The Skill Needed to Save the World

Ben White via Unsplash

Two weeks ago, I was able to go grocery shopping as usual.  I ordered some toilet paper online with no problem, and bought a new bag of rice.  Today, shelves were bare of canned goods, toilet paper, instant noodles, and rice, and there was almost no fresh produce.  

Life looks remarkably different after a week or two in this current age of CoV-2 and COVID-19, and the tension sits in every conversation like a blue whale in the room.  In the past four days, I’ve talked with doctors on the front lines, creatives whose livelihoods had depended on large events to pay their bills, a friend currently traveling in Spain, and the owner of a small restaurant that depends on students walking in to keep the lights on.  I don’t know anyone personally that hasn’t been affected in some way, and I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to get through this as quickly as possible.  

The quickest course of action has also been outlined. The Washington Post has a great infographic and article that visualizes how refraining from large in-person gatherings helps to “flatten the curve,” or spread out infections so that our medical system doesn’t get overwhelmed.  If our healthcare providers and hospitals and clinics don’t get overwhelmed, and fewer people get sick or die, the quicker we can move past this pandemic.  

However, despite this information being free (many news outlets are making COVID-19 news free to access for all), people are still having parties, going to bars, and not practicing the “social distancing” that we need to be doing to expedite all of this.  

I can objectively state that socializing in a crowded bar, holding a party, not washing your hands frequently or thoroughly enough, or coughing without covering your mouth is creating a hazard to your community and society at large.   But if we try to shove information like that down the throats of others, they’re not going to listen. After all, when people tell you that you’re wrong and send you news articles that prove their point, how often do you read them thoroughly and change your mind?

So what we need is a change of tactics.  Information and data isn’t always enough.  We need to look past the behavior (ignoring science, choosing to socialize in-person, etc.) and dig into the reasoning why these people are doing what they’re doing.  

We need empathy.  Empathy is a tool to uncover others’ worldviews and stand in their shoes and their socks, even.  When we do so we can figure out what’s driving their decisions, and only then can we figure out how we might be able to get them to change their mind.    

Skills like empathy are like any other skill – they take practice to hone them. But how do you practice empathy?  The easiest is to get curious. Let’s dive into an example.

I was told by a friend this evening (via video call) that she knew someone who had just booked a cruise.  Even after all the cruises that have been quarantined and stricken with COVID-19, you would expect most people would avoid them like.. well, like the plague.  They’ve been called floating petri dishes, yet this woman had decided that the risk was worth it, despite the US State Department telling people it’s not a good idea.

I reacted with a mix of disdain, shock, and disgust.  I imagine you probably reacted in the same way. However natural this reaction might feel for you, we can also look at it from a different lens.  

Maybe this cruise booking person is young and healthy, is extremely informed, has great health care, works from home, has all her groceries delivered, and won’t come into contact with anyone over 70 or with a condition that would put them at higher risk for hospitalization, and she’s willing to roll the dice.  

Perhaps she has reckoned that she might easily survive getting infected with the CoV-2 virus and since everyone in her peer group seems to be healthy, she figures that it’s not a big deal. Maybe she hasn’t thought through the fact that her peer group might be dealing with a less visible condition such as asthma or hypertension, and maybe they’ve never felt inclined to share. 

Perhaps she works two jobs and doesn’t have time to read the news, and has dreamed of taking a cruise for years and finally has the time off (since her jobs have told her to stay home) and the lies told by the cruise representative eased her concerns.  

Yes, it’s obvious to YOU that she shouldn’t get on this cruise.  But if you were really her, knowing what she knows and having lived the life she’s lived, you would make the exact same choice.  Just as if this woman had lived the life you’ve lived, thought the way you think, and knew what you know, she too wouldn’t step foot on a cruise ship.  

You might feel the need to shame this cruise-going person, or someone not covering their mouth when they cough, or someone who chooses to gather in a large crowd, as you believe that these people are putting their own selfish gains over the good of society.  But while shame sometimes works at changing people’s behaviors short term, it never works to change the reasoning WHY they acted the way they did.  

It might be simple to say things like “hang out with your friends on Zoom” or “work remotely,” but this also assumes a lot.  How do you wash dishes, or perform surgery, or build a house remotely? How do you hang out with friends on Zoom when you don’t have a webcam or a smartphone?  If we don’t find solutions that fulfill the needs being met by our old, high-contact way of life, we don’t get people to stop engaging in risky behavior.  

I get it – it’s extremely frustrating to hear stories about people having a picnic in a crowded park, people going to the office when they don’t need to, or even booking a cruise, but if we really want to reach these people (and we absolutely NEED to do so), we need to act with empathy.  If we don’t, we risk further alienating people and extending the impact this pandemic is having on the world.

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