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Empathy and the fine art of keeping your mouth shut

I was out with Lucy, Ethel and Wilma (not their real names, duh). Wilma is a middle-aged woman who has been over 200 pounds since high school.

Lucy and Ethel had signed up for a “Ladies’ Boot Camp,” where they pay someone to yell encouraging things to them through an hour of running and calisthenics.

I offered to provide this service for half the price they are paying their drill sergeant, but they went anyway.

For half an hour Lucy and Ethel talked about nothing but their boot camp and how much they love/hate it. Fine. But then they began to pick apart their bodies.

“When did I get bat wings?”

“All I want is to be a size 10 by Christmas. That’s all I want.”

“I hate those skinny girls in the class. What are they even there for?”

Now, these women both know that they are not fat. They may be flabby, but they are not fat. Wilma, on the other hand, knows that she is fat.

So why would two women who know Wilma’s feelings about her body chat away like she wasn’t there? Why would they “ugh” in disgust over their thighs when they know their thighs are less than half the size of Wilma’s?

This reminded me how important the instruction of etiquette is when empathy is absent.

Empathy is the idea that you can imagine someone else’s feelings. It’s on the level of mind reading. Practically a super power.

Short of reading body language and rifling through private journals, it’s almost impossible to know what people are thinking at any one moment.

Ethel and Lucy lacked the ability to read Wilma’s mind, but since they’ve known her for several years and listened to her complain about her weight problems they might have had an inkling that their conversation was unkind, even if not directly so.

Rather than boning up on mentalism, however, we can turn to manners to grease the axle of social engagement for us.

Etiquette is the milk of human kindness (however feigned) that enables us to live together without killing one another.

It is treating others with respect and kindness whether we think they merit it or not. It is pointing out a lovely sweater or new haircut while not mentioning the 10-pound weight gain since you last met or the obvious lip injections.

Good manners are more about putting the Golden Rule into action and trying to be agreeable than which fork to use. Sometimes it can be easier to define something by its opposite, and rude people are easy to spot.

I met a guy at a local dog park several months ago who was such a jerk he is infamous now with the people who know me.

Somehow we got to talking about politics and he called me a stupid knee-jerk right-winger. Interesting comment, since I am anything but right-wing and if he knew me he would know that.

The man was in his 40s and within 15 minutes of meeting him I had decided that I never wanted to have a conversation with him again.

He could be, somehow, in an alternate universe, a great guy, but I am done with him. All because he was mean in what he said and made me feel like an idiot.

If you ever wonder what good manners would call for, ask yourself, “If I were a jerk, how would I act?” and then do the opposite. It works every time!

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