Category Archives: Rhetorical Mastery

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The Attractive Human Capacity for Empathy

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Had we not been given so fitting a term, someone would have surely had to invent it.

It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from talk therapies to film—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire understandings that privilege compassion over judgment.  As film critic Roger Ebert noted about movies, “films are empathy machines.” We want to connect, and so we are drawn in when we see ourselves in the behaviors of others. It is an axiom of screenwriting that viewers will need to align with at least one character within a story.

Despite its obvious place as an essential feature of the fluent communicator, the capacity for empathy is unevenly distributed across any population.  Especially in these sour times, with many happy to describe their estrangement from others. But empathy remains a central capacity necessary for individuals engaged in true interactive communication.

Empathy is a bond created by recognition of oneself in someone else’s experience.  Or, as Martin Hoffman ingeniously describes it, empathy is “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own.”  It simultaneously acknowledges the authenticity of another’s feelings and suggests the momentary creation of a more personal shared experience. It is a reminder that we are not alone, even when we feel estranged from other people. Empathy happens when we meet the challenge to imagine the inner lives of others.

President Obama after Hurrican Sandy White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Obama after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 

The word itself was not the invention of academic psychology, but grew from German aesthetic theory at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Robert Vischer was looking for a way to express the idea of projecting oneself onto another object (Einfühlung). He wanted to find a vocabulary that would help in the analysis of the individual’s response to the visual arts.  Had he not discovered so fitting a term, others would have surely had to invent it.  It is virtually impossible to think of the effects of most forms of complex communication—from film to talk therapies—without addressing the capacities of key agents to acquire empathetic understanding.

To some extent we seem hardwired for simple forms of empathetic responses.  In his Social Intelligence 2006, Psychologist Daniel Goldman describes an unlearned “primal empathy” that flows from simple contact with others. We and other primates are naturally inclined to “read” facial and physical expressions, converting them into tentative understandings about what others may be experiencing.  The threshold of awareness can be measured at the margins, as when a primate or infant is able to recognize itself (as opposed to an unknown or threatening alien) on a reflective surface. This kind of “mirroring” begins a sequence of consciousness that includes thinking as if they were the other. “I know how you feel” may be a cliché for the ages, but it reasonably describes what we take to be relatively faithful inferences made in limitless ranges of situations. Knowledge of an individual and their world increases the likelihood that we will recognize some of their experiences as our own.  In friends those bonds deepen and grow.

Most of us worry if we don’t find this impulse alive somewhere in the words or actions of a new acquaintance.  We ‘read’ others for signs that they understand the challenges we express.  The alternative is indifference or hostility: responses that school us into accepting feelings of estrangement.

Still, even with sincere effort, there is no guarantee. Familiarity can sometimes make empathy whither. Sometimes the more we know about another person, the less of a connection we feel. Biographers of famous people sometime report this effect.  The advantage of a loyal pet is that it will rarely reveal a backstory that makes us question our willingness to project the best into their actions.

In clinical settings focusing on mental health, empathy still functions as a core value in client centered therapy.  The idea of talk therapy without a supportive and accurate listener is almost unthinkable.  If quick and critical judgment is the poison of too many troubled relationships, empathy and full consciousness of how each party is feeling is a necessary antidote. This therapy is predicated on the suspension of judgment long enough to understand another.  Not surprisingly, the inability to be sympathetic is a recurring symptom in problematic mental processing, including paranoia, narcissism, and some forms of autism.

Because empathy is a subjective experience, it is easier to observe its basic impulse than to accurately map its affective meanings. We can strive for objective measures of it, but its sources are always bound in alignments and understandings unique to the individual. Thus, the great paradox of empathy is also the paradox of communication:  we live in the isolation of a unique private consciousness, even while an innate quest for connection pulls us out of ourselves and toward others.

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Is Basic Conversational Fluency Atrophying?

524px Auguste Renoir Conversation

We are kidding ourselves if we believe “social media” substitutes for communication in a social world.

It seems that many of us are losing our will or abilities to sustain a genuine two-sided conversation. We now seem to be coaxed into being an audience for the rambles of acquaintances who are desperate for acknowledgment.  When did the idea of engaging in a true exchange with another become so problematic?   The experience is familiar: after an extended time with someone do we notice that we were little more than spectators to their thoughts and feelings.  Some have even mastered the kind of “no breath” ramble that discourages interruptions.

It has always been true that an evening with others might be hijacked by an acquaintance that needs to be heard. Whatever curiosity that could have once existed has been swamped by the conversational equivalent of a filibuster.

This kind of domination of what could be a genuine exchange can come from people in all age ranges. But my experience is that it is most pronounced among older adults who seem to exhibit of a person with fewer chances to have conversational partners. Dustin Hoffman gives us an example in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected )(2017).  His character, Harold, is a needy and aging sculptor, mostly in denial that he is no longer a hot in the fickle New York art scene. Baumbach has given Harold a bundle of declarations spoken into a void. Even his wife and adult children have tuned out.

It’s an old axiom in my field that opinion-giving is a common feature of the male communication style. But I see it more as becoming an equal-opportunity trait. With many exceptions, age seems to drain away interest in others. And so, conversations can devolve into long and unsolicited monologues: reports about what a person has been reading, commentaries or sermons offered but not invited, old stories retold, or the recitation of events in their extended families. Many seem to have forgotten how to share the conversational stage.  At the end of some of these longer performances it is easy to feel like a witness rather than a participant.

If it’s possible that advancing age makes us less willing to do the work of fully engaging with others, the other end of the life cycle poses its own challenges to the idea of genuine conversation. The primary cause seems to be increased self absorption, decreasing opportunities to listen to others with accuracy.

teens and cell phones

As noted here before, the most interesting research on this subject is from Sherry Turkle at M.I.T., who has been documenting the well-known drift of the young away from direct interaction to alternate channels that enlarge connectivity but diminish communication richness (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015). The platforms are well-known, including Instagram, Facebook, X, and other forms. Under the misnomer of “connectivity,” changes in technology and adjustments to them are slowly schooling younger generations to prefer communication that is mediated, self-contained and intentionally isolating. Many seem to be struggling to acquire the social intelligence needed to display empathy with others or exercise a degree of self-monitoring.

We are kidding ourselves if we believe the false equivalency that lets texting or “social media” substitute for living in the social world.

Turkle documents a wholesale flight away from direct conversation and toward electronic messaging.  In the words of many of her interviewees, meeting directly with someone is “risky,” “too emotional,” “an interruption,” and “anxiety producing.” As a high school senior she interviewed observed, “What’s wrong with conversation?  I’ll tell you what’s wrong with conversation!  It takes place in real time and you can’t control what you are going to say.”

Responses like these suggest a desire to escape the burdens of acquiring the essential rudiments of what psychologists sometimes call “social intelligence,” meaning the ability to navigate through relationships that unfold in real time.

It has always been true that some conversations are difficult.  But this kind of face-work is also the essential work of a complex adult life. As Turkle notes,

Many of the things we all struggle with in love and work can be helped by conversation. Without conversation, studies show that we are less empathic, less connected, less creative and fulfilled.  We are diminished, in retreat.  But to generations that grow up using their phones to text and messages, these studies may be describing losses they don't feel.

It’s worth remembering that forms of mediated communication are usually not additive, but reductive. Texts, e-mails, and even video games require various fundamentals of communication, but almost always take something away.  It may be immediacy.  It may be full interactivity or feedback. But the most consequential of all is a pale approximation of intimacy.

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