My Uncle Pete had not said anything since I had arrived at his house, and my 12-year-old self had trouble processing it.
Mom was talking to Aunt Mary as we sat around a small table while Pete sat quietly, looking out a window. He hadn’t even looked at me, which left me wondering if I had done something to offend him the last time I saw him.
Even adults struggle to understand someone else’s silence. But I was a kid and this was my favorite uncle, the one who used to drive me around the vast estate where he served as caretaker in Greenwich, Conn. He even let me shift the Willys Jeep as he hit the clutch and laughed. Pete was always laughing and telling stories embroidered with his Irish brogue.
During that last visit, my hurt deepened with confusion as Pete picked up a cup and struggled to get a sip. The cup shook, splashing tea over the side in what looked like an almost comical take on Parkinson’s disease. But this was real. I could see the shame and the terror in Pete’s eyes when he put the cup down and finally looked at me.
Mom and Mary kept talking as if nothing odd happened. I didn’t even know what Parkinson’s was, so I am sure that I had “What the hell was that!?!” written all over my face.
It’s Not About You
It was only years later that I came to understand the depths of Uncle Pete’s anguish in the last time I saw him, even though his haunted look stayed with me. It took even longer for me to appreciate that the behavior of others is not about us.
Quite often, it is not even about them. That is the thing to remember about “mean people.”
In this month’s interview with Publisher Paul Feldman, content marketer Michael Brenner talks about how mean people suck the joy out of life and work. Not only is it unpleasant to work with mean people, but they also lead to wasted time and money.
Mean people set up a feedback loop where reaction to their behavior amplifies the reaction to the reaction, and so on.
We can stop that loop by not reacting with anger. Yes, easy to say, but not so easy to practice.
This all connects to empathy. Brenner says mean people are disconnected from empathy and the only way to counter them is with empathy — basically asking ourselves why they are the way they are.
“Giving” is the theme in our main feature this month from Managing Editor Susan Rupe. In that article, readers learn what motivates individuals and companies to give to others.
In many of those stories, empathy is the unmistakable motivator. In fact, one of the examples is a program where people live on the same amount of money that food stamp recipients get. A person quoted in the article saw that trying to maintain a food budget that low would risk his daughter’s life because her allergies require higher-priced options that would have to be compromised.
Learning To Understand
Empathy is when we endure a bout of debilitating back or foot pain and we finally understand why older people always seem cranky. It is the pain talking.
But we have difficulty being generous with that understanding. We often assume the poor are destitute because of their decisions, that people are victims because they place themselves in peril. It is only when we are in those circumstances that we understand why people behave the way they do.
George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Mellon University researcher, looked into the phenomenon in his study, “Hot–Cold Empathy Gaps and Medical Decision Making.” He found that people in a “cold” or calm state cannot fully appreciate how they would behave in a “hot” or emotionally heightened state.
“When one is not hungry, afraid or in pain, it is difficult to imagine what it would feel like to experience one of these states, or to fully appreciate the motivational power such states could have over one’s own behavior,” Loewenstein wrote. “Such cold-to-hot empathy gaps have diverse consequences for decision making, such as impeding efforts at self-control.”
Given that, ask yourself: Are you you when you are angry, in excruciating pain or drunk?
We often say that we were not ourselves in those cases. When people are mean, it is more about what is going on with them. If we react in anger, we are just continuing to spin that wheel. The short-term satisfaction of telling someone off does not pay off in the long term.
Here is where generosity comes in. We can give the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know what others are going through. We can give them patience and not respond spontaneously. Once we find out what their circumstances are, we can make a change in that situation.
In these days of deeper division, many of us act like we want the “other side” to just wither and die. But every system has a left, right and center. Even if one side is lobbed off, like say in the Russian Revolution, the side that remains splits into a new left, right and center.
We have to live with our families, neighbors and co-workers. No matter where they are on whatever spectrum, we all have a shared experience. And we all depend on each other for our survival.
We can start with understanding what is happening with someone we love sitting on the other side of the table.