Learning Empathy from Shakespeare and Twilight

Empathy, like anything else, is a skill. It can be learned, practiced, or forgotten. Think for a moment about a piece of art or cultural expression that you completely and utterly do not understand. It might be this, or this, or this… They seem like strange and obtuse things in this world, like the crazy uncle who shows up to family reunions. But empathy is not an exercise with things you already care about, empathy is a skill that derives most value when applied to what you would normally dismiss.

Let’s try this exercise on two seemingly opposite categories of art. I’ve always struggled to appreciate classical art. I didn’t hate it but I found it boring and irrelevant. I didn’t understand why Romeo didn’t just run away with Juliet and forget the haters. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the confounding modern series called Twilight. Why couldn’t Bella just nut up and get over Edward? The answer lies in the mindset of the audience. In this case, both Shakespeare and Meyer alike are speaking to a particularly passionate and emotional stage of romantic relationships. To people who have lived and experienced those types of relationships, these stories resonate very deeply.

I began to see culture in a different light. I wondered what issues might plague the juggalos or the furries. I turned the eye on myself and tried to discover why I like the art I like. Why do tUnE-yArDs and african music resonate with me so much? I won’t delve into the specific reasons I discovered for my tastes, but I learned the importance of taking the time to make sense of that which we don’t immediately understand. This view of culture lends itself to empathy and unlocks the key to understanding art and audiences alike. In our work at Catalyst, this skill is fundamental to making successful technology. The apps and systems we create are rarely intended for us. We must adopt the mindset of our clients and users in order to create something that they find worthwhile. If we can’t understand where our audience is coming from, then we will certainly fail.

Natalie Doud