Empathy in the Face of Impoliteness

I’ll be the first to admit it: I struggle with dealing with rude people.

I was born and raised in a small town in northeast Texas. Say what you will about southerners (in the comments, please, I welcome it!) but we’re generally pretty polite. You hold the door for people behind you. You say “please” and “thank you.” If you bump into someone, you apologize and make sure they didn’t drop their papers or spill their coffee, and if they did, you help them clean up, apologizing over and over until it annoys them and they free you from your guilt-induced bondage.

However, I no longer live in a small town in Texas. I don’t even live in the United States anymore.

I live in Shanghai, China. People do things a little bit differently around here.

I’ve been here for years, but it never stops bothering me when people cut in front of me in line, shove past me on the street, point at me and comment on my being a foreigner, or needlessly zoom past me at irresponsible only inches away on their scooters. Older men her often shake their finger at me, disapproving of whatever opinion I happen to have at that moment, as if my concerns about safety or decency were invalid. At my office, people often hammer the “close door” button in the elevator as others are trying to enter, and this is only after they themselves have pushed their way on, like a salmon swimming upsteam, as people struggled to exit.

Don’t even get me started on subway etiquette. At rush hour, it’s like an amateur theatrical production of Mad Max, casted by the local senior citizen’s community fund.

I’m a small-town boy in the big city.

My point here isn’t to lambast China, or how manners are handled differently in cities. I know that the rapid development of China in living memory (where not pushing and shoving in bread lines during the Mao era, for example, was a virtual guarantee that you would not, in fact, receive any bread) has shaped many people’s behaviors in public places, and that simply by virtue of living in one of the most densely-populated cities in the world I’m bound to encounter more aggressive people.

Basically, I recognize that the flaw is in me. I’m the one who needs to adapt to my environment.

Recently, I’ve realized that my perpetual pissed-offed-ness was affecting not only my life, but the lives of those around me. My girlfriend, who is much smarter and more empathetic than me, pointed out that I had control of my response to these situations, a sentiment echoed by Stoic philosopher Epictetus of all people:

“If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”


Moreover, I realized that I wasn’t even thinking of the people around me as people, with their own lives and ambitions and places to go, and that startled me. When had I become so callous? I’ve written recently about the dangers of travel and the expat life to our mental well-being, and I’ve realized that I’m falling victim to the same tired patterns of behavior that I see in embittered, long-term expats abroad, of mentally reducing the people around them such that they embody only the inconveniences experienced in day-to-day life.

I’d become one of those old men, complaining about the locals.

In my effort to be a better, happier, and most importantly kinder person, I’ve been searching for ways to better humanize the people around me. 
Here’s a technique I’ve started turning to:
Imagine the person who annoyed you at their home, in the morning before they leave for the day. They’re standing in front of their bathroom mirror, buttoning up their shirt, brushing their teeth, and combing their hair. They’re tired, but it’s time to get ready to go. They look into their own eyes for a moment and try to smile, hoping to set the tone for the day.

They have their own hopes for how the day will go.

That’s it. That’s the whole technique. If you came to this article for something actionable, that’s it: Imagine a person getting ready for work in the morning.

I regret that I even need to do this. I wonder what it says about me that I, without some emotional technique, struggle to remember that people are people, that the masses I encounter each day are composed of individuals who, if I had the chance to get to know them, would almost universally come off as friendly, decent people just trying to live their life.

Several years ago, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a blog and YouTube project highlighting invented words which would, if there were any justice in the linguistic community, already be part of the English language, published probably their most famous entry: “Sonder.”

sonder, noun: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.

Although many of their entries have stuck with me, “sonder” in particular has a way of popping up in my memory from time to time. My office is on the twenty-second floor of a skyscraper. At my old job, I was on the fiftieth floor. From my vantage point at any window, I can look out and see snippets of the lives of tens of thousands of people over the course of my thirty-minute lunch break, each of them carrying decades of memories and experiences.

The least I can do is remember that they, like me, rolled out of bed that morning grumpy and, despite weariness and, in all likelihood, more hardship than I experience, did their best to get ready and get out the door.

The least I can do is remember that the person who brusquely pushed past me is a person.

Brooks Eakin

American abroad. I write about creativity, travel, productivity, and design.

Leave a comment