Do men have a problem with empathy?

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Post by C-Bass on Thu Oct 02, 2014 5:22 am

There's a trend I've noticed in the comment sections of the Doc's blog posts and on the Facebook page of 'The line'*; a fair amount of guys seem to be either unable or unwilling to empathize with women's experiences of the world. This comes up mostly when talking about things like harassment and the dangers they face in the dating world.

I'm sure most of you have seen these guys on the comment sections and they're pretty obvious; bring up cat calls and they say to take it as a compliment. Bring up women's fear of being sexually assaulted and they'll go on a long tiraid about how not all men are like that and women should relax.

My question is why are these guys seem to be so lacking in empathy; are they incapable of it or are they refusing to for what ever reason?  

For the record, young Australian guy.

*This may not be relevant to any of you who aren't from Australia but they're basically a government initiative to foster respectful relationships between young people.
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Post by nearly_takuan on Thu Oct 02, 2014 5:51 am

Well, because empathy requires relating to the experience in some way. Usually the line used is something like "what if you had to put up with people randomly giving you unwanted attention?" To which we respond, "what's unwanted attention?"

Even the better attempts at tackling that particular issue tend to fall a bit short, perhaps because there's a deficit of empathy running in the other direction too. Rather than address why catcalling makes people uncomfortable, it's always so much easier to just paint the other side as a bunch of small-minded jerks, and of course even if some of their complaints were valid (pshaw, as if) they're already privileged and spoiled and singularly lacking in empathy, so of course they don't deserve to be taken seriously.

Okay, sarcasm off: it's a fairly reasonable position, all things considered, as is the mantra that it is Not X's Job To Educate Y. Some issues are just really, really hard to properly articulate and it certainly doesn't help when it feels like the "other" side will never understand or even try to work with you, no matter what you do.

It may be worth noting that a few trans men have recently reported that following their superficial transition to looking more "manly" they stopped getting unwanted catcalls, but they also missed getting genuine unsolicited compliments, ever.
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Post by Guest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 6:03 am

Empathy is something we learn by watching adults sharing and behaving co-operatively in our first few years of life. The reading I have done, and admittedly I can't look up the citations now, seems to suggest that this is a perfect example of nurture over nature.

Boys are born with the exact same capacity for empathy as girls. It's how they are socialised - prizing competition over co-operation, not being expected to do the emotional work in relationships, not being expected to see another person's point of view, that makes them lack empathy.

Little boys are expected to rough-and-tumble; little girls are expected to "play nice". The question of how much of it is reversible once the brain is adult is interesting to me.

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Post by nearly_takuan on Thu Oct 02, 2014 6:13 am

Oh, so that explains the wage gap: women are socialized to prize feeling good over having a competitive edge, not being expected to outperform their peers, not being expected to strive for success, so that makes them lack value in a capitalist workforce.

What I'm trying to say is this seems like a poor assumption to start with, that one sex is likely to have empathy and the other isn't. I think the more likely scenario is that different experiences are enough to explain why the two sexes can't easily relate on certain issues, and it's not really necessary to claim that we also have different attitudes, aptitudes, or needs.

(And for the record, I'm not a fan of competitive/capitalist/corporate culture either.)
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Post by BasedBuzzed on Thu Oct 02, 2014 7:46 am

It's typical mind fallacy: I'm a reasonable person, and I assume other people are too, ergo they must think exactly like me. Combo this with the above notes on gender socialization, and you get the stereotypes of women as weepy and underconfident and men as arrogant and insensitive.

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Post by UristMcBunny on Thu Oct 02, 2014 7:47 am

I think exposure to the other side's POV is an issue, as well. Men are still the vast majority of the main character in shows and movies. The stories we see are still overwhelmingly about men, by men, showing a male perspective. The trend of 17%=equal time is still going strong in that sense.

So what you get is, girls and women learning from a young age to specifically understand and empathise with men's POV (because it's necessary to enjoy most of the media available to us). While for men, there is very little in the way of women's POV accurately shown on TV etc, most women characters are still written by men and a lot of stereotypes still abound.

And some men will even go so far as to specifically avoid or reject media not made from/for their POV. Like the guys who won't read fiction by women, or watch movies considered "girly films" or TV shows about women. So they get almost no practice at empathising with or experiencing women's perspectives.

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Post by Guest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 8:17 am

I think UristMcBunny has it spot on. For boys and men, if you are putting yourself into a female perspective in books, movies, or TV, it's because you're watching "lesser" TV. As a woman or a girl, if you don't open yourself up to a male perspective, you're seriously curtailing your available sources of entertainment or information.

I also think the question "do men have a problem with empathy" simplifies the issue we see. I think a lot of these guys empathize strongly with the other men in the situation, in that they can easily see or imagine their perspective. It's a lack of experience and imagination that makes it harder for them to see the female perspective as real and valid.

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Post by ApocalypseApple on Thu Oct 02, 2014 8:18 am

UristMcBunny wrote:I think exposure to the other side's POV is an issue, as well.  Men are still the vast majority of the main character in shows and movies.  The stories we see are still overwhelmingly about men, by men, showing a male perspective.  The trend of 17%=equal time is still going strong in that sense.

So what you get is, girls and women learning from a young age to specifically understand and empathise with men's POV (because it's necessary to enjoy most of the media available to us).  While for men, there is very little in the way of women's POV accurately shown on TV etc, most women characters are still written by men and a lot of stereotypes still abound.

And some men will even go so far as to specifically avoid or reject media not made from/for their POV.  Like the guys who won't read fiction by women, or watch movies considered "girly films" or TV shows about women.  So they get almost no practice at empathising with or experiencing women's perspectives.  

This. But there is also an element of "that could be me in [X] amount of years". Men, or boys, at times grow up with a sort of 'bro' culture. It's the culture that creates sayings like "bros before hoes". When someone talks about a conflict between a man and a woman, the man will be more inclined to see things from the man's perspective, because he can (1) think of several justifications for the man's side and (2) fear of future hypocricy. Since they can empathise with the man in the situation, they can also easily imagine themselves ending up in such a situation if enough things go wrong. And you don't want to condemn something you may possibly end up doing yourself, even if it wasn't with evil intentions.

That's why catcalling is such a controversial issue. Women know that this isn't something done with well intentions about 99% of the time. However, catcalling hardly ever happens when men are around to see it happen, so the only thing they know about it is that someone shouts a semi-compliment out of a car's window. If that's all you know, it's easy to imagine yourself catcalling by 'mistake'. "Have I ever met a woman so beautiful I felt the need to say something about it? Yes. Am I socially awkward at times? Yes. Is it possible for me to phrase the compliment wrong, say it at the wrong moment and potentially come across as a catcalling jerk? Yes! Well, maybe, that's what's going on with all these other guys as well! They're just misunderstood."

I have to say though, when I find myself in places on the internet that are more female dominated, this also tends to happen. Maybe not as often, but it does make me think that it also has something to do with the pressure of the majority. If you're surrounded and part of the majority, 'defending' the minority is putting yourself at risk. People are not generally inclined to do that, especially in places that are not as anonymous or work with votes like Facebook, Youtube and Reddit.
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Post by fakely mctest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 9:05 am

UristMcBunny wrote:I think exposure to the other side's POV is an issue, as well.  Men are still the vast majority of the main character in shows and movies.  The stories we see are still overwhelmingly about men, by men, showing a male perspective.  The trend of 17%=equal time is still going strong in that sense.

So what you get is, girls and women learning from a young age to specifically understand and empathise with men's POV (because it's necessary to enjoy most of the media available to us).  While for men, there is very little in the way of women's POV accurately shown on TV etc, most women characters are still written by men and a lot of stereotypes still abound.

And some men will even go so far as to specifically avoid or reject media not made from/for their POV.  Like the guys who won't read fiction by women, or watch movies considered "girly films" or TV shows about women.  So they get almost no practice at empathising with or experiencing women's perspectives.  

You see some of the same things at work when it comes to issues of racism as well.  Works by and about non-socially dominant groups are often shunted off into niche sections.  N.K. Jemisin wrote a particularly good essay on the topic: Don't Put My Book in the African American Section.

The other thing at play is what W.E.B. DuBois called "double-consciousness":
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
John Berger specifically addresses this doubling as it relates to sexism in Ways of Seeing:
To be born a woman has to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women is developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another....One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.
Since empathy stems from an ability to imagine yourself into another person's life situation, the fact that members of non-dominant groups have this doubled sense of themselves is something of an advantage when it comes to developing empathy.  First and foremost, however, it's a mechanism for navigating within a social structure that is fundamentally not designed for you at the most basic level.

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Post by kleenestar on Thu Oct 02, 2014 9:27 am

So, researcher time!

The research says that yes, men on average are less empathetic than women. I emphasize "on average" because, well, these are population-level differences. But you see it across a number of different fields. It comes up in political science research, psychology, sociology, etc., and the effect appears even when a number of different methods are used. That suggests it is robust.

My read of the research suggests that there are at least three underlying mechanisms for this.

1. There's pretty obviously a developmental piece about how boys and girls are raised, but I don't feel confident saying anything further at this point. I'm talking to a friend who's a developmental psychologist to see if she can help me figure out what to read.

2. Centering of male experience in both social life and in media. There's a quite robust effect for media provoking "perspective taking" / empathy and as others have said, when media is mostly about men that means everyone gets taught to take male perspectives. The research on the centering of male norms in social life is harder to summarize, but you see it in things like "We built an artificial heart that saves lives. Oh, wait, it only fits male chest cavities."

3. Mediation of other social factors. For example, we know wealth reduces empathy. Men earn more than women, and possess more wealth than women, which means that as a population we'd expect to see (as we do) that men are less empathetic than women are simply because they have more cash. There are a number of other social factors like this that increase male selfishness and reduce empathy - not because of gender, but because of factors that in our particular society happen to correlate with gender.

(I'm slowly putting together a bibliography on this stuff for the curious, but I don't have time to point to links today.)
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Post by reboot on Thu Oct 02, 2014 12:13 pm

Kleenestar, if you get the bibliography together I would love to sticky it in this subforum and have it in our reference section if that is OK with you
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Post by reboundstudent on Thu Oct 02, 2014 12:26 pm

UristMcBunny wrote:I think exposure to the other side's POV is an issue, as well.  Men are still the vast majority of the main character in shows and movies.  The stories we see are still overwhelmingly about men, by men, showing a male perspective.  The trend of 17%=equal time is still going strong in that sense.

So what you get is, girls and women learning from a young age to specifically understand and empathise with men's POV (because it's necessary to enjoy most of the media available to us).  While for men, there is very little in the way of women's POV accurately shown on TV etc, most women characters are still written by men and a lot of stereotypes still abound.

And some men will even go so far as to specifically avoid or reject media not made from/for their POV.  Like the guys who won't read fiction by women, or watch movies considered "girly films" or TV shows about women.  So they get almost no practice at empathising with or experiencing women's perspectives.  

I agree with this. I think there are also elements of toxic masculinity. I wonder if part of the reason some guys have difficulty emphasizing with women's experiences is because they have internalized that anything feminine/related-to-women is inferior. If they then relate to it or have empathy for it, they are in turn feminine, and thus lesser men.

Take cat-calling. RealMen are supposed to want sex any time, anywhere, with anyone who is vaguely attractive. Asking Guy A how he would feel about being cat-called wouldn't lead to any kind of empathy, because even if deep down he would be uncomfortable with unwanted attention, he's been socialized that sexual attention is never unwanted. The closest I've come in discussions to seeing certain guys emphasize with how women feel is to add a gay slant to it ("How would you feel if a gay guy was catcalling you?"), but that edges far too close to homophobia and just perpetuates more stereotypes.

I think a big root of the issue (not the only one, for sure) really is just seeing feminine things (and thus women) as inferior, and manly things (and thus men) as superior. Why should you emphasize with an opinion or an experience that you see as beneath you?
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Post by Guest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 12:39 pm

reboundstudent wrote:Take cat-calling. RealMen are supposed to want sex any time, anywhere, with anyone who is vaguely attractive. Asking Guy A how he would feel about being cat-called wouldn't lead to any kind of empathy, because even if deep down he would be uncomfortable with unwanted attention, he's been socialized that sexual attention is never unwanted. The closest I've come in discussions to seeing certain guys emphasize with how women feel is to add a gay slant to it ("How would you feel if a gay guy was catcalling you?"), but that edges far too close to homophobia and just perpetuates more stereotypes.

Not to derail here, but your comment on this also made me think that part of this problem is how we define "woman." Now, I am not a man, but it seems to me that for a lot of men "woman" is read as "desirable sex partner" (or else, "that thing that grows the babies"), which leaves out the real lived experience of millions of women who stop being "women" in a lot of male eyes when they A) gain weight, B) deal with an accident or illness, or C) get old.

Asking Guy A how he'd feel about being catcalled makes him think, "Hm, how would I feel about a woman catcalling me," and then picturing a woman, (translation, someone reasonably attractive in her 20s or 30s) offering him sexual attention. Score! he thinks.

Whereas, as a woman, when it happens to me, I have all the baggage from being a 12-year-old girl having 40-year-old men calling sexual comments at me, and the scope of "man" runs a wider gamut, from old men outside shops to scary groups of 8-10 large, muscular guys while I'm alone on the street, to okay, that guy's pretty cute, but I deal with this crap way too much, jerkoff.

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Post by The Wisp on Thu Oct 02, 2014 1:22 pm

nearly_takuan wrote:
It may be worth noting that a few trans men have recently reported that following their superficial transition to looking more "manly" they stopped getting unwanted catcalls, but they also missed getting genuine unsolicited compliments, ever.

I think this is important. A lot of feminist women seem to implicitly believe men get to inhabit this great place where we have none of the problems women do without any unique problems. Of course, even cis white guys deal with a lot of gender issues on the opposite extreme, like the lack of unsolicited compliments. Probably not as bad on balance, but not ideal.

UristMcBunny wrote:I think exposure to the other side's POV is an issue, as well...

Very important.

However, I will note that these male POV are of course limited in their scope. I have little in common with most male characters. Characters that I can directly relate to aren't particularly common.

fakely mctest wrote:
Since empathy stems from an ability to imagine yourself into another person's life situation, the fact that members of non-dominant groups have this doubled sense of themselves is something of an advantage when it comes to developing empathy.  First and foremost, however, it's a mechanism for navigating within a social structure that is fundamentally not designed for you at the most basic level.

I don't doubt this is a real phenomena, but I don't necessarily thinks it translates to real understanding and empathy with men. Rather, it is an understanding of a caricature of what men are. For example, the body-type women think men are attracted to is thinner than what men themselves describe (I saw a study on this once).

Sometimes I've seen this line of reasoning deployed to allow feminist women to not take men's experiences seriously because obviously women understand men already so why would they have to listen to us about our experiences?
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Post by fakely mctest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 1:38 pm

The Wisp wrote:I don't doubt this is a real phenomena, but I don't necessarily thinks it translates to real understanding and empathy with men. Rather, it is an understanding of a caricature of what men are. For example, the body-type women think men are attracted to is thinner than what men themselves describe (I saw a study on this once).

Sometimes I've seen this line of reasoning deployed to allow feminist women to not take men's experiences seriously because obviously women understand men already so why would they have to listen to us about our experiences?

Oh, I didn't mean to imply that it's a 100% empathy-creation mechanism. From my perspective, it just puts people at an advantage when it comes to the process of developing empathy if they're already in a position where they're encouraged (either actively or more subtly) to understand the lives of others, but what they do with that advantage is more individually-based.

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Post by reboot on Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:05 pm

Also, empathy is a skill that is learned over time and honed with practice. Like all skills, some are better at it/pick it up faster than others. Our culture at this point in time has a more positive feedback loop for girls on empathy than for boys (where it has often seen as a nice but not necessary characteristic at best). As adults, though, empathy can become very important for both men and women because it is a valuable social skill and can smooth interpersonal relationships at work, school, and any place where understanding why the person you are interacting with is thinking, behaving, responding as they are is important. Men often tend to have some catch up to do understanding other men, women, etc..
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Post by The Wisp on Thu Oct 02, 2014 2:57 pm

fakely mctest wrote:
The Wisp wrote:I don't doubt this is a real phenomena, but I don't necessarily thinks it translates to real understanding and empathy with men. Rather, it is an understanding of a caricature of what men are. For example, the body-type women think men are attracted to is thinner than what men themselves describe (I saw a study on this once).

Sometimes I've seen this line of reasoning deployed to allow feminist women to not take men's experiences seriously because obviously women understand men already so why would they have to listen to us about our experiences?

Oh, I didn't mean to imply that it's a 100% empathy-creation mechanism.  From my perspective, it just puts people at an advantage when it comes to the process of developing empathy if they're already in a position where they're encouraged (either actively or more subtly) to understand the lives of others, but what they do with that advantage is more individually-based.

Sure, and I hope I didn't come off as accusing you of that. I have seen a more extreme version of this position advanced by others out in the world that women are always and inherently more knowledgeable about people and society due to their position (though it seems to be more of a second wave claim that has fallen out of favor these days).
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Post by Gentleman Johnny on Thu Oct 02, 2014 3:04 pm

My two cents is that in a given population, men and women possess or lack empathy in the abstract in roughly equal measure. However,, it is always easier to empathize with someone when you have a familiarity with the subject and can place yourself in their position. In a given peer group, men are less likely to share male experience issues openly. Given an equal amount of conversation in the first place, I think you'd find plenty of un-empathetic comments from women. A guy in a psychologically abusive relationship with an attractive woman will get plenty of un-empathetic advice if he goes looking for help.

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Post by fakely mctest on Thu Oct 02, 2014 3:08 pm

The Wisp wrote:Sure, and I hope I didn't come off as accusing you of that. I have seen a more extreme version of this position advanced by others out in the world that women are always and inherently more knowledgeable about people and society due to their position (though it seems to be more of a second wave claim that has fallen out of favor these days).

Not at all, I just wanted to make sure you knew I wasn't advocating a "women know all things at all times" position. cheers (I am super into additional smileys because I am a dork)

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Post by Dan_Brodribb on Thu Oct 02, 2014 3:57 pm

Reading this thread, it strikes me that I'm not sure what people mean when they use the word 'empathy'

So I'm curious. What does empathy mean to you?

- Is it the ability to cognitively put oneself in another's shoes?
- Is it the ability to pick up on another person's feelings?
- Is it about being able to see how our behavior affects others and adapt it? (People don't like it when I catcall, so I should stop catcalling)

As far as comparing men and women, I would say most women I know seem more likely to consider what sort of behavior is socially acceptable in a group and behave accordingly. I HAVEN'T seen any evidence that women are innately better or worse at wrapping their head around what someone who is not them might be thinking or feeling.

I also like what reboot said about empathy improving with practice. If we define empathy as the ability to pick up what another is feeling, I know a number of men and women who seem to have that sensitivity...but that doesn't mean they are using that sensitivity in a particularly skilled way. Some sensitive people can be real jerks just because they find others' feelings so overwhelming that they pull away, try to 'change' others feelings, or control them but because they find others' feelings personally uncomfortable.

Similarly, I suppose there are people who are very capable of intellectually empathizing with someone and even modifying their behavior, but that doesn't mean they actually feel what others feel. This can be a bad thing (con men, sociopaths), but used well, it can probably make them effective (doctors and other professions that require emotional distance to work)

On a mostly unrelated note, one thing that often amuses me when subject of empathy comes up on the internet is how rarely the subject is 'how I can be more empathetic' and how often it is 'How Other People Should be More Empathetic to Me'.

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Post by nonA on Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:27 pm

The Wisp wrote:*snip*
You're overthinking this.  Just keep the following in mind and you'll do just fine;

  • When a man hears a story, he's more likely to empathize with the men involved.
  • When a woman hears a story, she's more likely to empathize with the women involved.
  • Ergo, men are deficient in empathy.



ElizaJane wrote:Not to derail here, but your comment on this also made me think that part of this problem is how we define "woman." Now, I am not a man, but it seems to me that for a lot of men "woman" is read as "desirable sex partner" (or else, "that thing that grows the babies"), which leaves out the real lived experience of millions of women who stop being "women" in a lot of male eyes when they A) gain weight, B) deal with an accident or illness, or C) get old.
Tangent:  In the old forums, the few times that guys acted like being approached by a girl was actively insulting, it wasn't because the girls in question were too old or too fat.

I wonder if the usual trinity of old/fat/has kids has something to do with the fact that the usual speaker can easily see all three happening to them in time, but doesn't have to worry about winding up black or trans.

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Do men have a problem with empathy?  Empty Re: Do men have a problem with empathy?

Post by Enail on Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:50 pm

<Mod> Folks, let's keep this on topic about gender and empathy, and try to avoid turning it into a discussion about privilege and the respective benefits and drawbacks of being a given gender. Thanks! <Mod>
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Post by reboot on Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:52 pm

<mod hat>
Can we please either take the topic of street harassment to another thread or drop it entirely. I can split out those comments if needed. It is distracting from the topic of empathy, which is more than understanding across gender. It includes age, race, class, age, sexuality, culture, within gender, etc.
</mod hat>
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Do men have a problem with empathy?  Empty Re: Do men have a problem with empathy?

Post by reboot on Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:55 pm

Enail wrote:<Mod> Folks, let's keep this on topic about gender and empathy, and try to avoid turning it into a discussion about privilege and the respective benefits and drawbacks of being a given gender. Thanks! <Mod>

reboot wrote:<mod hat>
Can we please either take the topic of street harassment to another thread or drop it entirely. I can split out those comments if needed. It is distracting from the topic of empathy, which is more than understanding across gender. It includes age, race, class, age, sexuality, culture, within gender, etc.
</mod hat>

<mod> A double mod hat! Let's bring this back to empathy </mod>
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Do men have a problem with empathy?  Empty Re: Do men have a problem with empathy?

Post by Enail on Thu Oct 02, 2014 4:56 pm

What reboot said, too! Razz

nonA wrote:
The Wisp wrote:*snip*
You're overthinking this.  Just keep the following in mind and you'll do just fine;

  • When a man hears a story, he's more likely to empathize with the men involved.
  • When a woman hears a story, she's more likely to empathize with the women involved.
  • Ergo, men are deficient in empathy.


Do you mind clarifying what you're trying to say here, nonA?
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