May 29th, 2020

Gift-giving as a simple, real-world empathy test

One of the biggest problems in human relationships (here I use the word "relationships" in its broader, more general sense which includes friendships and professional working relationships: generally any kind of interaction between people, not specifically romantic relationships) is that people tend to not be aware of how they are perceived by other people: People are usually very aware of how they feel themselves, but not how they make other people feel. This problem is exacerbated by societal rules of politeness which generally discourage people from talking about their real feelings and encourage people to just say something superficial and polite regardless of whether it's true or not, but even when people are more open and candid about their feelings, misunderstandings often arise because of people's simple failure to distinguish between their own feelings and other people's feelings.

A related problem is people's tendency to assume that if they feel a certain way about something, therefore other people feel the same way. In psychology, this is called "projection", the act of projecting your own personality onto the personality of other people. It seems to stem from a deep-rooted assumption in human beings that different people are similar to each other, and therefore if I feel this way, you must feel this way, too. Very often, people will attribute a certain motive to other people's behavior, unconscious of the reality that they are actually describing why they themselves would do such a thing, and making the mental leap that "Because this is why I would do something, that must be why other people do it as well". Even among highly educated, socially adjusted people, this kind of thinking is rampant. People just can't get away from the fallacy of "This is how I think and feel, so other people think and feel the same way".

When you have fundamental problems like this, a very important thing to do is to develop ways that people can gather more information about the problem in order to understand it better. Because people often have trouble understanding how other people feel about them and falsely assume that what they think and feel is what other people think and feel, a critically important asset is some kind of concrete test or indicator which people can use to recognize disparities, to recognize when they are projecting onto other people rather than understanding other people as they actually are.

It struck me when thinking about it recently that gift-giving is one such test. Gift-giving is a useful social test because it is one of relatively few social practices where people are required to seriously ask the question "What would this other person like?" and produce a concrete answer to that question. It's also a useful test because it occurs in many different contexts: It happens among family and friends, but in many workplaces, it also happens among co-workers, because in many workplaces, co-workers buy birthday presents and wedding gifts for each other, and colleagues who know the gift recipient personally are encouraged to come up with appropriate ideas for gifts.

Gift-giving is a relatively simple and practical real-world empathy test because it requires you to ask yourself: How well do you know this other person? Do you know what they like and dislike, what they are most interested in and what would most make them happy? If you spend a lot of time with people and listen to what they have to say, you can often get an idea of what they like and what they would enjoy as gifts. If you know someone well, you should be able to know what would work for them as a gift.

What I often see when people think about getting gifts for friends, family, or co-workers is the kind of self-directed thinking I described above: "If I like something, other people like the same thing". Many people who go about buying a gift for someone adopt the thinking that "I really like this thing. It's what I would want as a gift, therefore it is what other people want as a gift". Self-awareness includes knowing who you are and what you want, but it also includes recognizing when you are falsely applying this kind of thinking. If you are approaching gift-giving from the perspective of what works for you and what you personally enjoy, then this indicates a lack of empathy. This is a simple, real-world test to see whether you have empathy for other people or whether you lack it.

Some people hate gift-giving because they can never think of good gifts to give to other people, and I'm one of them. Speaking for myself, I've never been very good at giving gifts, and I think I understand why now. I simply do not understand other people's motivations for the things they do. That much is apparent from how much I denigrate the way other people live: I do not understand why a person who could spend an evening learning new ideas would choose to spend that evening in front of a television turning off their brain instead. I do not understand why a person who could use a conversation to better understand other people would instead use that conversation to talk about irrelevant, unimportant details which will never have an impact on anyone's life. I understand that there are probably reasons why people do these things, but I am not able to really understand the reasons or the motivations behind living that way. I know what I like, and I have enough self-awareness to understand that people don't like the things I like, but I lack the empathy or depth of understanding of "normal" people to understand what other people like.

So when I need to give someone a gift, I usually come up empty. If I were completely egocentric, I would think about what I like and buy something along those lines for someone else, but since I realize that most people probably would not be delighted by a soldering iron or oscilloscope as a gift, I try to think about what other people would like, and I can think of nothing. What do people like? Um, people like money, right? But money isn't really a good gift; it says quite clearly "I couldn't think of anything you'd like", because the point of gift-giving isn't usually to make the other person wealthier, but rather to show that you care about them enough to give them something that would be personally meaningful to them. A touching gift is one in which it's apparent that the giver knows the receiver well enough and has invested enough thought that they were able to choose something which would personally appeal to the receiver. If the giver is not able to understand what would really touch the heart and soul of the recipient, then the gift is likely to be a dud.

What I've found is that you can sometimes discover amazing things about people if you just listen to them. Very often, people will tell you clues that help you to understand them if you only pay attention and listen to what they have to say. Understand that people are not always good at communication, so you may have to interpret what they say and not always take it at face value, but still, even if not everything they say can be understood literally, the things that people say are a form of communication. So if you want to understand people, listen to them. Think of the mad doctor from Mondo Medicals, that poor man who just wanted to be understood (and cure cancer), and his famous, exasperated plea: Listen! Listen! Listen!

Of course, there are people whom you will never be able to understand, even if you listen to them for extended periods of time. I have known people who would talk for very long and uninterrupted stretches of time but never seemed to express anything with their words that would reveal anything about themselves, or anything else for that matter. Some people have mental conditions which cause them to babble random thoughts that don't really mean anything, and some people appear sane but just don't have anything heartfelt to say. You can't understand everyone, and if you've spent a reasonable amount of time listening to someone and found that it hasn't helped you understand them better, it can be reasonable to suspect that someone is a person whom you simply won't be able to understand, regardless of how much time you invest in listening to them. Don't allow people to waste too much of your time if you really just can't understand them. But if someone is important to you, you'll need to take the time to understand them for who and what they really are, not for how you perceive them to be through your own assumptions about them. And you can only do that by listening. And if you ever question your understanding of someone, just ask yourself: Do you know what the perfect gift for that person would be? Do you know exactly what they'd really love, what would make them happier than anything else? And if you think you know the answer to this question, do you actually know that answer for a fact, or are you just assuming it based on your self-made perceptions of the person? Because your answer to this question will relate fairly directly to your level of empathy for them.