How can I fake empathy?
December 11, 2013 4:47 PM   Subscribe

I just started a new job last week and am in a workplace with only one other person. She was crying the other day and it turns out her father was just diagnosed with brain cancer.

So, I really don't know this lady and even if I did am not an empathetic person. How can I pretend to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time? I would prefer not to talk in detail about her personal problems, but I feel like I shouldn't just be ignoring her since we do have to work together.
posted by Literaryhero to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Don't fake empathy. Can't you just state what you you know to be true? "This must be really hard for you" "it must be scary to not know what will happen" "Tell me if I can help you at all"
Not every one is the huggy weepy type, just be who you are.
posted by InkaLomax at 4:57 PM on December 11, 2013 [36 favorites]

Occasionally offer to do extra things to take the stress off of her. Say, 'I'm so sorry'.

Cover for her if she's out crying. Let her cry in the bathroom in peace.

That sort of thing -- you're a stranger, offering just some basic kindness. You don't need to be a shoulder to cry on, just, if you see a way to make something better for her, offer to take a little work off her plate or something. You don't need to step up and give her a big hug or anything, just make the workplace not itself a source of additional stress and adhere to the social niceties that have been proven over hundreds of years to smooth this sort of awkwardness over.

Again: "I'm so sorry, please let me know if I can help make things here easier" or some such. You do not need to become Oprah or whatever.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do not say that last sentence unless you actually are offering help.
posted by canine epigram at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [15 favorites]

You have nothing to say, so say nothing.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

"I'm really sorry to hear that" never goes amiss.
posted by number9dream at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

How can I pretend to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time?

You ask her how she's going; encourage her to leave early or take a longer lunch when she needs it; offer to cover for her if she needs some time off for whatever reason; pick up any minor tasks that she does voluntarily (eg organises birthday cards for team members or whatever); avoid giving her extra work you can do yourself or get someone else to do; be gentle and non-judgmental with her and quell any frustration or irritation you might feel with her/her work; do nice things off-the-cuff for her, such as picking up a second coffee when you buy one.

That's a pretty good start I think.
posted by smoke at 5:00 PM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you know about her dad's diagnosis because she told you about it? If so, you can express sympathy without being overly personal. Try, "I'm sorry to hear that; that must be hard for you." There's a lot of middle ground between ignoring her and talking in detail about personal problems.

If you heard about it from someone else and she didn't tell you directly, you could just try asking if she's OK the next time she's crying in your shared workspace. I wouldn't pry too much if she's running off to the bathroom to cry in private because she might not want to talk about it in detail with you. However, it's good to check in with her, you know, human-to-human style.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:02 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I suspect you already have some idea of how you're supposed to respond - you just look concerned, tell her you're sorry and try to pick up some slack for her, if you can. But you don't want to do that and kind of resent that you'd be expected to.

I am not an empathetic person. How can I pretend to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time?

That sounds like something you should work on, and not just for this lady's case. It sounds like you are kind of callous, and you are OK with that. I'm not trying to be insulting, but that's really how the stuff I excerpted came across to me. "Pretending to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time" makes you sound like an android.

Callous people can do a lot of damage in the world, sometimes without even knowing that they're doing it. If you can find any way to not be callous, do it. Callous sucks for you, and it can suck for the people around you.

You just met this woman, and nobody can expect you to be her instant confidant. And yes, dealing with a stranger who is going through such an emotional time could be awkward. But to me it kind of sounds like you're balking at basic compassion here. Just, be nice to her. Give her a little extra consideration and patience. That's it.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:15 PM on December 11, 2013 [70 favorites]

According to the teachings of Method Acting, you can't fake empathy unless you channel genuine empathy for something you do care about. Maybe if you do this enough, you will accidentally slip up and be truly empathetic and the world will be that much better.
posted by steinsaltz at 5:21 PM on December 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

Since you're new and you two don't know each other, I doubt she's expecting anything of you. She's hopefully got her own support network. I once worked in a big room with other people, and a couple of times I cried when I was on the phone, and I was glad that everyone ignored me! If she's crying in the office and it feels weird and awkward to ignore that, you could offer a simple, "I'm sorry to hear about your dad." I think an acknowledgment is nice for both of you, but beyond that, not much more is needed. And just being mindful that she's got a lot on her plate right now might be helpful, depending on the work distribution in your office.
posted by swheatie at 5:23 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

i don't think you really can fake empathy. the thing is you are showing empathy by being concerned about her. just saying something like "i'm really sorry to hear about your dad" is good. i would just be a bit more patient and kind with her than you might normally be but it's okay not to become her confidant. just expect that she may be sad at times, or stressed out, and it is okay for her to feel that way. you don't have to fix or manage her emotions.
posted by wildflower at 5:25 PM on December 11, 2013

You may want to watch this is order to learn what not to do....

A partner of mine died from skin cancer. The possible loss of someone cuts immediately to the bone for everyone involved. There is no margin for bullshit and drama. Just keep it real.

My suggestion is this. Did she let you know directly? If so be truthful. "We just began working together and I really don't know you too well. I don't consider myself an empathetic person. That said I do want you to know that if there is anything you need or that I can do for you please let me know." You've stated your position, concern and willingness to help. That in and of itself may be enough.

You don't even have to say it. It can be expressed in a card. That may be a better way to go if you do feel uncomfortable speaking with her.

If she did not tell you, consider that you are not obligated to speak with her unless you are asked. Your desire to be there for her can be expressed in a simple action. The little things that are done that are done (flower, cup of coffee, etc) do matter.

And personally I would also wait to do this until you see she is in need of it. Crying, sluggishness, etc.

It's ok to let her go through what she is going through.
posted by goalyeehah at 5:32 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I second swheatie. You are not obligated to offer anything unless you are ask.
posted by goalyeehah at 5:37 PM on December 11, 2013

At the risk of sounding callous, I think the best thing you can do for this woman is minimize your interactions with her. She is likely to identify that you are "pretend[ing] to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time," (!!!) and she does not need to deal with that at this time in her life.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:34 PM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

What would you want somebody to do if you were breaking down a bit in the workplace because of any sort of tragedy in your personal life...?

I agree that this person does not have time for bullshit. The phrasing here suggests you are prepared to bring out the bullshit. Don't do that. It's not even clear why you have an idea that she wants to talk to you "in detail about her personal problems," and the extrapolation and contemplated course of action here make you sound like an asshole. If you are actually an asshole just keep quiet and do your best to stay out of the way; you could do a lot of damage by going forward with the idea about pretending [etc].
posted by kmennie at 6:39 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's not easy to fake empathy because most people do it naturally. People who can't sometimes are good at being charming or cunning -- does that describe you? If so, possibly your brain is wired that way, but some research has shown that you can turn on the empathy if you try. It's probably not the same thing, but close enough for your goals. Maybe reading that article and the associated research will help you figure it out.
posted by Houstonian at 6:47 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Imagine if something extraordinarily bad happened to someone you loved. Imagine how you would feel. Imagine what you would want other people to do.

That's all empathy really is, dude.
posted by heyjude at 6:47 PM on December 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

You just ask "What can I do to help?" And if she suggests something, you do it. And over time, most people will have bonded with their co-worker and won't need to fake empathy. It's hard to work with someone every day and NOT feel some amount of sympathy when they are having a difficult time, even someone you don't necessarily like. Keep asking occasionally, especially on days when you can see she's struggling.
posted by raisingsand at 7:30 PM on December 11, 2013

Listen to her. Let her talk about it, and make sympathetic responses, as listed above. Don't offer help unless you mean it.
posted by theora55 at 7:32 PM on December 11, 2013

How can I pretend to be concerned and supportive with the least amount of effort and time?

Please don't. You are already starting off on the wrong foot.

You are not empathetic, so don't try to be. This lady will sniff the insincerity faster than you can imagine. The superficiality and insincerity of your "concern" will hurt this woman much more profoundly than a blank face or lack of supportive words.
posted by xm at 7:57 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Once in a while, bring her a cookie or pastry in the morning and leave it on her desk with a little note saying- "Happy Wednesday! - Dave." or something like that. Or once in a while, go out of your way to say, "Hey Lee, I'm going to get a coffee. Can I bring you something? My treat." A kind little concrete gesture like that would go a long way towards making me think an un-empathetic co-worker was awkward rather than unkind.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:05 PM on December 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

Sometimes when someone is crying in the office the kindest thing you can do is pretend not to notice, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed. It is a kindness to help preserve her dignity and a sense of normality. I love the suggestion of pseudo strabismus. Perhaps you can think of it as maintaining a professional working relationship in your office. I once had a boss who was not personally involved or especially empathetic in the workplace but she was unfailingly courteous and great at helping people maintain their dignity, even for those having a private meltdown or being called on the carpet.
posted by Anitanola at 9:40 PM on December 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not the world's most empathetic person--seriously, comforting is hard, even for the emotionally sensitive, and I'd put pretty good money on my fucking it up if I was to try to comfort a semi-stranger I barely know. Besides which, she may not be comfortable laying it out to you either; you're semi-strangers on both ends.

But absent saying the right things (and there really isn't anything you can say to make this better...that said, there's a lot of wrong things you can say, so if you don't know what to say, don't say too much), you can help just doing. Don't say anything if she takes more bathroom breaks, if she misses a few details, if she makes more mistakes than usual. Pretend not to notice if you see her crying (but maybe take an opportune bathroom break, or have tissue boxes close at hand). Just...take a little more off her plate surreptitiously and don't make a huge showing of it. You're not fooling anyone by pretending, but giving her that sliver of deniability when she's overwhelmed can help, because it gives her one less thing to be worrying about in this really unstable time.

It's hard to be super empathetic to someone you barely know. But even if you can't muster up more sympathy than "'m sorry", you can offer her kindness without saying anything. In a situation where there is no right thing to say, silent kindnesses can be enough.
posted by Zelos at 11:33 PM on December 11, 2013

I've had a lot of close people die on me. I have gone way out of my way to avoid people who were trying to be compasionate. I have changed dentists because I couldn't take one more office full of concerned citizens telling me how sorry they were and looking at me with great compassion . I would rather just be left alone. If I look like I need a box of kleenex or a glass of water it would be ok if you set them by me and maybe put your hand on my shoulder for 2 sec. max, but other than that I'd love it if you would just leave me the hell alone. That's me but I'd say just be your noncompassionate self.
posted by BoscosMom at 11:41 PM on December 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't offer something that you can't actually give. False comfort is going to be much more unhelpful for this person than no comfort at all.

Unless she approaches you while she's upset, leave her be. She might be grateful that her work colleagues, who are way down on the list of people to turn to in an emotional crisis, are giving her space to get her emotions under control and not making a big fuss about it.

I don't think you're a bad person for not being empathetic. It's not the same as setting out to harm another person. Indeed, false empathy is likely to be harder on someone and do more harm than no attempt to share someone's feelings at all.
posted by Solomon at 11:48 PM on December 11, 2013

Thanks for the good answers. Just to be clear, we are the only two people in the workplace and she is trying to talk to me about...stuff and I don't know how to respond. I'm not necessarily callous, but I definitely become awkward in these situations and was hoping for a cheatsheet.
posted by Literaryhero at 2:27 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is callous, and then there is awkward and introverted. Your original post came across as callous, but I can see how somebody who was just extremely uncomfortable in this situation could write those words. I fear I may have judged you too harshly, and if so I apologize.

I am awkward and introverted myself, and there are times when dealing with other people's more extreme emotions can be rough.

I am not saying this is the best solution, but it's how I would probably handle it. The next time she was pouring her heart out, I'd say, "I'm really sorry you're going through this. But the thing is, I'm sort of... shy. I'm kind of awkward about emotional stuff. I want to help, but I'm not always sure what to say or do. You know?"

And then I'd shut up and let her do what she's going to do. She knows you're struggling and you're doing your best.

You don't have the chance to get to know this woman the way most people get to know their co-workers. You're skipping the weeks or months of bland small-talk, and zipping ahead to the stuff people usually don't talk about until they're much closer. This could be a nightmare for you, or it could be an opportunity. If you can treat this woman well, and prove yourself a good and considerate person, you might end up with a friend instead of just a co-worker.

Or maybe you two were just never meant to be friends, and the best you can hope for is to stay out of her way and let her deal with this.

In any case, I don't think you need a cheat sheet. Listen when you can, help her when you can, but don't make yourself crazy trying to be somebody you're not or worrying if you're doing this wrong.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:57 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

You are not obligated to offer anything unless you are ask.

I have been offered help, support, food, clothing and shelter all at times when I was incapable of asking for them. Had it not been offered unasked, I would not have received it.

While you should not pretend to feel something that you don't, and should not offer anything that you are not prepared to do, do not proceed under the assumption that people in need of support will always ask for it.

It's harder than it looks.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:28 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. I don't know how you could possibly feel empathy for your co-worker unless someone close to you has had a similar diagnosis and you were devastated by it.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. I don't think you need to stretch very far to show sympathy for someone in your co-worker's situation. A simple "I'm sorry about this; it must be very difficult for you" is fine.
posted by Dolley at 9:33 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear, we are the only two people in the workplace and she is trying to talk to me about...stuff and I don't know how to respond.

She's lonely and might not have many friends to talk to about this. From my very personal perspective, she's still putting you in an unfair position. If a family member was sick, I would look for comfort from everyone but my coworkers.

It sucks, but you pretty much just have to listen.
posted by tooloudinhere at 3:53 PM on December 12, 2013

Just saw this related post over on the blue & thought it might help illustrate. Hope it's helpful.
posted by mochapickle at 5:00 PM on December 12, 2013

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