Public discourse is particularly unpleasant today. What’s going on? Rather than blame a political party, candidate, system, or ideology, I would like to suggest a new way of looking at our troubling state of affairs.
I taught communication at the college level for four decades. In the last fifteen years I noticed a shift among students and across society. I repeatedly observed a lack of ability to empathize combined with an inability to “switch codes.”
By “empathy” I don’t mean sympathy; I’m referring to the distinctly human (and humane) ability to put one’s self in someone else’s shoes—to see the world from another person’s or group’s perspective.
When people lose their capacity to empathize with others, they don’t properly adjust their communicative code (their verbal and nonverbal language). For instance, if interviewees can’t imagine themselves in the position of a job interviewer, they won’t interview appropriately let alone effectively. They might even offend interviewers.
A friend of mine conducted interviews for an important medical position. One person came to the interview chomping on gum and dressed as if hanging out at home with friends. In recent years I’ve seen the same kind of disconnects at weddings and funerals. Some people don’t seem to know what an interview, wedding, or funeral is all about—the purpose, context, and people involved. What does it mean to be a gracious guest in such situations? How should one present herself or himself to others? Fewer and fewer people seem to know.
In my view, reduced empathizing and inept code-switching are sweeping the land. We see it even in the confusion about private and public communication. Is any private communication off limits in the public media these days?
Some of my colleagues talk about the “tabloidification” of the media, which surely is one sign of the problem. But I think it’s too easy to blame the media, which reflect as well as shape what’s occurring in society. In my view, the media accept our growing inability to switch communication codes and proceed to worsen the problem. The media are our co-dependents.
In a book I’m writing I refer to this empathy-code problem as the decline of “fittingness.” The best human communication is partly a matter of how we fit our message substance and delivery style with particular people and contexts. What is most fitting for conversation at the dinner table? What about for discussion on national television? In a private versus a public speech? In the bedroom or at church? At a job interview or with a mentor?
I think we’re in real trouble, and I’m not an alarmist. I was at an important fund-raising event recently where people at my table started arguing about politics as if they were at a bar. The substance and style of their discourse were simply inappropriate—not fitting for the occasion.
I wrote previously on this website about the death of RSVP. I suggested that the practice of RSVP is disappearing partly because parents are not teaching it to their children.
In my last few years of full-time college teaching, students frequently failed to show up for scheduled appointments with me. I found myself having to teach my communication majors some of the basics of everyday discourse. They didn’t even seem to be able to switch codes from texting with their friends to interacting with their professor. I did figure out a way around the problem by completely changing how I met with students, which I’ll discuss in a later blog post. (Hint: I dumped traditional office hours and replaced them with something very different and amazingly effective.)
I’m not complaining. I’m trying to understand. Why are so many people failing to be fitting communicators? If I am correct, the growing inability to empathize, along with declining skills in code-switching, are upon us all. We are forming ourselves into people who are quick to speak and slow to listen.
My next two posts will address possible solutions to this problem. Please subscribe to this blog (easy email subscription in left column), tell others about it, and stay tuned. I’ll be sharing more from my forthcoming book as well.
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