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Practicing Empathy

After a five hour delay for a one hour flight, I stepped outside of Newark Airport, inhaled the essence of New Jersey, and lit a cigarette.

“I thought Chinese people didn’t smoke,” said a husky man of about 50, as he lit his Marlboro Red and dropped his leather satchel between us. He was wearing blue jeans that withstood perhaps thousands of hours of labor on highways and a loose dark green shirt that usually has brands of fishing companies on it.

“I don’t know if Chinese people smoke,” I replied smiling, “but I know a lot of Koreans do.”

He was friendly, but his assumption—anyone’s assumption—that I am Asian and therefore automatically Chinese is something that I am used to hearing. It frustrated me in the past, but like bad news on T.V., I got used to it.

On my ride home, I replayed the event in my head. I was surprised that, given my emotional state and overflowing bladder, I didn’t snap or respond with an attitude. I smiled through the conversation and not once felt any hostility toward this man’s ignorance. I liked him; he was a character. I explained to him what Uber was and the kind of work I did at a software company.

And then it hit me: This is what empathy does.

Empathy is hard because life doesn’t have a pause button. We can’t freeze time and think about our thinking. We either react because that’s what we’re used to doing or we respond mindfully because we are self-aware and want to make better decisions.

Empathy builds compassion. If you look up the definition of ‘compassion’ it may start with “sympathetic pity.” People don’t need your pity, they need you to accept them as they are. If love can change our world, we first need to practice empathy to build compassion so we can learn to accept people as they are. That is love.

With the gentleman that I met, it was about understanding why he decided to say that to me so effortlessly. To understand how someone make’s decisions, it’s helpful to know what they know, what they believe, and where they’re from. I didn’t have the time to know what he knew or believed, but I could guess where he was from, and that already said a lot. His physical appearance and demeanor provided cues and, naturally, I made a judgement. “People like this may say things like this,” is what I told myself, which is why I wasn’t angry because the expectations for this particular man was different. It would have been equally shocking if he starting speaking French and breakdancing because “people like this don’t usually do things like that.” It’s a mismatch of categories in our mind.

His comment was out of ignorance, and for me to get angry based on my expectations for how I believe people should behave in 2015 is entirely self-serving and fruitless. Was he wrong? In a way, yes, he could have said what he wanted to say differently. But we have no control over that. All we have control over is our response to the event. My response was empathy, not entitlement.

This experience inspired me to practice empathy more often, with simple things. For example I used to be confused by the urge of wanting to take a selfie and upload it to Instagram or Facebook. Taking a selfie makes me uncomfortable, but other people do it habitually, and multiple times a day. Instead of sticking to my cynical judgements about people who take selfies, empathy helped me understand the behavior and motivation behind it. Once you understand that and connect that dot with human nature—the desire to belong and be seen, the hit of dopamine that rushes in the brain when you get a like—you really can’t be angry about it. It’s being human.

Empathy is hard because it requires you to pause and to critically think. Why spend the time understanding these people who we already labeled as worthless? Why spend the time understanding a bully, an enemy, or a person who mistreated us? Why bother empathizing with a customer who goes across the street to your competitor?

That’s a decision that we have to make. It molds our character and influences the way we lead our lives, raise our children, and contribute to our community.