the problem of involuntary empathy

Ear_from_wwwsteveorguk_with_thanks The commercial ethnographer lives or dies by his or her ability to hear what the consumer is thinking and feeling.  This empathy can be trained.  It can be improved.  But really good ethnographers begin with a native gift. 

What is true of mathematicians is also true of ethnographers.  The former have heads that stream with numbers, the latter have heads that stream with experiential matters, thoughts and feelings that belong not to themselves, but to someone else.  The commercial ethnographer is grateful that the world prizes his or her ability, but in point of fact, empathy is something he or she would do in any case.  Call it obsessive.  At the very least, it is involuntary. 

Where does the gift come from?  Who knows.  Sometimes, I guess, it comes from pathological circumstances.  The most emphatic person I have ever met was a 10 year old girl I was interviewed for a Canadian government project on young smokers.  It was a very strange sensation to be "scanning" her only to realize the she was scanning us, and a whole lot better than any thing we could manage.  Compared to this little kid, we were rank amateurs.  I felt as if I had been turned to glass.  We learned eventually that the preferred form of punishment in this girl’s home was a cigarette burn to the body.  I guess that would have the potential of making a virtuoso of anyone. 

The native gift grows with experience.  The more we use it, the better it becomes.  We get new range, new depth.  We can capture thoughts and feelings that would have been alien and irreproducible a few years before. 

But our gift for empathy does ever seem to get more controllable.  It can’t be turned off and on.  This species of empathy remains involuntary.  We will internalize the world whether we want to or not. 

Now this is a special problem when there is someone in the room who is deeply at odds with the ethnographic interview.  I’ve had this experience twice in the last couple of months.  In one case, there was a representation of the client team who distrusted the method and its practitioner.  While "hoovering up" things from the respondent, inevitably, I would hoover up the skepticism of the client rep. 

Oh, this is not good.  You are using the method to absorb a deeply distrust of the method, and this cycle speeds up and spins out.  In the second case, the client rep was not so much skeptical as deeply controlling. Now, the "other voice" that came to the ethnographer was one that contested any of the power that came to the ethnographer.  Oh, not good at all!  To empathize with some one who deeply resents you is to resent yourself. 

Naturally, you try to "jam" the signal.  And eventually you manage the interviews.  But you pay a psychic tax on top of the psychic costs of a process that is quite demanding enough as it is.  In a perfect world, we would manage the alien signal.  We would say things like, well, that’s just the way they feel about the process."  But we don’t and we can’t because what we are doing is not voluntary.  It is, not to be self dramatizing about it, an involuntary rushing out of the self into someone else.  We don’t do it by choice.  We just do it. 

I am not sure there is a point to this meditation, except perhaps to ask if other’s have wrestled with this nasty little contradiction and found a way to break free of it. 

p.s., I made it across the Pacific to Portland.  The EPIC conference is most interesting.  If I can shake the jetlag, reports to follow. 

7 thoughts on “the problem of involuntary empathy

  1. Carol Gee

    The reason the girl you spoke about was “better” than you is because her abuser had so badly broken her boundaries. Keeping empathy in bounds is difficult for the listener- the therapist (me), or ethnographer (you). Speaking only for myself, I found that occasional self-talk about keeping appropriate boundaries was useful. The author Pia Melody was a good read for me. Interesting post!

  2. Ennis

    Grant – I missed the final question. Which is the “nasty little contradiction” that you’re asking if we’ve “found a way to break free of” ?

  3. Peter

    Grant — another 5* post. Thanks.

    A couple of tangential comments:

    As someone who began life as a mathematician, I would say that the heads of most mathematicians are not filled with numbers, but rather with structures and relationships. Most of modern mathematics (since the mid-19th century) has been about the relationships between abstract objects, of which numbers are only one, not very important, example. A person can indeed be a great mathematician and know next to nothing about numbers or number theory, and in fact never ever think about them. Even in number theory, abstract concepts and their relationships are more important than actual numbers.

    I wonder if the empathy with others you speak of is related to one of the human intelligences identified by Howard Gardner — the ability to read the emotions of others. What has always interested me is how many people I meet who lack another of Gardner’s intelligences: the ability to read one’s own emotions. Perhaps it the technology/IT circles I move in, but lots of people I meet are not able to diagnose their own emotional state, and one can often see their body language or other actions belying their words.

  4. Tom Guarriello

    Much of what goes under the rubric, “empathy” is the kind of “scanning” you describe seeing in the abused little girl. I’d call it “heightened extraversion” in that, for me, empathy has a deeper sense of emotional resonance with the other. That doesn’t mean simply seeing signs of upcoming behavior, like the little girl seemed to be looking for, but an appreciation for the other’s worldview, what it’s like to be-in-the-world as the other is at this moment. “Appreciation” there doesn’t necessarily connote acceptance or affirmation, but something that approaches what Wilhelm Dilthey meant when he used the word, “understanding.” This kind of understanding, I believe, is the subject matter of ethnology; a recognition of existential constructs and the lived-superstructure into which those constructs fit; their context. Empathy is a good first step in ethnology. Like you say, those who are naturally given to this kind of resonance have a leg up on those who need to fill in every little corner of the other’s world, rather than being able to make the kinds of structural/relationship connections among existential fragments about which I believe Peter was describing in mathematicians. I’m not sure if I know if it’s necessary (I suspect it is) but it’s clearly not sufficient in an ethnographer, right? My experience is that in order to arrive at meaningful insights, there are all kinds of higher order cognitive operations that the ethnographer needs to perform on the “deeper” (less articulable) insights that have emerged through empathy.

    Sorry if that’s overly long and arcane.

    There was also an interesting piece in today’s Times about the limits of empathy for psychotherapists. This link should work, but, with the Times, you never know:

  5. jens

    two things (don not know if of value in this conversation):

    a “submarine-man” myself i use “echo-sound-reading” to orientate in society. that’s a great thing until you get to someone who functions exactly in the same way as you do… that can come to a weird kind of vice versa scanning where you get no signals back – can be a funny sensation – as if you both do not exist.
    – at university i shared a flat with a person of the same quality. it was actually quite terrible. when ever we were alone in the apartment there was a terribly weird kind of all-consuming atmosphere. we learnt to get along by always having a third topic to speak about. so we never really communicated directly – but always over art, cinema, theory etc… and eventually both looked for alternative housing.

    the other thing:
    i had a terribly impressive and really nice sensation of being scanned when swimming with dolphins once.
    and i had a similar sensation when giving a speech to an audience in china in english. the audience usually understands english good or not so good – but it always seems to me as if they all are trying to read you beyond (or instead of) the word – they are trying to feel the speakers substance in order to judge him.

    to come to the point now:
    speaking from my own experience: ritualized communication – or introducing rituals into the communication – is a good way for empathic people to communicate in possibly difficult situations

  6. steve

    Grant’s comment about disturbing negative influences sounds like a legitimate version of the parapsychologists’ claims that their powers don’t work when skeptics are around ruining the vibrations.

Comments are closed.