Don’t be quick to judge: The importance of empathy and understanding in interactions
“As the seventeenth-century empiricist John Locke put it, someone who tastes a pineapple for the first time (an exotic fruit in Locke’s England) knows something that those who haven’t had the pleasure don’t know: what a pineapple tastes like.”
— Michael P. Lynch
Many years ago, I visited the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, California. The museum showcases prehistoric animals, primarily mammals, that had gotten trapped in the tar pits, perished, and then were later excavated. The tar pits were composed of viscous oil that had risen to the surface and thickened over thousands of years. Outside the museum are replicas of Columbian mammoths, including one trapped in a tar pond with its tusks pointed skyward in a sign of panic. The Columbian mammoth is an extinct large mammal distantly related to the modern elephant. With their enormous, curved tusks, these giants roamed most of North America over ten thousand years ago. As I observed the scene, a tourist walked up next to me, stopped briefly, and asked, “Are they real?”. I tried to contain my puzzled look and said that they were not alive and were, in fact, statues.
To be critical of that person for not recognizing that these mammoths were not living animals and only realistic recreations is not empathetic to them. We use our brains to see, and we connect the dots of what we see by drawing on our previous experiences. Our interpretation of what we see can also depend on our mood, prior knowledge, perspective, culture, distractions, expectations, or lack of attentiveness. There could be other factors for not recognizing that the mammoths were not alive. Maybe the confusion of the tourist stemmed from visiting a zoo a few hours ago, a movie, having no coffee, too little sleep, or all the above. One can only guess.
This incident reminds me of the entertainment media that uses the old trope of a person from another country or planet visiting a place for the first time where they are unfamiliar with the customs, language, or rules. It’s the same formula for getting laughs from seeing an inexperienced person’s confusion, ignorance, and cluelessness. Sometimes we judge people too harshly for not knowing what we know. Why do we criticize someone who hasn’t read a particular philosopher, doesn’t understand certain terminology, hasn’t seen a specific movie, or has never read an 18th-century manifesto? If we can consider another person’s experiences, we may be able see areas that overlap or diverge from our own experiences — we might learn something new, broaden our own understanding, or find an opportunity to share our own knowledge. We can appreciate what we have in common and learn more from our differences.
We sometimes lack information when it is not a part of our expertise. For example, if you said something about a subject you were unfamiliar with at a meeting, your coworkers and associates might spend several lingering minutes criticizing you for your lack of knowledge. Making comments along the lines of “Who doesn’t know this?” “Everybody knows this,” or, worse, “Are you new here?” However, the person lacking relevant information could greatly benefit and grow in knowledge if we take the initiative to share and explain the concept without criticism.
When did you first hear the word Gigantopithecus? Was it at the school library, from a friend, a television show, or just now? Are you not familiar with what this is? It’s a sizeable extinct ape from the Early to Middle Pleistocene in southern China. Suppose you hadn’t heard of it until today, is that a fault or a missed opportunity? Or has it simply never presented itself as a relevant fact in your life?
Throughout our lives, we continually collect pieces of knowledge. Much like puzzle pieces, as we lay each piece in place, a new or bigger picture emerges. Our experience and perspective are rewritten with each new puzzle piece. As further details emerge, a different perspective appears. We gain a better understanding of various topics over time. Sometimes it’s an “Aha!” moment. Sometimes it’s a “Why did I not see this before?” moment therefore we should celebrate when our fellow humans learn something new and not criticize them for not knowing sooner.
As marketers and UX designers, our goal is to understand our customers, their needs, and the problems they are trying to solve. During our research, we ask who, what, and why. As we collect data, review tracking information, and observe people using our products, we ought to be considerate and understanding of what we see in our customers’ behavior and not make remarks to others such as “The customer is stupid,” or “What were they thinking when they selected this logo and not that logo?”
Perhaps we are not mindful of this because we sometimes rely on our personal perspective and internal narrative without giving other people consideration or the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we assume, based on our personal experience, that people know what we know and see what we see. We sometimes project our own level of knowledge onto other people’s thoughts and assume to know why they are doing what they are doing without reaching out for clarity.
This is the challenge. It’s easy to gossip with our friends and coworkers about individuals being confused or not knowing or misinterpreting something. It’s easy to denounce someone as stupid or mock them instead of being empathetic. The best approach to combating our judgments is to build our awareness, skills, and knowledge for interacting with people who are not in our profession. This can be done with mental tools like emotional intelligence (the ability to recognize your emotions and the emotions of others), being considerate of other people’s perspectives, and cultivating empathy and intellectual humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers. Listen to other people’s viewpoints, have a conversation with people who think differently than you do, ask sincere questions, share your knowledge and learnings and keep the lines of communication open without being judgmental. The next time you visit the La Brea tar pit, someone may ask you if the mammoths are real. Reply graciously, with empathy, without teasing, and say “They are statues.”