4 Signs to Tell if Someone May be Lacking in Basic Empathy
Empathy: you can “feel” what others “feel”, so to speak. It could be a mental signal, a vision that plays out in the mind, a physical feeling on the skin. People describe it as a multitude of different sensations. It’s a solid driving force in one’s ability to care for someone else beyond the surface level.
Many people (especially on this platform) refer to it as a “super-power”, it’s the blade wielded most powerfully by the so few “empaths” of the world. In my personal opinion, I find that framework to be a little bit pretentious. Partly from the implication that it is a rare gift and partly because there are those placing empathy on a pedestal where it I don’t think it belongs, as if empathy is something not everyone is worthy of having; an achievement. In my mind, that’s secret narcissism. I would humbly urge you to discard that idea.
I think empathy is one of the most important qualities a person can possess, but I don’t think it is a super power. I feel it is more like a muscle: it can be worked and strengthened if you want it to be more potent. But, I believe it is also like a science: you have to discover that it exists before it can be studied. It requires you to ask “why” first. Why have empathy? If you cannot come up with an answer to that, I would urge you to think about it more.
I have some theories about the ways empathy manifests, which may be why it feels so “rare” these days. Most if them stem from behavioral things, which you probably already pick up on with people you know.
Here’s my list of what I feel are some of the “big red flags” from people who lack basic empathy, just from my experience. This list has room for growth. There are a lot of crossovers with “narcissism”, but I’m not totally comfortable calling someone who lacks basic empathy a “narcissist”. That feels a little unfair and it’s not my call to make.
They don’t listen
Someone who lacks a developed sense of empathy typically wants to speak and be heard. They don’t choose their opportunity because they don’t care who’s turn it is. It’s always there because their input is the most important. This sounds like straight-up narcissism, but a key differentiator is how they don’t reciprocate with an appropriate emotional response (or with any). They may give the next speaker eye-contact, but they’re impatiently waiting their turn to go back to their point. They’re not listening. They’re not present with you and your take on the conversation.
Often, they think they’re doing you a favor by talking to you. One way you can pick up on this by their levels of excitement in the conversation. Making a good point feels good to anyone, especially when you get a sense of validation from whomever you’re speaking with. Someone who lacks basic empathy doesn’t really want to share that good feeling. They get a rise out of being the one to wow someone with their words. To them; they are the expert, or their perspective is more valuable or exciting than yours. You’ll see it on their face when they’re delivering what they think is a hot take. If you’re not blown away by them, that doesn’t matter because they’re already charmed by hearing themselves. They’ll feel validated just dropping their wisdom on you, regardless of your reaction. You’re welcome.
They demoralize while they criticize and/or enjoy giving bad news
I used to work at a warehouse, which is a humbling job and one I don’t regret doing. I learned a lot about myself and about other people. There was one person in particular who I really studied, because it wasn’t obvious to me at first what was so toxic about her behavior towards me. She was my supervisor and, to her credit, she was very good at her job. Great with numbers. But, she had a power complex. That part was obvious, but I couldn’t exactly figure out where it stemmed from.
One day, after working there a couple months, she called to me from the ground level while I was a story up on a picker lift, offloading boxes containing gallon cans of wood stain. I knew the routine by now, I made a mistake in my counts and she wanted to tell me about it.
Here’s the short version of what transpired:
“Casey.” She said.
“Yup.” I said.
“You know that the boxes of tint have 8 cans in them right? You can see it written on the box, right?”
Note: She’s smiling at me and pointing to one of the boxes on my lift, motioning to the area that a number would be printed.
“Yes, I know.” I say.
“Well your counts for your offload say you stacked 50… which… Casey, do you know that 8 doesn’t go into 50?”
“I understand that. I’m sorry. I can go re-count.” I say.
“Okay. Please try and count better the first time around, then I wont have to come find you. Counting should be the easy part.” She said.
I’m very familiar and open to someone “giving me a hard time” for the sake of humor. This was definitely not her “busting my chops” like an old friend. She really seemed to enjoy embarrassing me. She wouldn’t do it publicly. She always confronted me in private, so it was always her word against mine.
This is just one of many similar scenarios which played out in my short experience there. What was annoying is that we had radios, so she never needed to actually seek me out. It was incredibly inefficient, which I told her, but she insisted on walking the many aisles to look for me when I made a mistake. My complaints about her behavior fell on deaf ears.
As time went on, I began to notice in these scenarios that she always approached me with a somber demeanor. By the time she had finished showing me my mistake, she had a renewed kick in her step. She always took opportunities to ask me insulting questions, expecting an answer. Things pertaining to my ability to stack boxes or if I needed to shadow a fellow coworker to learn how they count. It was sardonic corporate accountability speak, but demoralizing me seemed to energized her. The most important thing I remember, and probably the biggest cue that she enjoyed doing this, was never something she said. It was the look on her face. Her mouth was a diplomatic smile, but the look in her eyes was “I got you”.
The discussions we had about her behavior were futile. The more I tried to explain to her that she was harming my work ethic, not helping, the less sense it made to her. Delivering accurate shipment counts to our boss was her primary focus, so by showing me my mistakes, she was fixing the problems. She didn’t understand that how she was doing it was making me resentful. I could never get through to her. It soon became clear to me that she was looking for my mistakes not only to get accurate counts, but to get a dopamine kick from giving me the bad news.
I thought this was a mistake on my interpretation of her for many years. This was until I got to the corporate job I left last year and met a co-worker with the same thirst. It was identical in every way and I recognized it very quickly, the first sign being the “I got you” look in their eyes.
They do not appear to value the lives of animals
A couple summers ago a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go fishing with him and one of his buddies who I didn’t know very well. I love fishing, so I joined. My friend’s friend was a guy named Blake. I didn’t like Blake when we first met up with him, mostly because he talked constantly about things like guns and trucks and seldom let the conversations steer away from those topics. It was a beautiful day and the fish were biting, so I really didn’t care.
What bothered me is the way he treated his dog and the way he treated fish when he caught them.
He was beating his dog when we drove up to the dock. Not like closed-fist pummeling it, but basically slapping it and yelling at it while it was cornered in his truck. It barked once when me and my friend approached them. He took off his shoe and opened the door, then yelled “shut the fuck up Barry!” and hit it with his shoe. He slammed the door and the dog whimpered. He chuckled at us.
“Dude…” I said.
“My dog.” He said back, putting his shoe on.
While we were on the boat, he was the lucky one to snag a few more fish than my friend and I. Each one he pulled out, he took no time to rip the hook out of the fish’s mouth, leaving it’s jaw half torn and mostly useless. I’m aware that things like the Bible say we can basically do whatever to fish, they exist for us and nature to take advantage of, but my heart of hearts sees the blood ooze from a bass’s mouth when Blake ripped the hook out like he’s starting a lawnmower. I can’t imagine that is painless for the fish.
Pain is something experienced vicariously with empathic people. It can be so intense that it can mirror the psychological damage sustained from the real deal. People who cannot see pain when it is inflicted on others is someone to be extremely wary of. They way someone treats an animal is a fantastic litmus test for how they’re likely to treat other people who inconvenience them.
Pain is just one facet. It goes the same for how people treat animals which are scared, hungry, cold, sick, grieving, etc. If I meet someone who exhibits a lack of acknowledgement of these things in an animal, I tend to stay away from them.
They demand things
Someone who lacks basic empathy has a sense of entitlement. They tend to trample on people who get between them and their desires, no matter how trivial they may be. You’ve probably read a story on this platform about watching how someone you know treats service staff, whether they are respectful or rude. This is something I subscribe to and I’m not opposed to creating an echo-chamber here.
Treat service staff with respect. Waiters and waitresses, bar tenders, janitors, the guy at the car wash who power-washes your rims on the way in, doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you recognize them as people. You don’t have to go way out of your way. Treat them like a stranger you’re intrinsically kind to. If you’re out to lunch with someone and they treat the waitress like a machine, you can be sure that they’ll treat you the same if they figure themselves above you. You can imagine they probably already do, unless they need from you something that you’re not occupationally required to give them.
You don’t have to be an “empath” to have empathy. Flex that muscle, make it strong. It will open your heart up, I can promise you that.
Thank you for reading.
This post originally ran on Medium
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