Extending the Edges of Empathy

I was listening to the radio yesterday during my long Thursday morning commute, and the topic of the day was “Jobs You Used To Have That Have Nothing To Do With The Job You Have Now.” Callers would call in and and we would hear from nurses that used to be flight attendants, and from office managers who used to be pre-school teachers, and it was a fine way to pass the time as I drove south to my job as a voice teacher. Of course I used to be an opera singer. And a pizza chef. And a supermarket cashier. And a file clerk. And an office manager. And a rollerskating door-to-door Christmas tree salesman. But life changes. We change. We move on.

What really stuck in my mind, as the conversation progressed over the airwaves, was when people started talking about the empathy they felt for people who now did the jobs they used to do. Former waiters would mention how they always leave a big tip now, because they know where those people are coming from. Former department store clerks would talk about how, when there are long holiday lines, they would always be patient and smile. Because, hey, they’d been there. Almost to a person, the callers would talk about how they were much more understanding of the people involved in their own prior professions, because they personally understood the struggles and stresses of those jobs. This is a good thing. I do this too. When I go through the checkout line at the supermarket I always, every time, am reminded of when I was on the other side of the conveyor belt, and I am apt to give them a break when they are slow, confused, or make a mistake. I get it. I’ve been there.

What is all the more fascinating to me though is that no one, not a single person, seemed willing to make the leap to extending empathy to people in other professions. It was almost like it didn’t even need to be said. We are connected to those with whom we share a common professional bond, no matter how distant, but we are not connected to everyone else. The former waiters did not say, “Oh, good point about those department store clerks. I will try to be more understanding next time.” The former department store clerks did not say, “Huh, yeah, waiters have a tough job. I will always tip more generously when I dine out.” No, everyone stayed in their own bubbles, extending empathy only as far as their own experiences.

What if we extend the edges of the bubble? What if we made the leap and said that it is not only supermarket cashiers that deserve patience and respect, but all cashiers? Even though I have never worked at McDonald’s, surely my experience working at Dairy Queen is similar enough to extend them a bit of empathy? And is the person taking orders at the drive-through window really so different from the person bringing you your dessert menu? Are they so different from the people at the AT&T Store, selling you a new iPhone? What is it that stops us from extending that extra layer of courtesy and understanding to those people?

I know I am guilty of this. I know I treat supermarket cashiers better than department store cashiers. Not that I treat anyone poorly, but I am much less likely to give a frustrated look or an annoyed eye roll to the customer behind me in line in the supermarket than I am in other stores. I am more likely to feel upset when a waiter walks by my table without refilling my drink than when the pizza guy is a few minutes late. I have delivered pizzas. I get it. But what I somehow didn’t get is that every job is hard. Every job has challenges. Just because I don’t know specifically what they are doesn’t mean that I get to huff and judge, secure in the knowledge that I could do it better if I had that job. It will be hard, but from now on I am going to try to treat everyone that I encounter like a supermarket cashier. I am going to treat them like I know where they’re coming from, and I’m going to imagine that they could use a friendly face. I am going to extend the edges of empathy as far as I can. Because someday I’m going to need it back from the world myself.

Posted in Job.

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