We live in a world where we consciously or subconsciously divide ourselves into groups, subgroups, tribes and identities, and with each passing day it is becoming easier for most of us to not interact with people who don’t think exactly like us. And yet, it has never been more important to do just that—to make an effort to listen to, and understand, each other’s perspective and build empathy.
The idea of talking to “strangers" can be inherently intimidating, but our lives are shaped by the experiences we share with other people, which often become key moments in our life stories.
Empathy is often considered a “soft skill", and we tend to associate it with a particular gender or look upon it as a show of weakness. Empathy is not inherent, nor are we predisposed to it. It is, however, a core part of emotional competence and can be taught. I urge educators, parents, media and culture makers to invest in, create and sustain tools of empathy.
The formative years of childhood and adolescence have a big impact on our world view as adults. Focusing on those years and teaching our children intentional empathy in communication will make them appreciative of differences, respectful of varying life experiences, and enrich their emotional vocabulary.
Gender is an important and omnipresent lens to apply to the conversation on empathy. We should lessen the shame, guilt and awkwardness around interaction between genders, and should begin normalizing this at a young age. Perhaps we need to rethink the still common practice of segregating boys and girls into separate education systems, whether explicitly through same-sex schooling or implicitly through seating arrangements and gender-coded sub-sections in curriculum. Instead, we should allow and guide people to develop healthy, organic equations with the opposite gender at their own pace, and as human beings who are not defined or restricted by their gender. Without these steps, we end up neglecting the opportunity to weed out crude gender stereotypes. If boys and girls, men and women never learn to understand each other’s perspectives and appreciate that we have far more in common than we have separating us, we will remain trapped in a boys versus girls world view—observing each other with equal parts mystery, attraction and suspicion through the prism of overtly sexualized transactions and unrealistic expectations.
I haven’t even addressed alternate genders and sexuality yet, because this framework is so rife with heteronormative labels that it makes true progress towards empathy and mainstream acceptance of anyone in the LGBTQ+ community and non-cisgender individuals an impossible feat.
The conversation on gender sensitization is also about affirmative consent, bias and the idea of entitlement. This includes teaching men and women how to handle rejection, identify verbal and non-verbal cues, display emotional maturity, and appropriately and effectively express interest in each other. It may also be helpful to consider adolescent angst, self-discovery and curiosity. This, coupled with the inability to effectively communicate “yes" or “no", heightens the confusion about the understanding of consent. Interactions between genders take place in a so-called “grey zone" of miscommunication, inexperience, and the lack of an inherent empathic understanding.
I’m also proposing the introduction of a globally recognized National Consent Day to pay special attention to consent, to encourage active participation in the conversation, to oppose sexual violence, and as a call to action for gender parity. In 2015, the Thames Valley Police in the UK released a fun video, as part of a #ConsentIsEverything campaign, that explained consent using animated stick figures and tea as a euphemism for sexual consent. When you ask someone if they would like to have some tea, the video explains, and they say no, you don’t believe their no means yes somehow. You don’t make them drink tea if they are sleeping or unconscious or in any other situation when they are either directly saying no or not in a state where they can express their interest, even if at some other time in the past they wanted tea and drank it with you. Why? Consent, duh. The video stood out for its simplicity—it was easy for a layman to understand and yet communicated effectively the blurry lines and equivocation around the subject in a way that felt natural. It addressed themes of obligation, entitlement, discomfort and verbalizing consent without making the viewer overtly uncomfortable. We should borrow a page from their book, and focus on the education of consent in a way that everyone in our society can understand.