Don't Read to Reply: A Lesson About Empathy

Don’t Read to Reply: A Lesson About Empathy

One of our biggest communication problems is we do not listen to understand, we listen to reply.

I found that nugget of wisdom on Pinterest via LifeHack.Org.

And I think this quote can relate to how we consume stories online. Many people read to reply.

If there is one quality that is in dire supply on the internet, it would have to be empathy.

I believe empathy is one of the greatest gifts we can give anyone. But sadly, it’s a quality that lacks miserably on the internet.

I’ve been writing on the internet for over 2 years (over 5 years if you count my blog) for a large media company and I’ve recently started to dabble in managing a large social media page. I enjoy the work. But every week I’m often taken aback by the rudeness and lack of empathy by people on the internet.

Being the curious person I am, I always click through to the profile of the person who’s left a crappy comment, to get an understanding of who they are and whether they are a random troll who has nothing better to do.

Unfortunately, many look to be normal people who are active on Facebook, sharing happy snaps of their family and friends.

I expect bitter comments to come from people who have been hard done by in life. (Maybe I’m wrong to assume this). I don’t expect happy people to spew negativity on a page or story.

And yet they do. They read a story and offer an opinion on why a tragedy happened and victim blame the parents or whoever the story is about, with the connotation the victim brought the tragedy on themselves.

Accidents happen every day. People make mistakes every day.

People do stupid stuff everyday, without meaning to.

I’ve done stupid stuff and have lived to tell the tale.

I’ll tell you one of the most stupidest things I’ve ever done, that could have cost me my life.

When I was 16, I had a fabulous desk set up in my room for study. I had a computer and a cd player which required electricity to run. I only had a 2 socket power point and required more, so I used a powerboard to feed my computer and cd player.

I can’t remember what new appliance I plugged into my powerboard, but when I unplugged it out, the metal prongs/plugs got stuck in the powerboard. I was shocked I had accidentally broken whatever appliance I had unplugged. But the worst shock of all happened when I didn’t think and I went to try and remove the prongs from the powerboard WITH THE ELECTRICITY STILL ON.

I got an almighty hand-tingling zap and didn’t realise how stupid my mistake was until after I touched it.

Usually people don’t live to tell tales like that. Maybe the loading from the powerboard meant I didn’t get the full current of electricity. Who knows. Maybe I had a guardian angel.

I never told my parents because I was more worried about breaking the appliance than my scare.

But how awful would it have been for my parents to have walked into my room, and seen me electrocuted because I’d done a very silly thing? Thank God that didn’t happen.

But accidents like that can happen in the blink of an eye. My brain told me I needed to get those plugs out, but I didn’t think about the danger of what I was doing. We can momentarily not think in a moment and not realise our mistake until it’s fatal.

That’s why I try to empathise with people who get caught up in horrific situations. Even ones that could have been easily avoided. We just don’t know what a person was thinking in that moment. They may not have been thinking at all. (Ever driven home and wondered if you stopped at all the red lights? Or have you ever left home and wondered if you turned your hair straightener off? Put the garage door down?)

Last week, I wrote about a teenager who got electrocuted in the bath because she accidentally dropped her iPhone in the water while it was charging. She was 16. She was a normal teen, doing something she’d loved. I was horrified at the comments blaming the parents. Yeah, it was a silly thing to do, to take a charging phone into the bath to listen to music, but it was also a tragedy. And a little empathy for the family would have been a better response. But we don’t empathise, we victim criticise.

We do it with every tragedy that could have been avoided.

lack of empathy quote

For many of us that work on the internet, this sort of thing is nothing new. But what have we turned into? For every tragedy that is written on the internet, there are so many comments that lack empathy. Too many people read to reply on a post, rather than read and think about the gravity of the tragedy. A life was lost. A precious life that meant so much to someone WAS LOST.

Unfortunately it’s the same in the construction industry. No one can make a mistake without a new safe work method statement being drawn up so workers can avoid it happening again. No one wants to get hurt on a job site. And I understand we need procedures in place to prevent workers from getting hurt. What safe work method statements don’t take into account is human nature. People aren’t perfect. Accidents will happen. You can write as many ways to avoid an accident, but you can not predict human nature. Our human nature will find a way to add another update to the work method statement.

Because no one is perfect.

My heart can get so heavy from hearing about unfortunate accidents, or writing about the warnings from families who want their stories to be known so other families don’t experience a similar loss. And the best response we can give is empathy and to learn from their tragedy.

I don’t care how avoidable the tragedy could have been. Respect the grieving family. We can never be too sensitive to a family who has lost someone precious in the blink of an eye.

Do you get sad about the tragedies you read online? Do you get sick of the victim blaming and lack of empathy? Why is it so easy to criticise than empathise?

  • I wholeheartedly agree. The internet certainly lacks empathy. It infuriates me to see so often the first thing many people want to do when a tragedy has occurred is to lay blame and criticise, neither of which help the victim or the family. What ever happened to just being kind and understanding that horrible things happen, all the time. Or why not trying to think about what you would feel like if you were in that situation. Those poor parents of that poor girl. It really was something my kids would do without thinking.

    • I guess it’s so easy to leave a nasty comment behind a screen and judge from the outskirts. It’s so disheartening to read all the time though.

  • Oh Bec, you’re spot on. I look at the profiles of people who abuse and threaten writers like Clem Ford and I’m horrified by their apparent normalcy.

    • It is horrifying. I think about the online world our kids will face when they are older. If it’s bad now, how much worse can it get?

  • Loved this read, Bec. So interesting. My daughter has been learning about empathy at school, so it’s a topic we’ve been discussing a lot lately. When I was managing a big social media account I too would look at the person’s profile to see what they were like. It’s hard to comprehend why people can be so tactless and hurtful. I try not to watch the news. It is definitely too heavy for my heart.

    • Oh I rarely watch the news too. Only because most days its in my Facebook feed anyway! But I do get a heavy heart and it gets weighed down further reading ridiculously hurtful comments.

  • Such a good read, Bec, I think some people think the internet is a licence to be hurtful and heartless. I don’t watch the news because it hurts my heart and I rarely read the comments for the same reason. If you wouldn’t say it to someone offline, don’t say it online, it’s as simple as that.

    • I agree Sam. If it can’t be said in person, don’t type it online. We need kindness angels to sweep in over the trolls.

  • Beautiful writing Bec.

    I don’t understand why empathy is so hard but it is. It can even be hard for people who live with you. I have often said that I don’t want anyone to fix my problems I just want to be heard but I think like empathy we have lost the art of listening really listening. We are often hearing and planning our reply in our head instead of just listening with no reply, just support or a hug or simply that sounds really tough can I do anything. Though some of that is empathy.

    I think if we can’t do this with each other face to face and partly I am sure this is because we all want the quick fix now. Then on the internet all empathy is completely lost and the nasty side comes out. Like Sam I think that if this isn’t something I would say to someone directly then I am not putting it in writing or saying it to others. Sadly not everyone is like this. xoxo

    • There is so much truth in your comment Cat. I do think we have lost the art of listening. And I think it’s so easy to succumb to a nasty side when a tragedy occurs.

  • The internet seems to be the place where you (general use of you) can leave your every day manners and beliefs at the ‘door’ if you choose. So many thoughtless comments and downright nasty ones. However, I also think that many of us do not have the ‘time’ to listen and to empathise. We are getting ready for what we want to talk about or how this or that happened to us too. An excellent post and one for many to read I think. Thank you. Denyse #teamIBOT

    • Great point Denyse. I think I have been too busy to really listen. My post is something for me to remember when listening to others.

  • I always feel so sad for the families. A comments section of a news story is not the place to stand on a soapbox and preach. No one’s perfect and when I do read these comments I pray that the writers never have to experience a newsworthy tragedy and the trolly arseholes who come around to lecture afterwards. Awesome post, Bec!

    • Thanks Bronwyn. I totally agree. I’m sure the commenters would change their tone/tune if they knew their story would be featured the following week.

  • Totally agree Bec. One only has to read the comments on a public profile and the comments are vile. People arguing amongst themselves over harsh opinions. Ugh! Makes me so sad. I love that empathy is discussed at school and my boys show it a lot. Even if I’m crying from watching the news they are so quick to hug and reassure me – very cute!

    • Oh that is lovely Jo. What gorgeous boys you have. I do believe teaching empathy starts at home. x