We all know this one, right?
It’s said in different ways in many different cultures, but those differences are basically semantics. This is the gist of it ^^^^^. And I’m not saying it’s not awesome. It is. We all learn it as little children in some form or another. It’s an early life lesson, that for some unfortunate reason, kind of fades as we get older, unlike those alphabet, phonics, and early math drills which seem to hold on in perpetuity. Even with its fleeting nature, we still DO learn this early. But it’s important when we think about empathy that we understand it’s more than just The Golden Rule.
Treating others how you would want to be treated is important. It’s the way we begin teaching empathy to children. It normally works like a charm on broad, sweeping issues that humanity almost universally agrees on.
‘Don’t hit that kid because you wouldn’t like being hit; don’t take that kid’s toy because you wouldn’t want your toy taken away from you…’
But it’s not the full practice of empathy. It’s Elementary Empathy.
Empathy for Beginners. Empathy 101.
Adults are ready for Advanced Empathy.
The full practice is treating others the way you would want to be treated *if you were them.* That seems like a subtle addition, but it really isn’t. Life is full of nuance that isn’t covered by the obvious ‘don’t’s’ The Golden Rule implies. Almost everyone thinks those ‘don’t’s’ hurt or they’re unfair.
Adult life gets more complicated. There are more gray areas, where some people like being treated in certain ways that other people can’t stand. And as adults, we need to treat people how THEY want to be treated.
Like, YOU might like lots of attention and people fussing over you when you are sad or upset or looking good or proud of an accomplishment, but someone else might want to be left alone and get embarrassed and uncomfortable from that same attention you crave.
YOU might not mind spontaneity…maybe you even thrive on it, but someone else feels insecure without a plan.
YOU might be able to shrug off hateful words and actions directed at you personally, or some group you’re a member of, but someone else might take them to heart, and that doesn’t make them ‘wrong.’ (Unless they are offended or frightened by someone else simply existing in their involuntary form in the same world/workplace/school/restaurant/public bathroom as them.) It doesn’t make them a damaged person. It only makes them different from you.
For example, as a man, maybe you’d actually *enjoy* getting catcalled. Maybe it would make your day to hear strange women comment on your appearance or body as you walked down the street. But that doesn’t make catcalling women you don’t know ok, because it’s ‘how you’d want to be treated.’ You have to put yourself into that woman’s perspective, which you can’t do effectively until you know her. And you should know her fairly well to get there, too, which requires earning her trust, actively listening to what she shares with you, and accepting her experiences and feelings as valid. It’s an involved process, and you’ll never earn her trust (step 1) by catcalling her…the best you can hope for is earning her attention.
Advanced Empathy takes more skill and work in practice than Elementary Empathy. If you find it too difficult to make that amount of effort to know another person, you should default to The Golden Rule principle, but instead of assuming that something won’t hurt or scare a person because it wouldn’t hurt or scare YOU, you should stick with those ‘do’s’ that are nearly universally appealing…
And the other main flaw in The Golden Rule that I’ve always seen is that it doesn’t acknowledge that empathy is a two way street. Empathy in human relationships is reflexive, symmetric, and transitive (just like math), and The Golden Rule doesn’t reflect that (and it should).
A quick, simple mathematical property lesson…
The reflexive property means that a value equals itself (most everyone understands this…this is kind of what The Golden Rule does include), basically a=a. Give others the treatment (a) that you would want (a).
The symmetric property says that if two things are equal to each other in one way, they are also equal to each other in the opposite way, basically a=b, therefore b=a. I look at human relationships and empathy this way too. If I treat you this way, you should treat me this way. If you treat me this way, I will treat you this way too. I know it sounds really ‘an eye for an eye,’ which I don’t believe in personally, particularly not literally, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t treat people symmetrically. I expect people to treat me with the same respect and kindness and courtesy I give them, and I always try my best, at least at the beginning of a relationship, to treat everyone this way. However, when it becomes apparent to me that I’m being treated with disrespect and unkindness and callousness, I’ll return that treatment, because…I’m an optimist. And I assume the best in people. So I assume everyone knows The Golden Rule. So if they are treating me poorly, they must want me to treat them similarly.
And finally, the transitive property…
If a=b and b=c, then a=c.
If I am equal to all other people, and a person treats someone else with unkindness and disrespect, then it can be assumed they would also treat me with unkindness and disrespect given the opportunity. Which leads me to conclude they want me to treat them the way they treat others.
I think a more complete set of rules for human relationship behavior would be something like this:
Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.
Treat others you know the way THEY want to be treated.
Others are equal to you and deserve equal treatment to you.
And finally…if you treat others poorly…don’t be surprised if you receive some less than ideal treatment in return. It’s unfair to expect understanding and patience and trust and kindness from people if you aren’t offering those things to others.
Because human relationship behavior is reflexive, symmetric, and transitive. And I think The Golden Rule is too. At least the way I interpret it.