Do Men Have an Empathy Problem?
Do Men Have an Empathy Problem?
It turns out, empathy can be
your greatest strength
I was in fifth grade when I was introduced to the term empathetic. It was used in reference to me by my teacher and, at first, I was offended. I had only heard “pathetic.” But apparently, she was impressed with my ability to share with others and make people laugh without making fun of someone. She provided a rudimentary definition of the concept—the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes—and said it was rare for someone so young to exhibit that behavior. I liked the sound of that. It felt like a secret superpower.
Of course, as I got older, I came to recognize that empathy wasn’t always seen as a superpower by most men. The trait is usually thought of as female—misconstrued as simply being sensitive. Historically, a man’s ability to disconnect emotionally has been viewed as a strength, especially by other men. But what’s becoming clearer now is that there is a time and place for checking one’s emotions. It can be a vital skill for jobs and tasks that require a certain grit and fortitude. But it doesn’t serve you well as a permanent state of being.
For decades, scientists have been trying to understand why men were less empathetic to their peers and how this lack of emotional awareness caused issues in both their personal and professional lives. Obviously, if you can't put yourself in your partner's shoes, it will be difficult to understand their point of view—thus leading to problems big and small.
But it can cause problems at work too. A 2016 study of more than 55,000 professionals across 90 countries found that women are “45% more likely than men to be seen as demonstrating empathy consistently,” thus making them more effective and successful in leadership roles. Why? Because empathy makes you a better coach and mentor. It allows you to be better at conflict management and delegation, thus getting more out of your team.
A deeper societal problem may be lurking here. The problem is not that women are too sensitive or emotional—it may be that men simply are not. Or, at least, taught not to feel like they can be. According to the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on suicide, men account for 77% of the 48,000 people who kill themselves every year in the United States.
Promundo, an organization focused on gender equality, surveyed men aged 18 to 30 and found that nearly 1 in 5 thought about suicide in the past two weeks. Those who believed in a version of manhood associated with being tough, not talking about their problems, and bottling up their emotions were twice as likely to have considered suicide.
Isn't empathy the ultimate strength? The ability to listen and show compassion in order to understand the point of view of someone else? Shouldn't all men be strong enough to do that? The opposite is what seems weak. After all, the very definition of a gentleman is “someone who is chivalrous, courteous and honorable.” Nothing more honorable than being willing to discover commonalities between yourself and others.
It's this kind of empathetic strength that's required to challenge prejudice and inequalities. It's easy to assume empathy only happens at the individual level. But it can also occur as the collective—the result of which can bring about fundamental societal changes. That is exactly what we've witnessed during the nationwide protests over the past two weeks.
The demonstrations—which are now yielding fundamental changes to America's policing practices—grew out of empathy between the organizers of Black Lives Matter and various other groups that felt united by their common experiences. They were joined by those who didn't share their experience but stood with them, willing to listen and learn about inequalities that they themselves never experienced. There's a unique power that comes with giving a shit. It's clear that empathy, combined with the courage of your convictions and actions equal a better future for everyone.
Build Your Empathy Muscle
Researchers from Princeton found that fiction readers tend to score higher on measures of “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand other people's feelings and thoughts. And a similar study by Emory University found that diving into a novel helped boost people's empathy since readers must put themselves in someone else's shoes.