‘Empathy’ is jumping the shark


mark-bivens_portraitThis guest post is authored by Mark Bivens. Mark is a Silicon Valley native and former entrepreneur, having started three companies before “turning to the dark side of VC.” He is a venture capitalist that travels between Paris and Tokyo (aka the RudeVC). You can read more on his blog at http://rude.vc or follow him @markbivens. The Japanese translation of this article is available here.

One of the most powerful yet understated human emotions is under threat. Empathy is the capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. In contrast with its close cousin sympathy, empathy approaches a truer shared experience. It is more credible because the empathizer has been in your shoes, and thus shares your experiences and values.

The trouble is, businesspeople are glamming onto the concept of empathy in order to self-promote or simply sell more crap.

Purveyors of cars, cat food, and coffee are increasingly telling us not only which brands we should buy but how we could live our lives based on collective shared values. On-demand transportation services commiserate with our suppression by the transportation incumbents and entice drivers to break free of their shackles. Travel and lodging services remind us that by staying at their properties we celebrate the aiding of refugees, or help the world come together. Even VCs are clamoring to express how much empathy they have for the entrepreneurs in whom they invest.

Admittedly, I’ve been guilty of this last one. I used to emphasize how my three prior startups, which included two flame-outs, make me a better VC.

I’ve been in your entrepreneurial shoes, with some success yet not devoid of frequent struggle and disastrous failure, so this makes me a better financial partner for your startup.

I would claim. Actually, I genuinely believe this, but it now feels contrite when I say it.

Perhaps the extent to which empathy as an advertising technique has become fashionable is best demonstrated by this video ad from the InterContinental hotel brand. Stories of the InterContinental Life Presents: Empathy – A Bespoke Connection.

The accompanying podcast’s episode notes characterize it as a “chat with a pair of philosophy experts about the rewards of empathy in our daily lives.”

As this trenchant piece in The Atlantic sums up perfectly, current ads that evoke the ethic of empathy reflect not only our cultural moment but also our technological one. They focus on empathy-infused user experiences which put the “sell” in the celebration of human connection.

I fear that empathy is jumping the shark, and that triggers my profound sympathy.