Chicken risotto and the elusive art of empathy

[Image courtesy of Dierk Schaefer at Flickr Creative Commons]

Last weekend, I went out for dinner with a friend. It being an Italian restaurant, and this being England, none of the waiters or waitresses were actually Italian.

Most of the accents I heard sounded Eastern European – including that of our waitress, a slip of a girl with pale skin and blond hair. She took our order swiftly and efficiently, explaining portion sizes and making recommendations.

But she didn’t smile, which made me feel just a little uncomfortable.

Now I don’t expect staff in restaurants to grin like the Cheshire Cat, and I do realise that they’re doing a hard job with long hours, but it does help if they look like they’re enjoying interacting with you. If nothing else, it encourages you to be more generous when it comes to tip time. 

“I reckon she’s Polish,” I said to my dinner companion. “I wonder if that’s what service is like there – efficient but impersonal. Maybe it’s the legacy of 40 years of communism, even for those people born after the fall of the wall.”

And then I stopped myself.

Not because the fritto misto had arrived, but because I realised I was doing something we all do, but should probably try to do a bit less: speculating and generalising.

And really, I should have known better. Especially in light of the book I’m currently reading.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? 

It’s called Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley. It caught my attention precisely because I often wonder if I’m misreading people, or if they’re misreading me.

The answer is yes to both.

But then, that’s what we humans do. We see the world through the prism of our own experience, and project our thoughts, feelings and preconceptions onto others people. We even do it with inanimate objects, when we see natural disasters as retribution for our misdeeds, or cajole our car into starting on a frosty morning.

The book is packed full of interesting insights into just how unreliable we are when it comes to reading and understanding other people.

Epley is Professor of Behavioural Science at the Booth Business School at the University of Chicago, so at times, he does get a little too focused on experiments and studies he and his colleagues carried out. I suspect most people (oops – there I go again) will pick up or download this book in the hope of finding more about the solution and less about the problem. 

He does get there, in the end. And my criticism is a minor one – because even when discussing his experiments, he deploys humour, and doesn’t get to dry or theoretical. This is a mass-market paperback after all, not a psychology textbook.

And though it’s not a laugh-out-loud read, there was one line that made me do just that.

To highlight the personal perspective we bring to all our observations, he quotes stand-up comedian George Carlin: “Have you ever noticed that everyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and everyone driving faster than you is a maniac?”

From the woman who claimed she was disfigured by a knife-wielding attacker but forgot how mirrors distort reality, to the child who wondered why only dads go grey, the book full of fascinating findings and amusing anecdotes.

But one really caught my attention. 

For better or for worse

Epley and his colleagues got people to predict the answers their spouses would give to certain questions, splitting his participants into three groups.

The first group just went ahead and answered the questions without any analysis or reflection. The second group was asked to put themselves into their spouse’s shoes before they predicted, so they could see things from their perspective. The third group was allowed to ask their spouses each question, but not to write anything down.

Two things stood out for me: first, the last group did perform best overall, but didn’t get every question right, even though they already had the answers. Their personal perspective still coloured their perception, and affected their memories. 

The second thing is that the second group (the shoe-wearers, you remember) fared worst of all – underperforming the first group, who just answered without much thought.

And the reason?

The second group actually magnified their preconceptions about their spouse rather than empathising – much like Democrats do when they imagine Republicans, and vice versa. Or (to get topical for a moment) Leave and Remain campaigners in the upcoming UK referendum.

Because these people are ‘other’ than themselves, they magnify the otherness – and in doing so, widen the gap between them.

You, me and them

Think for a moment about your prospects, clients, readers and audience members. What assumptions are you making about them?

Are you going with your gut, or trying to put yourself in their shoes? Or are you engaging with them on social media and in person to see what they really want?

And if they are telling you what they want, are you taking it at face value, or reinterpreting it so it fits in with your message, marketing plan or timeline? 

Our personal point of view influences virtually every interaction we have, and we very often lazily reach for stereotypes and generalise. But it’s not until we step outside of ourselves that we can really see things from somebody else’s point of view.

That’s when we can really start connecting. 

Which brings us back to the dinner table. One fritto misto and a chicken risotto later, the waitress was back with the bill. 

“Are you Polish?” I asked her, as she punched the total into her handheld credit-card terminal.

“No, I’m Latvian,” she said, her mouth almost forming a smile. Ever the language geek, I asked how you say ‘thank you’ in Latvian, and she told me. 

Paldies!” I repeated, mimicking her accent and intonation. 

Now the smile broadened, and she actually laughed. And I realised once again just how important it is to shift your perspective and start speaking somebody else’s language. 

Even if that language is your own.