The Callous vs. the Empathetic; Markings along the Road

Posted by jlubans on October 25, 2016

Caption: Jerk Highway

On the heels of my most recent venture into the jerk domain –many of us own property there - I was taken with a headline, “Baltics have the least empathetic people in the world.”
Naturally, being a Balt (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania make up the Baltics) I was interested in how we earned that dubious distinction! (Caution: while one can find un-empathetic behavior all over northern Europe, I’ve also experienced unparalleled kindness.)
Is one’s empathy a measure of one’s jerkitude? While we all have an idea of what a jerk is, we do not all agree on a definition.
The empathy article not only lists out the good, the bad and the ugly** but also gives us a working definition of empathy.
That’s the “tendency to be psychologically in tune with others’ feelings and perspectives.” In other words, we all have “tendencies to feel concern and compassion for others” but some of us are more so inclined than others. It is in our DNA.
Empathy also includes the tendency and capacity “to imagine different viewpoints beyond one’s own.” That, of course, is highly relevant to the workplace when groups seek best solutions from among divergent, competing views.
You may recall that Schwitzgebel defines the jerk as
“ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority.” That sounds like a failing grade on the empathy scoreboard.
The empathy researchers made use of the “Big Five” personality traits to help determine national levels of empathy.
The big five as defined in the paper:
1. “Openness to experience is the degree to which people are imaginative, creative, tolerant, and introspective.”
2. “Conscientiousness is the tendency toward being reliable, organized, and dutiful.”
3. “Extraversion is a tendency toward activity, assertiveness, and talkativeness.”
4. “Agreeableness is the degree to which people are kind, gentle, and generous.”
5. “Neuroticism (vs. Emotional Stability) is the degree to which people regularly experience negative affect such as irritability, depression, and anxiety.”
Can we say with certainty that jerks score poorly on the Big Five? Probably not, but let’s ask the jerks we know:
1. Openness to experience. (A jerk responds: “Of course I am creative, imaginative! Maybe I am intolerant but then I am surrounded by bozos.”
2. Conscientiousness. Jerk: “You bet! I am more responsible than anyone on this team and I do a better job.”
3. Extraversion. Jerk. “Look, I like to get the job done. The less talk the better. So yes, I can have a low score here but only for the right reasons; I do not waste time in idle chatter.”
4.. Agreeableness. Jerk: “Am I considerate and kind? Of course, but only up to a point. I have high expectations so I don’t suffer fools gladly.”
5. Neuroticism. Jerk: “Well you’ve got me on that one, but it is not my fault. I am surrounded by the inept and the incompetent; more than enough to spoil my day. It’s what happens when you have to work with jerks.”
So where does that leave us? At the end of my story about the Estonian angel a reader offers a suggestion for those of us wanting to be less jerkish and more emphathetic: “I have always thought and lived by the rule that kindness (of any kind) is life's greatest wisdom! A family saying in our house growing up was: an error in kindness (even if you do the wrong thing trying to help) is NEVER an error. The other idea is to reciprocate received kindness, ‘Pass it on.’"

*Source: William J. Chopik, et al.
Differences in Empathic Concern and Perspective Taking Across 63 Countries” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology October 14, 2016

**Countries with the highest empathy: Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Denmark, and the United Arab Emirates! (Emphasis added.)
Least empathetic countries: Lithuania, Venezuela, Estonia, Poland, and Bulgaria.
It is interesting to note that the members of the Low Five were or is ruled by a totalitarian, communist system. The researchers, for whatever reason, do not consider the cumulative effect of totalitarianism on a nation’s psyche and empathy. Fear of speaking out makes one circumspect, and inhibits reaching out to others. Make no eye contact with strangers; you mind your own business, lest someone mind yours.
The Baltics became democratic republics (again!) between 1989 and 91; believe me, the effects of a brutal regime linger long after the last KGB interrogator drops dead in his dacha.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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