Sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the phrase anomie to describe a destabilized and destabilizing state when rules and rule givers lose legitimacy. It’s what we feel when we face a virus that plays by one set of rules, politicians who play by another, and a professional life that proceeds independent of each — and when we face all of this in social isolation. Empathy can help us navigate this period of anomie. The author outlines four practices, which she calls “empathy rules,” that can help us cut across the divisions in our lives and build a sense of community.
In August 2021, my employer, MIT, announced that all instruction, without exception, would be in person, with vaccination and regular testing. In context, I found this anxiety-provoking. As soon as I took a Covid test, I was cleared to teach, even though I wouldn’t get my results until the next day. The protocol was designed not to protect individuals but to prevent community spread. Students would wear face coverings; my classrooms were a jumble of surgical masks and makeshift bandanas. Faculty were asked to teach without masks, a directive everyone seemed to ignore.
But those rules were only for MIT. The week after MIT began classes, I gave the freshman convocation address at Boston College. There, I was told, no masks were allowed on campus. I lectured by Zoom, my electronic presence an affront.
So it was, across offices and industries, corporations and legal jurisdictions — a patchwork of hygiene and work protocols, each fiefdom declaring its reality.
Emile Durkheim, whom I’ve studied since I was an undergraduate trying to understand the social changes of the 1960s, would call this new normal anomie — a destabilized and destabilizing state when rules and rule givers lose legitimacy. It is a time of disorientation, depression, and anxiety. Durkheim used the idea of anomie to explain when people are most likely to commit suicide. It’s the act of people who’ve fallen out of communities and clear relationships with social norms. It’s what we feel when we face a virus that plays by one set of rules, politicians who play by another, and a professional life that proceeds independent of each. And when we face all of this in social isolation.
The practice of empathy can help us navigate this period of anomie. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s problem in the hopes of understanding, of bridging a gap. It helps us feel in community, not abandoned to anomic isolation. It helps us feel seen and known for who we are.
What we know about empathy in the workplace is that it’s a messy affair. It’s both rewarding and time consuming to listen to other people without preconception. Business consultants sometimes suggest something that seems close enough: radical candor. A continual round-robin of criticism and praise promises to dissolve the boundaries between colleagues. But this truth-telling practice proceeds from the feeling: “I know you.” Real empathy starts from a different premise, radical humility: “I don’t know how you feel, but I’m here to listen.”
Radical humility is the first of four empathy practices that can help us move away from anomie and shape the new “new normal.” More imperative than guidelines, they are fundamental to emotional and social well-being.
The first practice is to embrace not knowing. You can’t put yourself into someone else’s situation if you have preconceptions about its contours. This isn’t easy. We’re trained to relate to others by expressing what we think we share with them: “Oh, you lost your job. I know how tough that is; I lost mine as well!” It’s the opposite — the strategy of not knowing — that leaves you open to the truth of things.
Step back and recognize that you don’t necessarily know what someone else is thinking or feeling. Stop, look, listen, and stay open. It’s not what you know, it’s what you’re willing to learn that provides space for empathy.
Second, embrace radical difference. Empathy doesn’t start with a reassuring “I’m like you.” On the contrary, empathy accepts friction. Colleagues may have profound disagreements, just like family members, neighbors, and friends. Empathy is not about being conflict-averse — it’s noisy because people are. To be empathetic, we must be willing to get in there, own the conflict, and learn how to fight fair. It’s about full engagement, even when it is uncomfortable.
Third, embrace commitment. Empathy implies that you will do the work necessary to comprehend not just the place the person is coming from but their problem. It’s a discipline of basic respect, both personal and civic. You have a stake in helping your neighbor make things better. You can’t get bored or turn away.
Finally, embrace community. Empathy isn’t altruistic. It enlarges those who offer it and binds them to others. It fights anomie. If you’ve been heard, and the rules you’ve been asked to follow take your situation into account, you feel part of something larger than yourself.
I call these four practices “empathy rules,” evoking the double meaning of the phrase. When Durkheim talked about anomie, the lack of rules, he focused on the stress of disorder. With these empathy rules, we can combat the dislocation and anxiety that people feel when they face a moment of crisis alone. Empathy is not a cure for social dislocation, but when we need to face change and shifting realities, empathy does rule as an enabler of constructive change.
Empathy fights anomie because it is transitive. It cuts across the divisions in our lives.
So, those who think that work is not the “place” for empathy miss the point. The empathy you receive at work makes you a better friend, partner, or parent. The empathy you receive at home makes you better able to listen at work. And there, empathic leadership makes room for intimacy and honesty, driving innovation and engagement. If you open yourself to empathy, you’re allowing yourself to listen across difference. Empathy keeps us from discounting, dismissing, or even canceling others.
These four practices — embracing not knowing, radical difference, commitment, and community — cultivate a respect for others. And if you respect others, you’re not only going to be a better colleague, you’re going to be a better citizen.