There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy – the difference between understanding what others feel and feeling what they feel.
Whether you’re sympathetic or empathetic can make a big difference in business. (And, of course, in the rest of life.) Especially if you’re neither and treat everybody like a cat treats an injured mouse – you’ll end up eating cat food.
Sympathy and empathy are both good. But one is not necessarily better, ethically, than the other.
Modern moralizing tends to favor empathy over sympathy. The sympathetic formulation, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” is mocked. More to current taste in virtue is the empathetic saying – often cited as originating in a wise Native American aphorism – “Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.”
That, however, is not always an act of kindness. As the comedian Emo Philips says, “Never judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do judge him, you’re a mile away and you have his shoes.”
Also, after lacing up the other person’s footwear, a lot depends on where you’re walking to. If you’re walking a mile to his trailer home from his minimum wage graveyard shift job, that’s one thing. If you’re walking a mile to the 19th hole across the fairways and greens of Augusta National, that’s another, even if the shoes pinch.
Politics is a business. Sympathy and empathy play important roles in the political business.
(Although, let’s avoid discussion of politics at the present moment. Right now everybody on every side of every political issue is so pissed off that the finer emotions, like sympathy and empathy, have been pushed into the sand trap at Augusta or the dumpster at the trailer park or the gender-inclusive toilet in the bar where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used to work.)
Let’s cool off and go back in time to a period that we can view with dispassionate eyes. George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton were an interesting contrast between sympathy and empathy.
Bush was a deeply sympathetic man. He cared about other people’s feelings. And he was no dummy. He understood why people felt the way they felt.
On the other hand, Bush never seemed to have the imagination or temperament to practice empathy – to project himself into other people’s lives. In fact, George might have thought that would be rude, too intrusive, too inappropriately personal.
Meanwhile, Clinton was the most inappropriately personal man on earth. He had no problem projecting himself into other people’s… underwear. Not to mention lives.
Clinton was Mr. Empathy. “I feel your pain.” And when he said that he probably – in his over-imaginative theatrical brain full of shallow adolescent sensitivity – meant it. For a moment. Until it was somebody else’s turn for Bill to feel their… whatever.
But did Bill have any real sympathy for other people? We’ll have to ask Hillary. You first.
Bush’s calm, reasonable, and self-controlled attitude toward the mild recession at the end of his administration was interpreted as cold-hearted. His apparent lack of empathy cost him his re-election.
Clinton’s ability to act the part of Empathizer-in-Chief won him the White House.
Yet, in retrospect, we see one of them as a kind, decent man who loved America and Americans and who did his best for his fellow citizens. And we sympathize.
And we see the other as having nothing but the most sympathetic possible feelings – for himself. Just an old, conceited, rich, crony capitalist from whom nobody ever wants to hear anything again. And we don’t empathize with him at all.
As it is in the business of politics, so it is in the business of business. Another example of sympathy contrasting with empathy would be Facebook and Amazon.
Leaving aside, for the moment, Facebook’s reputational and regulatory problems and Amazon’s 50% dominance of online commerce and much larger market capitalization, Facebook is by far the more extraordinary business success.
That’s because Amazon is, with all its e-bells and e-whistles, just a store that delivers – which the corner grocery had a boy doing 100 years ago.
Facebook came out of nowhere from nothing – a product nobody knew existed that filled no stated need or obvious want and suddenly everybody had to have it.
The idea behind Facebook was Harvard’s “Face Book,” a campus publication containing the pictures and names of everyone in the Harvard dormitories. Mark Zuckerberg was immediately sympathetic to the idea that everyone would “like” to know other people.
Whether there was any empathy involved, I have no idea. Maybe Zuckerberg was lonely. Or – captain of his prep school fencing team, member of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, starting Facebook with friends from his dorm– maybe he wasn’t. But no empathy was necessary. All that was needed was understanding what others feel.
Amazon is different. Jeff Bezos empathized with his customers. He put himself in our place – which is sitting on our butts in front of a computer thinking, “It would be a hassle to go out and shop.” Whether he has any sympathy for us, who can tell? Sympathy is beside the point.
Personally, as emotions go, I prefer sympathy to empathy. Trying to understand people’s feelings is steadier, more sensible, and less self-dramatizing….
Personally, as emotions go, I prefer sympathy to empathy. Trying to understand people’s feelings is steadier, more sensible, and less self-dramatizing than trying to project yourself into their underwear or steal their shoes. Nevertheless… Empathy may be a better business tool than sympathy, as George H. W. Bush learned in his loss to Bill Clinton.
Where do you think Facebook and Amazon will be in 10 years?
When I mention Facebook to my college-age daughter she doesn’t just roll her eyes at me like I’m the extinct social media wooly mammoth that I am. She also gives me a look of alarmed exasperation as if I’d suggested she give up Uber and start hitchhiking.
“Facebook is creepy,” she says. “The ads stalk you. The people stalk you. All your data gets hacked.”
As for where Amazon will be in 10 years?… Right where it is now, and then some, is my guess.
Now excuse me, the UPS man is at the door.