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No sympathy for misusers of the word empathy

Written By Jon Budington

August 13, 2019

Choose your words carefully

A sophisticated vocabulary gives us the ability to express our best ideas, thoughts and beliefs. But unfortunately, this box of tools is only as good as our ability to use them properly, and we marketers are known to bend some dictionary rules every once in a while. We like to create unnecessary Orwellian phrases, like “thought leadership,” because “leadership” doesn’t sound important enough. Sometimes we invent fake words like “impactful,” when the real words “to have impact” are too complicated to fit into a sentence. But for me, the ubiquitous substitution of empathy for sympathy is language heresy—the crossing of the vocabulary Rubicon. Sympathy is a fine word. Introduced in the 16th century from the latin sympathia or “community of feeling,” it conveys the idea of shared feelings, though usually of sorrow. Empathy has a completely different meaning; it’s a power only humans have. To understand this power, we must project ourselves back in time. 

You might be a terrible Artist!—the origins of empathy

The Starry Night, 1889 by Vincent Van Gogh

If you wanted to capture an image in the early 19th century, you would hire an artist. A permanent likeness of your child, spouse, or estate required canvas, paint and painter. But by the middle of the century, new imaging technology began to emerge. Daguerreotypes lead to Tintypes, and eventually, to the invention of silver halide photography. A competent artist of the late 19th century felt the effects of silver halide much the way a modern taxi driver loathes Uber. But the skills of these painters weren’t lost. In fact, something spectacular began to happen.  In France, a young artist named Claude Monet began experimenting with a new technique of small visual brush strokes and eventually formed the school of French Impressionism. Across the city, Georges Seurat invented a new technique of stipple brush strokes and established the school of Pointillism. And a young Dutch admirer of Seurat was Vincent Van Gogh, who began his art career in the Pointillism school and went on to develop his own unique style of painting. Almost overnight, the definition of great art transformed from what was seen by the eye to what was felt by the artist. But how could one determine if these new paintings and styles were any good? This question wreaked havoc upon 19th century art critics, but it also piqued the curiosity of a young German philosopher.

We need some Einfühlung here!

Robert Vischer was born to appreciate art. He was the son of poet, author and art philosopher, Friedrich Vischer. Friedrich, while a professor of aesthetic and German Literature at Tübingen Stift seminary, produced a voluminous body of work titled Aesthetik. In it, he attempted to define a method for understanding beauty and form in artwork. Robert picked up this work where his father left off. In 1873, Robert published On the Optical Sense of Form: A Contribution to Aesthetics. Here, the younger Vischer developed new concepts for how to view and appreciate art. One of those concepts was Einfühlung or “to enter the feeling.” His idea was that to understand art, we must fully project ourselves into the work we are assessing—a pastoral view, architecture or artwork. By doing so, we are viewing the object with our full power of emotion. Einfühlung became the lasting concept of the Vischer family. Critics learned to experience new art by entering it. In 1906, the highly skeptical editors of the Oxford English Dictionary (they haven’t yet added “impactful”) decided it was time to add Einfühlung to their definitive guide to the English Language. They translated “enter the feeling” into the latin Empathy: The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. Yes, empathy is a power. If you have the time to read and understand Vischer’s 5 volume work, you can learn to do it too.

Empathy is hard work, and a great tool.

I’ve spent the last few years at More Vang developing our process for empathy. Understanding a business’s intangible value depends on it. What I’ve learned is there is no easy way of doing it. It takes time, research and focus. It’s inherently expensive but invaluable in the process of communicating brand. So next time someone suggests you have some empathy, check to see if they are asking you to work very hard at developing an understanding of something you don’t clearly see. Or are they hoping you share in their sorrow about something—to be sympathetic? If the latter, correct their poor choice of words and become a member of their community of concern.

Follow the More Vang blog so you don’t miss our next post, where we’ll dig in to how we use empathy to deliver better ideas and work for our clients.