How we encourage empathy…and not just in women

An interesting article on Medium got me thinking about something I had noticed but had as yet to bring into clear focus. As per its title, Justin Lee asserts that “In The Age Of #MeToo, Men Must Read More Literary Fiction” in order to bring them into line with women when it comes to empathising with others. He questions, is their education left lacking because they are turned-off from reading fiction at a very young age, quickly coming to equate it with a “feminine” activity due to their schooling and our societal ideals? Reading fiction is, as Lee points out (and I would concur) like a moral training ground; a place where we learn how to understand and even empathise with the thoughts and emotions of others, even when their lives are quite different to ours. Yet while the women are gobbling up all the fiction, men are really not so avid.

He quotes a study carried out by Kate Summers which not only found that women, resoundingly, prefer fiction to non-fiction whereas men are split evenly, but also that:

males indicated a strong preference for male protagonists. Of the 29 male participants, 24…preferred books with male protagonists, while 5…had no preference. No male participants [preferred] books featuring female protagonists. In contrast, the majority of female participants (19) indicated no preference for the gender of a book’s protagonist, while 6 [preferred] male protagonists and 4 [preferred] female protagonists.

Obviously, choosing characters that are mostly “like themselves” is not going to stretch a person’s moral character or teach them anything about what it feels to be in another situation or, indeed, gender.

Another worrying trend he flags up; could we be in danger of turning the publishing industry into a female stronghold, thus at the risk of alienating the very men that might be the kind of writers to appeal to other men? I had a gut-feeling it had gone this way in the publishing industry (everyone I know that went into that career, which was quite a few, was female…) but wasn’t absolutely sure it was so until Lee shared a startling piece of information. He calculates

Of the top 100 editors for debut fiction, 77 are women and 23 are men. And of the top 100 agents placing debut fiction, 79 are women and 21 are men.

In other words, “most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women”. If this is so, any male author  (including those debuting, which is a precarious situation to be in) is going to have his work presented to a resoundingly female dominated panel; thus there are likely to be few male opinions of their work to be had, to ensure they are given equal consideration. If boys are already being turned off from fiction, what future does this offer for the role of reading as their moral training ground (not as something prescriptive but as a means to trying on different points of view)? Clearly, we need more fiction that will appeal to them; and more incentive for males to become fiction writers.

ramin-mirz-yev-1255081-unsplashLee’s article has given me a lot to think about and, by point of comparison, encouraged me to look to my own world of reading. In my family’s case, my mother was an avid reader of fiction but my father only picked this up, to read war-fiction, after he retired and my mother coerced him to do so, to keep himself occupied. True to gender type, I gobbled-up fiction from a very early age and went on to do a Literature degree. Yes, I can credit this with the development of the very foundations of my broader (outside of family values) emotional intelligence, my early sense of there being an extremely diverse world out there, beyond the bounds of my actual experience, plus my ability to use and understand words in a broad range of contexts. In the last decade, I have tilted towards non-fiction but this is largely owing to an obsession with research, combined with a lack of hours in the day, plus a lack of fresh fiction on topics that genuinely interest me.

My sister is much the same when it comes to a life-long habit of gobbling books and, in fact, semi-professionally reviews pre-launch fiction, going through mountains of it at an astonishing rate. Our daughters, being of the generation that had internet distractions, came to it later but both have a steady interest in fiction now they are adult. Whereas, for comparison, our sons read things like Harry Potter and Tolkien when they were boys…and then gave it all up as a childish pastime; my step-son chokes as though having swallowed a fur ball at the mere mention of “literature”. Another interesting observation from my own life is that my first husband, who was severely lacking in emotional intelligence or empathy, never so much as looked at a fiction book in all our years together. My second husband, who is as mindful as they come, reads fiction and non-fiction ever single day and in equal proportion; having followed a long-running practice of alternating books of each genre to keep things varied and in balance. Perhaps I should caution my daughter to choose a man according to his reading habits…

Another thought of my own; perhaps in an age more adverse to the written word than it is to more “visual” material, YouTube has the scope to be the new diversity training ground for boys requiring empathy opportunities outside the scope of their own lives. Now hear me out, before you groan; I don’t mean the kind of videos that make your brain feel as thought it just atrophied. There’s a newish genre, the lifestyle vlog, that seems to be attracting the men-folk, and I count my husband amongst them but didn’t realise it was “a thing” until we sat down to dinner with new friends on holiday. When I ribbed him for the lifestyle vlogers he thinks of as friends, the male half of the couple we were with piped up that he also follows those same YouTubers, which ignited a passionate discussion between them. Ribbing aside, I see how, by means of immersing deeply in the niche lifestyle, trials and tribulations of other people (usually mixed gender couples or groups) following diverse, often very challenging life paths, my husband is electing to engage deeply and realistically with these folk (as if he knows them…), thus empathising with their broad range of challenges, moral dilemmas and social strains. I can only imagine that if other young men are, likewise, attracted to this material, this could be offering them the diversity and breadth of perspective that they might once have gained from reading novels; just a thought.

In fact, this is all food for thought and I heartily recommend that you read the whole of Lee’s article as it discusses this fascinating topic in a lot of depth; all the more interesting for being a male point of view.




Are women naturally more empathic than men? A study from Pisa University has concluded that psychopaths don’t yawn when other people yawn because they lack empathy; and that women are twice as likely to yawn, when someone else does, as men are. Contagious yawning, says the lead researcher Elisabetta Palagi, is a sign of empathy and is more likely to lead to “pro social behaviour”.

Another consideration; are we, as some studies and observations seem to be suggesting, all becoming less empathic than ever? This article by Chrisina Patterson in the Guardian, especially the anecdote about the woman lying in the road, makes shocking reading. As someone who is a life-long empath and a mirror touch synesthete to boot (I frequently feel other people’s emotions and pain, as if it is my own), I find this astonishing. Perhaps all of our kids need to read more books and watch alternative lifestyle, culture and gender-perspective videos as part of a curriculum, and far more pressingly than they need to be taught (more) IT skills and business economics in their schools…

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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