How to Be a Nice Person

It’s all about empathy.

The woman sitting across from me was in obvious emotional distress. She and her husband had worked all their lives to provide for their family and to save for retirement. Now, it was all falling apart. Their son had died (I didn’t ask how), and their daughter had left them on the hook for millions of dollars in a failed house-flipping venture. They had co-signed every single high-risk mortgage.

I couldn’t help them, but the woman stilled asked to hug me before she left, and both she and her husband thanked me profusely for doing essentially nothing.

What’s my secret?

I pretend to be a nice person.

Now, if you actually know me, you’ll know that I’m as far from nice or likable as a person can actually be without being chased by a mob with flaming torches (although I’m sure that’s crossed someone’s mind at some point). I don’t have friends. I’m a loner with an overly-dressed dog.

But I know how to flip the switch that turns on the glowing neon “Welcome” sign over my head.

It’s all about empathy

The English word empathy has only been around for the last 100 years. The Germans had a word for it first (of course), something vaguely painful to read and completely unpronounceable.

The English word “empathy” came into being only about a century ago as a translation for the German psychological term Einfühlung, literally meaning “feeling-in.” — Susan Lanzoni, in The Atlantic

It’s fun that emotions can be invented, like the waffle cone at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

I think people confuse talking about themselves with being empathic. There are different ways of being open, and they’re not all the same as empathy.

People don’t want to hear about you. They want to hear about themselves, their feelings, their problems, reflected back to them. Regurgitating your own life stories is certain to lead you off on tangents that will only distract you from your immediate goal, be it gaining a new client or hooking up, and exhaust your listener, who already has a lot on their plate just being human.

Obviously I couldn’t say to the woman, “Oh, my son died, too.” But I could nod, and share with her the medication regime that I’ve used to help me through this little nightmare we call “life”. Comparing meds is always an icebreaker.

In 1955, Reader’s Digest defined the term, which was new to the public outside of academia, as the “ability to appreciate the other person’s feelings without yourself becoming so emotionally involved that your judgment is affected.” — ibid.

Empathy is not a round of 20 questions

I can always tell when someone has been reading self-help articles about how to connect with others. They start firing questions at me, each of which alone could inspire a 30-minute conversation, pause ten seconds for my response, and then fire another round.

Please don’t do that.

In his How to Win Friends and Influence People (a book that simply will not die), Dale Carnegie inscribes the sacred mantras that would one day be rechristened “networking”:

  1. Be genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember people’s names: “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  6. Make the other person feel important — and do it sincerely.

(For more on HTWFAIP, check out Jessica Weisberg’s article in the New Yorker.)

Carnegie uses words like “genuinely” and “sincerely”. But what if you’re not a nice person who genuinely or sincerely cares about anyone?

Just pretend to care

Empathy was literally made up out of thin air barely a century ago. It does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or genuine concern.

So, just pretend to care about other people. (In the immortal words of George Costanza, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.” ) Step out of yourself. Be somebody else for a few minutes, a person who wants to help annoying strangers.

One of the first things we do as children is playacting.

You know how to do this.

By reflecting people’s concerns back to them, you’re satisfying their need to be heard, which all they really want anyway. People love to complain. If you have a solution to offer, offer it. They’ll either take your advice or they won’t.

But what you most want is to be remembered as that nice person who listened, who made them “felt in”. Einfühlun.

Legal secretary by day, insomniac by night. BA, MA. If life is a journey, I’m lost. Slackjaw, Points In Case, The Funny Times, The Haven. Twitter: @blade_funner

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