Date: January 23, 2009
Location: Austin, TX
Subject: Empathy and Body Language
If there’s one thing I miss from working at a video game company, it’s the commiseration with programmers who were struggling with the same life issues as me. This one time, someone forwarded around an Asperger’s Syndrome quiz, and we all had a laugh comparing how high our scores were. As you can imagine, being around a bunch of Asperger-like people can be grating. If you had listened for a second to the day-to-day conversations we had, you would be astonished at how many pedantic arguments we had, all along the lines of Star Wars vs. Star Trek or zombies vs. pirates. It would sound like we were fighting, but really we were just tone-deaf.
There was a manager, though, who wasn’t quite like the rest of us. While Igor looked the part of a programmer (tall, larger man with glasses and small-eyes), his process was very different, as if his Asperger-like edges had been smoothed out. He was very nice, and easy to work with, and out of nowhere he responded to a post I wrote about empathy and body language. He told me that he went through the same exact transformation as I had described. He told me he wasn’t always nice and easy to work with. When he was growing up, he was absorbed into computers and very anti-social.
Igor used to rub people the wrong way, giving robotic/functional responses. For example, if someone came up to him and said, “Oh man, I’m tired,” he would respond, “Why don’t you sleep more?” If someone said, “I like this band,” he would say, “They’re okay.” In his mind, he was just being accurate and honest, but in actuality he put people off and had very few friends. And so, one day, he decided to make a conscious effort to read people’s body language, to establish a context by which to base his social interactions. And now that he’s mentioned it, I recall moments when his eyes had widened intently when he had talked to me. I now realize that the whole time that I was working with him, he was very deliberately scanning me for tone, feeling, and overall demeanor.
I nearly teared up when I read his e-mail. I can see that he is living a life that is the product of his own personal struggle. He’s now a successful manager, married, and is probably going to be a dad soon. It’s like Igor went through a second puberty, initiated by himself, to allow him to fit-in and thrive in society.
I’ve been undergoing a similar transformation for the past nine months or so. I picked up a book called The Definitive Book of Body Language, and I’ve made a little rule for myself: “Empathy should precede all social interactions.” Whenever I start talking to someone, or if the conversation is going toward something more serious, I look deeply into their eyes, and I try to mirror and hold their emotional state in my heart.
The results have been fascinating. I end up in less arguments, and I have much less post-social anxiety. It’s like I know the reaction my words are going to have before I make them. I feel like Neo at the end of The Matrix now. I was waiting for a flight at the airport the other day, and it’s like I could see an emotional label hovering over everybody. “This person’s uneasy. This one’s stressed out. This other one, he’s uncertain. That couple over there, they’re happy.”
I’m still stunned that this method has lasted as long as it has. Nearly every other social mantra I’ve tried has lasted for only a few days. This one’s lasted for at least six months. I think I’m finally getting to the core of what Carnegie was talking about.
The general gist of this method lasted for at least a couple more months, and I still retain some of the habits today. When I notice a conversation veering into an unpleasant territory, I perk up, do the empathy-thing, and I naturally bring it back to something more pleasant.