Writing Right with Dmitri: Working on Empathy

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Writing Right with Dmitri: Working on Empathy

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Minorvogonpoet made a good observation a couple of weeks ago. She said, 'Maybe what the writer of fiction needs most is empathy – that ability to put yourself in another person's shoes.'

Well said. How do you do that? One way might be not to act like you're from Pittsburgh.

Don't get me wrong. Pittsburghers and other people from western Pennsylvania, all the way up the side of the Commonwealth to Erie, are the salt of the earth. I appreciate them. They are good and kind, they are modest, and they have a good sense of humour. But they have a peculiarity that makes me avoid small talk around them. In fact, I almost forgot entirely how to make small talk when growing up. That was due to their reaction to it.

In western Pennsylvania, a lot of people assume that if they know something, the whole world does. For instance, if I were to ask, 'Which river is that town on?' they'd exclaim, 'Why everybody knows it's on the Allegheny/Monongahela/Ohio/Clarion/whatever. Where have you been?' They cannot fathom your inexplicable ignorance.

If, on the other hand, you ask about something they don't know, such as 'How does the wiring work on the side of my house?' or 'How did the statue on the courthouse get damaged?' they are very likely to retort, sarcastically, 'I have no idea.' Meaning, 'Only an idiot would assume anyone knew the answer to that question.'

Offering information is an even iffier proposition. Say something on a subject not generally known, and they are likely to become irritated. 'I've never heard of that,' is actually a put-down. So you can imagine that my high school conversation often revolved, as did Eliza Doolittle's at tea, around the weather and everyone's health. Although the weather could be a fraught topic: 'You call this cold? Why, I like it. . . ' It is no wonder I preferred to hang around nerds and geeks who greeted my informational titbits about, say, Dracula or World War II tanks with unbridled enthusiasm and a few titbits of their own.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with empathy? Well, empathy begins by understanding that other people aren't like you. They don't necessarily know what you know. They may not share your experiences. They probably don't have the same sentimental associations with the same pop songs that you and your friends do. They may, in a word, be different. Finding out how they are different, and not judging them for it, is the first step to understanding.

You can't walk in another shoes until you've taken their shoe size. Try it something. How do you do that? You ask questions and listen. While you're listening, don't think of what you're going to say next. Don't work out reasons why they're wrong and you're right. Instead, try to imagine what they're telling you. Imagining it will get you closer to empathy, and you'll think of intelligent questions to ask.

This doesn't mean you leave your own critical attitude at the door. Last night (as I write this), Stephen Colbert interviewed Oliver Stone on Colbert's show. The subject was Stone's new documentary containing Stone's interviews with Vladimir Putin. Colbert hadn't had a chance to see the film, but was skeptical about Stone's non-confrontational attitude toward Putin. Wisely, Colbert was open but restrained in his questioning, although his audience was not, openly laughing at some of Stone's claims about the Russian leader. Stone stressed that he 'respected' Putin's positions. Many of us find that statement kind of hard to relate to, because we tend to view Putin in a very negative light. That's our right. I won't link to the segment, because most of my readers can't view Colbert videos from the US. If you can find it from a European sources, I hope you get a chance to watch this interview, and judge for yourself how well Colbert and Stone use their listening skills. Just where we place the cursor on issues like this is an individual matter.

So how will you work on your empathy skills? Will you try listening to that elderly relative tell about their war one more time? Will you watch a film or read a book about something completely outside your own experience? Will you just go visit a museum, view some material culture artefacts, and think about what they signified to the users? Go for it. Remind yourself that these are professional tools. But hey, they might just enrich your own life as well.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

03.07.17 Front Page

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