em·pa·thy noun
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

If there's one thing I've learned that America needs is empathy. At the end, I'll talk about how it applies to SWE, but first just some food for thought.

After the election finally ended, one of my closest friends (who we'll call Zeke) and I were having a talk about what happened in the election. Zeke was telling me about his understanding on how Trump won/Hillary lost. He went on about how we've become so polarized, that we lost the ability to empathize with "the rest of America". Living in California, we have a really different insight and view compared to the rest of America.

The fact of the matter is America is huge; whenever we think about "the rest of America" it's hard to imagine how someone could not think the same way as we do. We've become so quick to jump to conclusions that it's hard to imagine, tolerate, and empathize things from their point of view.

Things have been so polarized that it seems like we can't even accept that there are opposing opinions. When we think we're right, we shut down the opposing opinions and just think that they're wrong without even trying to understand and empathize with their side. This lack of empathy further exacerbates some of the problems with society. Let's look at some examples.


Let me try to explain with an example of this: Pretend someone said to you that they're concerned about Islamic extremism. Someone might call them Islamophobic and call them a bigot and tell them that they're being irrational.

Fact: Religious extremism is real, and a number of Islamists are willing to do horrible things to innocent people in the name of religion.
Fact: Islamic extremists are real. But out of the ~1.6 billion Muslims in the world, only 106,000 are associated with the extremist organizations. Source
Fact: People in America are more likely to die from a TV falling on you, fireworks, cows, an elevator malfunction, choking on food, lightning, car accidents, heart attacks, and the police than it is to die from Islamic terrorism. Source

Yes, logic and reasoning says probability-wise, religious extremism isn't very likely to kill you. But the truth is each person has their right to be scared. Feelings might not necessarily be logical or rational, but that doesn't change the validity of their feelings. Instead of judging and criticizing their Islamophobia, we should try to empathize with their point of view, and try to understand them from their perspective. On mainstream media, this should be a fair topic to be discussed without the scrutiny and judgment of the public.


Another example of this lack of empathy in everyday life happens a lot while driving. Think about the last time someone cut you off of the freeway and slammed on their brakes, or someone speeding/weaving through traffic or even someone driving terribly slow on the road. I'm fairly confident most people would've said something like "What an asshole" or "That guy must be dumb" or something on those lines.

Sure, it's entirely possible that the person driving was actually awful, or just an asshole. But why can't we try to give him the benefit of the doubt that something happened and it made him late to something important so he's rushing. Why not try to be empathetic and think that the person probably doesn't enjoy taking a longer time getting to their destination, and something might be holding them back from driving faster. Or that they're new in town and they only cut you off because they were trying to find their destination while listening to Google Maps.

Global Warming

I saved this one near the end because it's hard to imagine how if 99% of all scientists out there say that global warming is real, that there could be a certain percentage of America think it's a hoax. I had a talk about this with a different friend but it made me learn perspective in terms of this.

Me growing up in the Bay Area has granted me certain privileges that I'm sure some parts of America doesn't. One of which is education. I learned about global warming at a young age and grew up with it. I was presented with lots of facts and studies that showed the effects of global warming. And that's allowed me to see these facts as something I understand as truth.

But let's look at it from a different perspective. What if I was a coal mine worker and a really close, trusted friend told me that global warming was a hoax put forth by some greedy corporations just trying to take my jobs away. My friend wouldn't lie to me right? He's only out for my best interest and he's only telling me because he's concerned. I might not be educated enough to do my own research and learn about global warming. And now my perception of truth is that global warming is a hoax.

This difference in truths is why we often call these people as "dumb" or "ignorant." We see these studies as fact, but they don't. It might not be that they're dumb, they just don't know any better. In my scenario as a coal mine worker, the friend might not have known any better either. Somewhere along the line, the message was either misinterpreted or skewed (they might've actually been lied to), but you can't judge them for not knowing. We have the privilege of education, other people might not. We shouldn't forget about this and criticize them. If we empathize, understand, and listen to the other side and treat them with kindness and respect, we might be able to make an incredible impact on how they perceive things.


Note: Personally, I don't support Trump and his platform, but I don't think everything that that happened in this election is 100% bad. Two things that I think might actually be beneficial: getting the millennials to be involved with the political process and empathizing/remembering with "the rest of America".

Zeke was joking about posting on Facebook saying "I am happy that Trump won!" and that he'd probably be crucified on FB, if he did. And I'm fairly confident that that would've been true, given that most of our friends are from the Bay Area. But looking at the other side, rural America hasn't been flourishing like CA has. The Rust Belt states have been declining slowly over the last 20 years. They haven't had a voice that really resonated with them. Trump empathized with a huge part in rural Middle America and the declining Rust Belt states and won.

The lack of empathy has never been this bad before. Look at some of the recent posts that have stemmed after the election ended:

Copy/Pasted from a FB post:

John Pavlovitz's Blog Post

Zeke called it "moral pandering at its finest." The way he described it was America voted in evil, and the people who voted for it are all bad. Because we are good, and things didn't go our way, we get to be sad. There is no accountability in this. No introspection or empathy. Many of the reactions after Trump winning were similar to this. Without trying to understand the other side.

Maybe if we cared more about the rest of America, they wouldn't have reacted this way. Maybe if we empathized with them earlier and actively tried to help them succeed, things would've been different. Maybe if we got off our high horse and tried to understand the rest of America, Hillary might've won.

Maybe Trump winning isn't entirely bad. It might help us open our eyes to see the rest of America for the way it is. His victory might bring back that basic human skill of empathy that it seems that we've forgotten. Being able to look at things from their point of view might be something that will help America succeed as a whole.

Understanding Why

Software Engineering

So far, it feels like I've just been ranting about the election. But in all honesty, empathy has been a skill that I, personally, have been working on as a software engineer more than any other skill. Ever since I started coding, I've always tried to do it the best way, and whenever didn't do it my way, they were often met with condescension and judgment. As I've grown as a person/engineer, empathy has been one of the most core skills I've developed.

Let's think about another scenario. A coworker is working on a seemingly basic algorithm that can be easily solved in O(n) time complexity. But, you see that their implementation is done in O(n³). How easy is it to say something like: "Why would you do it this way? You can just do it like this using this and boom. O(n)."

That approach is direct and to-the-point, yes. But by doing so, we didn't show any empathy or understanding to his approach. As well as showing no respect whatsoever to the coworker. Doing this would likely put your coworker in a defensive position, even if you only intended to help them.

An alternative approach is to ask them a question. "Why did you do it this way? Have you considered using this approach? Just a suggestion for you to consider." This seems a bit more drawn out and extended, but ultimately we're giving them a choice. We're respecting his ideas and by asking questions, we're trying to empathize with his choices and why he made them.

Humility, Respect, and Trust is key to being empathetic. Being humble enough to listen to others, respecting their ideas and opinions, and trusting that they are able and competent. Empathy in SWE is just as important in daily life. Developing this skill allows for a greater impact with the same amount of effort.