Conor in the NY Museum of Modern Art, February 2017
One of the more curious things about understanding empathy is the desire for many researchers, or just general commentators, to apply the ’empathy’ label to actions, or even desires and thoughts, without context.
I’ll start out by saying that it can be done — but it’s perilous, and difficult to do correctly. The reason is that empathy is even at its most basic a dynamic between two people. Take mirroring behavior — it takes two to mirror. One to yawn, and the other to, well, yawn.
Event the most basic of acts that might be recommended in the job arena need some level of consideration. Take a straightforward behavior like learning names. For me, as a long-time teacher, and a teacher mentor, I recommend to all my young faculty members to learn as many of the students’ names as they can in the classroom. The reasons break out along pretty straightforward lines, as you might assume.
- Performance-based thinking/v-Meme — knowing each student’s name allows me to focus in on helping each student improve, through establishing a direct mentor-student link.
- Communitarian-based thinking/v-Meme — knowing each student’s name, and using it in the context of classroom discussions.
- Global Systemic thinking/v-Meme — knowing all the students’ names allows for optimal group formation, along with figuring out how the slackers are and distributing them.
And so on. Right? OK, now if I had to just guess the v-Meme that most readers of this blog would assign to this behavior, it would likely be ‘Communitarian’. And I’d also likely assume that most of you would consider it a good example of empathetic behavior. How can you establish a connection with someone if you don’t know who they are?
But what if you were a relational disruptor? What about these interpretations?
- Authoritarian — knowing each students’ name gives you an opportunity to be invasive with personal boundaries — if a given student screws up, or attempts to collaborate with another student, you can call them out. They can run, but they can’t hide.
- Legalistic/Absolutistic — knowing each student’s name allows you to map each one into a seat for predetermined performance. We want the A students up front, the B students in the middle, and the C students toward the back, since we already know who’s going to do well in the class anyway.
Context and dynamic matter. I’d be willing to bet that professors that know students’ names are more empathetic. But it would be an interesting quick survey to understand the operative reasons.