Why empathy matters

Why empathy matters

I’ve seen some great presentations about empathy in communication recently, specifically mpj from Fun, Fun, Function and another from the Destroy All Software blog. They’ve inspired me to examine some of the specious arguments I’ve seen against communicating politely, civilly, or with empathy, talk about why they’re flawed, and also talk about how research has shown that psychological safety within a team makes that team more efficient.


Claim: Showing empathy takes too much time or effort

Some claim that being empathetic is just plain less efficient than not, both for the author and all of the future readers. It seems to stem from the idea that being polite is just a matter of adding a bunch of flowery text for satisfying social conventions on top of an otherwise perfectly clear and serviceable message. This idea mistakes etiquette for politeness or empathy.

Tacking on some perfunctory phrases won’t rescue a venomous screed. For example:

Thank you for your kind message. This is a bad idea and you’re an idiot. I really appreciate you stopping by.

As a matter of fact, ritualistically adding formulaic verbiage only makes the “polite” phrasing seem disingenuous or sarcastic, making matters worse overall.

If the message is well-considered and helpful, on the other hand, it doesn’t need the extra text:

I’m not sure about this idea. Do you have any other suggestions?

In the near term, it may take individuals time to learn how to not be callous or caustic when writing messages to other people but it is a skill that is invaluable. In fact, it is one of the best pieces of mentoring advice I got many years ago when I was first working professionally at a large corporation. My manager, a very wise woman, told me, “You have to learn to write emails without the silent ‘stupid!’ after every period.”† She told me that it didn’t matter if I was right; if nobody wanted to listen to me, I was just making things harder on myself.


Claim: Requiring empathy is exclusionary

Another claim, and a particularly unfounded one at that, is that requiring people to have empathy in order to participate in online communities is exclusionary, specifically to people who are on the autism spectrum or with Tourette’s syndrome. This one is simple to debunk because it is patently, provably false.

First, people on the autism spectrum don’t lack empathy because of their condition. Second, popular culture makes coprolalia, the uncontrollable utterance of obscenities and profanities, out to be an inextricable component of Tourette’s when only 10% of people who have been diagnosed with Tourette’s exhibit coprolalia. Coprolalia also does not necessarily presuppose coprographia, the compulsion to write down such expressions. And even so, people exhibiting these symptoms of their condition are often embarrassed by their involuntary actions specifically because they do understand and acknowledge how it affects those around them.

Being able to be considerate and polite is pretty basic to being able to engage in day-to-day society. If one is clinically incapable of showing kindness or respect to others, then online they are indistinguishable from someone who is unwilling to do so. And for the protection and smooth operation of the communities I’m responsible for, I find excluding those unwilling to be quite acceptable.


Claim: It was just a joke!

Sadly, there are many, many examples of this particular idea: from the “punk’d” or “prank” videos on YouTube, to the expression “did it for the lulz”, to entertainers using shock tactics to boost ratings and then claiming that “you just don’t get it” if you don’t see the humor in their actions. While the case can be made that it is healthy for professional comedians in a society to push at the boundaries of cultural convention, nobody has ever come to me and made the claim that they forgot they weren’t on stage in front of an audience. They only attempt to push the blame off of themselves and lay fault at the feet of the person who was upset by their actions.

Being empathetic means showing the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Someone who is empathetic and makes a poor attempt at humor apologizes to those they offend, not blames them for having thin skin.


Psychological safety makes better teams

Psychological safety is defined as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”. Essentially, it means that you won’t be punished socially or professionally for making a mistake, speaking your mind, or asking questions. Google did some research into what makes effective teams and found that psychological safety was “far and away the most important of the five dynamics we found – it’s the underpinning of the other four”. They found:

Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

Many online communities are, by their nature, somewhat loose-knit groups rather than the more well-defined teams that Google was studying, but research is showing that psychological safety is a quality of larger groups, too. Fostering empathy, politeness, and acceptance as social norms in these spaces will create similar benefits to what Google found.



Empathy matters because it makes our communities better. It makes them more attractive to a wider spectrum of people and experiences when people feel that they can participate without fear of reprisals if they make missteps. Having a more broad set of experiences means that we can exchange more ideas and we all learn and grow more. And isn’t that why we get involved in these things in the first place?

Do you have inspiring examples of empathetic actions in online communities? We’d love to hear about them. Share them in the comments below :rainbow:

† Thanks Carol :sparkling_heart: