Empathy matters. It’s the ability to step into another person’s shoes, feel how uncomfortable those shoes are, and learn how hard it would be to walk a mile in them.
It doesn’t take much. Really, it’s a matter of showing that you respect the obstacles, trials and challenges that a person is facing in their life. It’s about looking up from your own shit to see the shit someone else has to deal with.
For a lot of people, empathy comes quite naturally. If they saw someone stumble in the street, they’d help them up.
If they hated someone’s work, they wouldn’t seek out that person face to face and try to tear them down or destroy them. But online, that empathy goes out the window. Online, it no longer matters.
We treat other people like Non-Player Characters in some RPG. As if they exist just to give us quests and information, but they don’t really have any significance at all.
And because they don’t have significance, because they’re not real players like us, we reserve the right to fucking trash them. To harass them. Shame them. Attack them. Abuse them. Threaten them.
I want to talk about being a human. The things that we do, and don’t do, and forget about, from time to time when we talk to each other online.
If I could give you only one direction, it would be to take 5 minutes. Taking 5 minutes is important. This is something I picked up from Jason Fried — before you jump to respond to someone, argue with someone or attack someone, just take 5 minutes. Take 5 minutes to breathe, to relax, to let it go, and invite a distraction into your life.
If you still want to go on the offensive, that time will have calmed you down enough to present a much more reasoned, friendly and open discussion. It won’t be an attack, it won’t come from a place of anger, and it’s going to make sure you don’t sound petulant.
You also can’t just operate on autopilot. That’s no way to live. When you’re interacting with people, you need to be constantly aware of the actions you are taking, the things you are saying and what your reasons are.
If you can’t find a legitimate reason for the way you’re interacting with people and the way you’re expressing yourself, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to find a reason either. And you’re going to come across as someone who is lashing out.
Remember that not everyone wants your opinion. You’ve probably heard this saying before. Opinions are like assholes. We’ve all got one, but it’s rude to shove it everyone’s face.
A lot of the time, you can listen to someone without giving your opinion. You can read something without giving your opinion. You do not always have a right to express your opinion wherever, whenever and however you choose.
This is something that I feel has been fucked for us by every clueless brand online. They exhort their customers to Have Their Say. Well, people don’t always want to hear Your Say. Sometimes, people want you to shut up and leave them alone. And for the record, when that happens your right to free speech doesn’t apply. Free speech doesn’t mean you get to say whatever half cocked bullshit just popped into your head, free of consequences.
One last point I want to make. You know that awesome response, comment or think piece you’re writing? Would you say that to someone’s face? Would you say it in that way? Would you say it in that way, if the person was your partner, sibling or parent?
It’s tough to see the problems in the way we interact until we’ve put that interaction in another context. A context that raises our own empathy.
Empathy isn’t a money maker. It’s not a productivity tip. It’s not a life-hack. It’s a basic requirement for being a decent human being.
Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, designer and creative director. She is the founder of branding and advertising firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.
Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack, and the author of the book #DIY, a manifesto for indie creativity.