I was recently forwarded a link to Twenty One Toys, whose featured product is called, straightforwardly, the Empathy Toy. I was intrigued. I checked out the company's site and dug around online to find out more.
On the surface, The Empathy Toy looks and sounds like something you might find in a preschool. In fact, the game was originally developed as a communication tool for children with vision impairments. Founder, Ilana Ben-Ari, didn't have the continued access to visually impaired people during the testing phase of product development so she did what any determined entrepreneur would do; she invited her friends over and blindfolded them.
If that was not enough to endear me to Ms. Ben-Ari, the closing line of one of her TEDx talks really resonated with me, and reminded me of why I'm here. She recounts a story about a professor who taught her class that if a product is to be sustainable, that idea must be implemented at the beginning of development. Ironically, this lesson was given over in the last weeks of a 4-year program in industrial design. Why, asked one of her classmates, hadn't this important notion been introduced in the very beginning of the program? Ms. Ben-Ari took the question to heart, and decided that it was important to always start at the beginning-- by teaching empathy to children.
I came to a similar conclusion -- that we need to start teaching empathy early on -- but I got there for a different reason. I was visiting a school once that was papered in magic-markered signs with not-so-subtle messages like 'Don't Bully!" and "Tell A Teacher!" There were drawings too: Poppy Red circles with slashes over stick figures who were flexing their muscles. There was also the ubiquitous 'kids of different colours hold hands around an Asparagus Green and Aquamarine earth.' Apparently, I'd walked into the throes Bully Prevention week, and the whole scene almost moved me to cry Cerulean Blue tears. It wasn't the adorable artwork or the plight of little victims that got to me. It was the redundancy of the whole affair.
Don't get me wrong, and don't think me coldhearted (though maybe I need to work on my sarcasm...). I understand that there are good intentions behind Bully Prevention Week. Bullying is bad. Prevention is good. To me, however, it seems that bully prevention is too little, too late. For one thing, bullies and victims are often interchangeable, and both are often afflicted by the same demons (on a simplistic level): low self esteem, lack of confidence, and also a history of victimhood. We need to target would-be-bullies long before they earn the title by actively teaching our little ones about social skills and communication, and by role modelling the expected behaviors. This intentional curriculum needs to be carried throughout all levels of education. In post-primary years, we need to set our individual bars higher with regards to the level of empathy we demonstrate to one another. In doing so, we will be developing the all-around emotional intelligence of our population, with the likely bonus of decreasing the frequency and intensity of cyclical victimhood and bullying. It's not a magic bullet, but it's a very good start. According to studies, increased social skills education can even prevent addictive behaviors in adulthood.
My answer to Bully Prevention Week was the development of CareTrustLead. With my background in alternative education I developed a curriculum which teaches, as the name implies, how to care for ourselves and for others, and how to promote empathy to one another.
I think that the development of Empathy Toy represents how society is taking a step in the right direction. To play, participants are partnered up and -- you guessed it-- blindfolded. Each team is handed the same set of objects in different interlocking shapes. Ostensibly, the object is for each player to put the pieces together in the exact same configuration as their partner. However, what's more important than 'winning' is the process that the team goes through to get there. Each person needs to flex their cognitive empathy skills and try to communicate their position in a way that is clear and unambiguous. Patience and listening skills, as well as the ability to give and receive criticism are developed along the way.
Unsurprisingly, the Empathy Toy proved to be beneficial to populations other than kids and schools, just as CareTrustLead programming is incredibly valuable for workplace environments. In fact, there is a growing admission that emotional intelligence leads to a more productive workforce. Often, employees are used to focusing on the needs of their isolated department. However, when they are able to bolster their communication, develop a sense of comradeship and take perspective of their organization as a whole, improved designs are implemented at the beginning of the process -- just like the professor ordered.
It is encouraging to see that the need for widespread empathy education is being acknowledged by educators, bosses, and now, industrial designers such as Ilana Ben-Ari.
The more I read about empathy, the more I understand it to be not just a cure for so many social ills, but also a very strong form of prevention.
In fact, while perusing the International Society of Addiction Medicine's Textbook of Addiction Treatment: International Perspectives (Volume 1) recently, as I am wont to do (as I am wont to do so long as someone hands it to me open to the right page and says 'read this!'), I came across a chapter on prevention strategies which was originally published by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Portugal.
Under a section titled Universal Drug Prevention: Intervening with Populations, the authors call empathy a 'behavioral vaccine'. They cite research which shows that when social competencies (i.e. emotional literacy) are taught -- not merely offered, modeled or absorbed, but actively engaged with and practiced, there is a measurable avoidance or, in some cases, delay of substance use.
The social influence approach, they say, "has consistently been more effective than programs based on any other approach."
Social influence training targets a number of different skills including listening, crafting compliments, empathy, and communication. Personal skills such as goal setting, coping (resilience), and identifying feelings are also addressed. A third category, which involves assessing normative beliefs (what students believes other students' habits of consumption to be), has less evidence to back it up, but to me it sounds like a variation on the Pygmalian effect which asserts that people will live up to the expectations set out for them-- an effect which I've observed to hold true in a great many interpersonal relationships.
Although this article appeared in the context of addiction treatment, the implications might be taken a step further. If the teaching of emotional literacy can prevent a child from developing and addiction later in life, might it prevent a child from developing depression as well? What about a child who is prone to tendencies that are not compatible with social integration. How would social influence training and personal skills serve them as they encounter difficult choices or situations?
I think it's safe to say that a boost of self confidence coupled with a dose of empathy can only be beneficial, and that, like the models cited here from the ISAM Textbook, emotional literacy is something that should be taught intensively at all levels of education.
As an aside, I feel that it's significant that this article was published in Portugal. You may or may not know that Lisbon, Portugal's capital city, was nearly devastated by drug activity and related crime and disease at the end of the '90s. There was one degree of separation or less between almost every person in the population and a heroin addict, and hepatitis and AIDS were rampant. In 2001, Portugal took a drastic and precedent-setting step of decriminalizing drugs. No drug, from pot to crack cocaine would land you in jail. The basis for this change of procedure was an even more dramatic change in attitude, and one which we should all be grateful for, even if you consider this to be de rigueur today. Portugal decided to stop treating addiction as a crime, and instead began to treat it for what it really is; a mental health issue. Instead of incarceration, drug addicts were invited to rehabilitation and, wherever possible, reintegration into society. The result of this experiment has been reduction in crime and addiction, but also in the social and monetary costs associated with an ill population.
Emotional intelligence can prevent drug addiction. Empathy can help populations stay healthy. These two stories speak volumes about the necessity of social skills and empathy training.
I remember the first time I saw the anomalous punctuation at the end of a sentence.
I knew it wasn't a typo because my friend had used the same aberration multiple times throughout her letter.
"Turn it sideways and look at it!" she prompted me over the course of our e-mail conversation. Remember those? Remember e-mail, that archaic messaging service we use today solely for the delivery of resumes and communicating with our accountants and help desks? Emojis are THAT old.
Craning my neck, I finally figured it out. A little happy face. How cute. How original. How unique to my cute and original friend.
Several years later the happy faces were everywhere, and they had all sorts of different things to say. For one thing, they weren't all happy. The parentheses, we quickly learned, could be flipped either way. :( Many of them winked. ;) Some kissed. :-x Most of them did not have noses, though my friend has hung onto hers until this day in her e-mail signature.
I was fascinated by these things we'd come to call 'smileys' and what they meant for us as communicators. I wrote a paper for one of my classes (I was completing my Masters in Education at the time) arguing that they were the prophetic equivalent of Orwell's Newspeak, meant to limit our freedom of thought by limiting vocabulary-- one of the things that makes our life rich. As a writer-at-heart, I take language quite seriously and appreciate the nuances that just the write word or phrase can add to a text. I know that a picture is worth a thousand words, but THESE pictures? By virtue of their ubiquity alone (well there's a contradiction in terms!), they were, figuratively, the literal equivalent of junk food or pop music... both of which I love... but still, they were cheap! They cheapened the language! Not worth more than one word, at most.
I can't say that I totally disagree with my past self. The emoji now illustrated, animated, and celebrated has become almost a necessity in order to reinforce the true intentions behind your words. As opposed to letting your words speak for themselves, which is what they were brought up to do. They have become, in many ways, a substitute for punctuation. In some circumstances, I think they are even a necessity. How many times have you added a smiley face at the end of an otherwise difficult statement-- just to soften the blow? "I'm sorry, I can't lend u those headphones... I need them tonite :) "
You've said sorry, you have no obligation to lend your headphones, and you've provided a very legitimate excuse, replete with modern day abbreviations. Shouldn't that be enough? Are you so concerned that your reader will be insulted that you must offer a typographical teddy bear to soften the blow?
I said above that I can't totally disagree with my past self, but on the other hand, you may have noticed on, say, the home page of this website, that I am not impervious to emojis. Have I succumbed? Caved to popular opinion? Riding the wave of fad?
Well, yes, yes and yes, to some degree. Language is a fluid institution. Maybe to some degree it's noble to try and resist what I (like so many grownups before me!) view as the degradation of language yet th're is only so far thee can wend without being hath left behind.
Kids these days!
Seriously, though, however much I may feel like emojis are stifling our imaginations and literary prowess, they can also be viewed as a really useful tool. Let us not forget, after all, that emojis represent faces. These faces represent feelings. Feelings-- our own and other people's-- are the reason that we need empathy. Also, emojis are extremely simplified pictorial versions of faces feeling things. Happy, sad, grumpy, thoughtful, poopy. However, if you try, as a group to come up with a single word to describe any one of those images, you will probably come up with a number of different answers.
There is a concept in web design called WYSIWYG (pronounced whizzy-wig). It stands for What You See Is What You Get. It means that, like in Microsoft Word, you can see what your finished product will look like, as opposed to seeing it through characters, code and commands, like a computer programmer would.
In fact, WYSIWYG is not a 'concept', because we're not talking philosophy here, we're talking computer science. WYSIWYG is type of user interface, which is an even better way to understand why emojis can be such a useful starting point in teaching empathy.
In the real world, what you see is not what you get. Some people are really good at putting on a happy face 😁when underneath they feel grumpy 😖. Some people look grumpy all the time when, in fact, they are quite content. 😌 When teaching empathy, we first attempt to asses our own feelings in the moment, which is harder than it may seem. We learn when to relate to the face that people choose to present and when it's appropriate to try and go deeper.
As for softening the blow; Yes.
Yes. Softening the blow using an emoji, or a few extra heartfelt worlds if thou art living in the past is a large part of what empathy means. We don't always have be patronizing or condescending to one another or assume that the recipient of our communications is a lily-livered, jelly kneed individual. However, it is valuable to know how and when to add some sugar, or whatever spice is necessary, as we navigate the people around us.
This lesson-- the idea of softening the blow, of adding some padding to my communications--- both face-to-face and through media, is one that I learned very gradually over the course of my life. I am not mean, but I am pretty tough by nature, and it took some difficult experiences to learn that not everyone has the same constitution as me.
As educators, parents, managers, and other people in positions of leadership, it's important to make sure that people in our care are given instruction and guidance towards becoming a more emphatic society.
I guess that if you are going to argue in favour of emojis, I only have one response at this point:
If 't be true thee can't did beat those folk, joineth those folk!
Incidentally, while researching this post a bit, I learned that the vertical - style, mostly two or three character emojis are considered 'western.' Eastern emojis are horizontal, like this: (・_・), and there are other social and cultural groups who've developed their own emoji chatter. Kind of like sign language, I guess.
In terms of artistic impression, here are some of my faves
//0‑0\\ John Lennon
（ ´_⊃｀） stereotypical American
>°))))彡 a fish
5:‑) Elvis Presley :)