Today is Empathy Day 2021 and I’m very happy to have been asked to give a talk to the staff at my publisher, Walker Books. I’m delighted that they support Empathy Day and that they are supporting me by paying me to talk to them.
I only say that because one of the most unempathetic things someone can do is ask them to work for nothing.
And I only say that because the best way we can improve someone’s empathy is by letting them see into our mind or our life, so they know something of what we feel. So, if there’s anyone reading this who is wondering whether to ask someone to work for nothing, let me tell you that if you do you will almost certainly make them feel any or all of the following: valueless, undermined, anxious, frustrated, disbelieving, insulted, irritated and hungry.
Anyway, back to today…
In my talk, I’ll say something about the difference between empathy and sympathy. (That’s where brains and emojis come in – emojis don’t represent empathy.) I’ll show why books build empathy. And not only, as some people seem to think, fiction. I must hold my hands up and say that I also used to extol fiction over non-fiction but now I understand better. I’m delighted to see that Empathy Lab is now on my side with this because they also used to talk about fiction being The Thing and I think they now don’t.
So, it’s not about whether they’re fiction or non-fiction, and I’ll show why the research that some people quote to suggest otherwise is misinterpreted.
But it’s not even only narrative or story, which I’ve also argued myself. I was wrong about that, too.
- The Teenage Guide to Stress shows readers all the things their friends might be stressed about, not just their own worries, allowing less stressed people to understand other people’s anxieties and the reasons for them
- Blame My Brain similarly highlights the problems of others even if they are not your problems
- Positively Teenage shows a wide range of different elements of a young person’s mind and experience, broadening a reader’s understanding
- Body Brilliant gives deep insight into things such as body dysmorphia, visible differences, disordered eating and lots of reasons why people’s body image is different from how others see them
- Be Resilient has lots of imagined scenarios of young people going through situations that the reader might not have thought about
- And as for The Teenage Guide to Friends….
…is surely THE book that proves that non-narrative non-fiction can do a perfect job of building empathy! For a start, it was originally going to be called TEN THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE PERSON SITTING NEXT TO YOU and if that’s not a recipe for growing empathy, I don’t know what is. It’s all about our differences and similarities, what makes us behave/think/feel as we do, and, crucially, how what is in my mind is not necessarily what’s in yours.
It shows readers inside themselves, helping them understand who and how they are, what makes them tick, and you can’t understand other people if you don’t know something about yourself.
But you rarely or never see books like that on lists of “empathy-building books”, because too many people think that empathy only comes from fiction.
And if you’d like to know how I feel about that: annoyed, actually. Frustrated. Undervalued. Irritated.
But today, I’m feeling none of those things! I’m feeling valued, happy and welcomed. So, thank you to Walker Books for inviting me to speak and also for publishing lots of my books. That makes me feel valued, as well!
This is not a talk where I’m giving advice but I do have three bits:
- Don’t overvalue personal experience – when people think “I know how you feel because I…” they often make mistakes in those assumptions.
- Listen. Ask and then listen properly to the answer.
- Read books!