A Simple Experiment in Empathy

Smiling male friends with red wine

I bring home two bags of cheese. There’s a wad of green mold at the top of the first one. The second bag doesn’t have any visible mold, but it smells of decaying muskrat. No big deal, I can take them back to the store in the morning. I get there early and the guy at the register tells me he can’t do an exchange because I don’t have my receipt.

“Well, can you please get the manager,” I say.
The manager comes to the register. “No receipt, no exchange.”
“Guys,” I say, “I understand that you’re obviously parroting the owner’s rules, but in this case, intelligence dictates that you abandon dogmatic principle for a broader view.”
(Blank looks.)
The guy at the register says, “The owner just walked in.”
The owner looks at me and asks, “Do you have a receipt?”
“Receipt,” I say, “You’ve gotta be kidding! All I want to do is exchange these moldy bags of cheese. I’m not trying to rip you off.”
The storeowner is remarkably calm and it just pisses me off all the more, “That’s our policy,” he says, “How do I know where you bought this cheese and how you stored it? Maybe you left it outside for a week.”
“Oh my God,” I shout. “You’ve got to be f**king insane. It was rotten when I bought it.”
The more enraged I become the calmer the storeowner seems to be getting, “I’m not calling you a liar,” he keeps saying and of course, that just makes me crazier.

It takes me the better part of the day to calm down and towards evening, I decide to conduct an experiment, a simple experiment in empathy. I ask myself, is it possible, in spite of how insane and dead-wrong this storeowner is, that I could — in some way — begin to empathize with him? Just before bed, I write a list of how I imagine he might be seeing the issue — and at first, it’s physically painful to write:

1. Though I totally disagree with his policy and his intransigent stance, I must also admit that I don’t know a damn thing about running a store.

2. The storeowner told me that he’s got people trying to exchange things all day long. Maybe he’s telling the truth and maybe those exchanges cut into his profits. As I said, I don’t know anything about his overhead, what he pays his employees or his profit margins.

3. Perhaps, my getting insane in the middle of his store was not only bad for his business, it also painted me as… well, an insane person.

4. Perhaps if I’d taken him aside and explained my situation in private, it would have been easier for him to overlook his exchange policy.

5. It’s possible there are language and cultural considerations that I hadn’t thought about… especially as the smoke poured out of my ears.

6. Finally, and most importantly, who the hell am I that this guy should make an exception for me? It then dawns on me that, more than the inconvenience, it was the affront to my ego that made me so angry.

I call the storeowner the next morning and I apologize. I don’t cast blame on him or on myself for that matter. I simply reiterate one through six on the list above. Here’s what he said: “You have no idea how happy this makes me. No one understands the kinds of pressure I’m under with people running into my store every minute to exchange things they didn’t even buy here. I would have gladly exchanged your cheese but it wouldn’t have been possible to do so in public. Please come back, I’ll exchange the cheese, we’ll sit and have tea and some cake.”

After the phone call I feel like a tiny tear in the fabric of my own humanity has been restored. All through this simple experiment in empathy.

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