a lake, we all know how the story ends. Mr Darcy’s personal story is revealed to Elizabeth upon a visit to his mansion and she finally understands the reasons behind his initial behaviour. Everything then makes much more sense and they live happily ever after. Pride and Prejudice has always been an informative story with a fun romantic twist but as an older, guidance-seeking human being, I have now realised that Jane Austen teaches timeless romantic lessons.

While dishing out some valuable relationship advice, a wise family member once told me that there’s a difference between someone’s personality and their behaviour. Social psychologists (coincidentally the occupation of this family member) call this distinction the “fundamental attribution error”. This describes the tendency for people to give undue weight to someone’s personality to explain their behaviour rather than that person’s situation, and is often committed in everyday contexts where we tend to attribute someone’s behavioural failure to their character, while failing ourselves to take into account whether their rude remark is influenced by context. Maybe the person who pushed in front of you in the toilet line isn’t a b***h, they were just desperate. Maybe they didn’t smile at you in the corridor because they had just dropped their phone and cracked the screen. Maybe they said something completely thoughtless because they were trying to make up for their own insecurities.

People generally explain their own behaviour as a response to their particular situation. So why is it so difficult to recognise the situational influences on another person? Because the context is always more important to the “actor” themselves than to the “observer”. For your date, waiting hopefully at a lonely candle-lit table, your timeliness is the most important indicator of how seriously you take them. They can’t really know all the details of your great difficulty in finding a park with the machine rejecting all your 20 cent coins, unless they’re willing to listen to you explain. In Western societies, where individualism tends to run rampant, this “attribution error” is supposedly committed on a larger scale, than in cultures which have a more holistic outlook and pay greater attention to other people’s concerns. So if someone breaks the rules of the relationship game, it might not be a reflection of that someone’s personality but a completely incompatible life schedule that just kept getting in the way.

So perhaps the solution to all this inter-personal confusion is greater empathy—the endeavour to stand in someone else’s shoes. In many ways we are innately empathetic animals. Yawning, for example, is thought to be an ancient form of empathy, where you’re apparently more likely to yawn if the person next to you is a friend, family member or simply someone you find attractive. In the modern age our empathy skills are, however, frequently lamented to be lacking, perhaps why Facebook has recently announced the introduction of an “empathy button”. Obama has also called for greater discussion about the world’s current “empathy deficit”. The President’s belief is that greater empathy will spur on a greater incentive to take political and social action. Surely this principle equally applies to our personal relationships.

In spite of all this, there must also be boundaries and it’s simply not possible to be understanding of other people’s actions all the time. If someone has crossed a line and said something thoughtless and stupid then definitely tell them. Maybe some guys, or girls, are just insensitive and no matter how much you try to understand, they will continue to behave in a way that negatively affects you. Empathy can sometimes only go so far, especially if we have different shoe sizes.

But then again, responding to someone’s behaviour with a dose of understanding is worthwhile, because perhaps they’re not an arsehole, just a Mr Darcy.

People are often surprised Charlotte’s coffee choice is not a long black.


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