4 Steps to Good Storytelling

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Last year, I was invited to share my science communication story at CropLife Canada’s Spring Dialogue Days. It was great to be standing in front of a crowd of 150+ of my peers, friends, and colleagues in the capitol of my homeland. I was home and all was right with the world.

In the days leading up to the event, however, I struggled to find the right blend of life events and lessons-learned to share with this crowd. What would be most meaningful?

The past 20+ years has been a rich tapestry of experiences for me from a science communication perspective (starting here…up until now). I ended up sharing a personal story of milestones and anecdotes from the past 10 years. Most significantly, though, I shared some observations about the evolving role that storytelling plays in building public trust in modern agriculture.

As Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, states: “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We humans love stories. Stories are woven into the social fabric of our lives. Words matched with imaginative expression bring stories to life. A good story – when it’s told well – releases chemicals in the listener’s brain. These chemical reactions build trust between the storyteller and the listener.

As an industry, we have come to recognize this power that storytelling has. Stories are channels for sharing information, learning, and for building and sustaining relationships. We find common ground by sharing the human experience. Yes, farmers and scientists are stepping out from fields and labs to share their stories. But the art and science of storytelling is evolving. And storytelling today requires a whole new level of agility and ingenuity than it ever has before. It is one part engagement and two parts personal branding. It also requires an aptitude for self-reflection. Here are some tips:

1) Know your audience. That’s a given, right? Well, not exactly. Knowing your audience today means something entirely different than it did 10 years ago. It requires social networking savvy and a nuanced understanding of human behavior (your own included). Ideologies and perceptions are reinforced by our close personal networks (and those networks have expanded since the onset of the Internet). We humans depend upon our personal networks for social survival. If stories don’t reflect our personal and network identities, we are less likely to connect with them and the storytellers because – let’s face it – our social survival depends on it. The last thing that we want is to be voted off the island.

2) Be clever; be creative. We live in a ‘fast information nation.’ People want to be entertained first, informed second. Our ‘social living room space’ has expanded and new tools and platforms pop up everyday. Take advantage of them. Use your words wisely and economically. Paint pictures with your words. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Think outside your own bubble (community, tribe, sector, discipline, vocation…).

3) Stories not only have to be compelling, they must be useful. The Oxford English dictionary defines useful as: “Able to be used for a practical purpose or in several ways.” As I see it, stories need to be:

  • Accessible: Is it readily available in spaces where your audience can find it? Think: social media platforms. Be where people are.
  • Relatable: Can a listener understand the content or the plotline? Lose the jargon! How does your story matter to the listener? Example: Does your science or farm story resonate with a suburban mom? Anticipate how she might share that story with her friends and family members. Equip her with the best metaphors.
  • Transferable: How can someone use your story to enhance their own? Your story needs to tap into and cut across cultures and belief systems in this world of mass information and diminishing attention spans.

4) Avoid the pitfalls of drive-by storytelling. This is when we shape a compelling story, drop it into a conversation, and then quickly move on. Be present. Track your story. When appropriate, update and engage around that narrative to reflect current events or new social realities.

Today, people have a very narrow view of science and its role in modern agriculture. Our job as science communicators is to expand knowledge in meaningful ways. Stories can be a vehicle for that. They are a mirror for social organization and community-based values and reflections of personal identities. We must keep in mind, however, that while communicating the value of science is very important, how we carry it out in this network-driven world matters even more. We must seek avenues to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their personal networks – and their identities.

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This blog post a slightly re-imagined version of guest postI wrote for SAIFood.ca in May 2017. That original post is here.

Self, society, and the science of skinny jeans

bullet-LeafThis past weekend, for the umpteenth time, I cracked open Matthew Lieberman’s book Social: why our brains are wired to connect (2013). I skimmed through it like I normally do with non-fiction books. I picked out bits and pieces – like an uncle foraging through a Sunday smorgasbord – finding things that I find intellectually appetizing (AKA things that confirm my bias).

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Credit: author

Among the many gems outlined in this marvelous book, one passage in particular stood out to me. The author refers to Neitzsche, who argued that:

“…our sense of self is typically something constructed, primarily by the people in our lives, and that the self is actually a secret agent working for them more than for us.”

We humans are herd animals. We respond to signals from those around us; the world around us. We see this behavior play out, for example, in how we respond to cultural trends. Here’s an example.

SKINNY JEANS

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Source: Pixabay

Remember when skinny jeans first emerged on the fashion scene? 

I said, “Yuck. No damn way.” A few months later, I was… “Well, maybe…” 

Now I have three pair. For some reason, skinny jeans became a palatable fashion choice for me.

So, what’s that all about? 

We are influenced by those in our close personal networks. Our nature is to elevate and preserve the status we have (or aspire to have) within our social ‘herd’. This means that we need to abide by the collective rules of that social network.  If necessary, we will go to great lengths to protect a position. This is reflected in our “conforming” behaviors  (see Christakis and Fowler 2009). We pick up on social cues (behaviors) of others to know if and when we have “fallen out of favor” or crossed the boundaries of social norms. When it appears that we have broken away from “what is acceptable”, we risk being penalized by our network. Whether we care to admit it or not, we are highly influenced by the people around us, our environment (work, etc). This influence frames our behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, and opinions. And even what we choose to wear.

When it comes to fashion, I have always been “fashionably late”; slow to respond to changing trends. I eventually get there (well, somewhere in the vicinity anyway). As for skinny jeans, I’m not going to die on that fashion sword. But knowing me, it will take a while to move onto the next trend. And the ‘nudge’ will inevitably come from the people around me.

Suggested things to read, see, and listen to:

*This blog post is an updated excerpt from a post Ready, Set, Shame! (April 2016). 

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Monitoring the ‘information diet’: learning from the Registered Dietitians

bullet-LeafIf you listen to only one podcast episode this year, let it be this one. My friend, Robyn Flipse – Registered Dietitian and Cultural Anthropologist – chats with Registered Dietitian and podcaster Melissa Joy Dobbins (on her program, Soundbites) about how we are influenced by food cultism.

A summary of Robyn’s ‘nuggets’ of ‘food’ wisdom…

  1. We are the only animals that use symbolism in our lives. We apply that symbolism in many ways (for example, think currency). We also apply symbolism to food. We give food certain status and meaning in our societies and cultures.
  2. Our human nature leaves us vulnerable to influence by “food gurus”; people that step in and play on our fears and anxieties that we naturally have as humans. We are susceptible to the dogmatic traps and ideologies that these gurus use and perpetuate. They use language with claims about food that can “detoxify” or “purify” us.
  3. This, combined with our need to “belong” to tribes and social groups along with the influence of social media has left us vulnerable to food cultism and influencers. We are often willfully blind to the fact that there are usually a profit-based motives driving these food-related ideologies.

The one statement that Robyn made that really stuck out for me was this one:

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What and how to eat: we humans need to be taught and shown.

I hadn’t really thought about it like that before. And it makes sense. It also reminded me of a blog post that I wrote a couple of years ago: Fast Information Nation: the social costs of our highly connected world. As is the case with food, we need to be taught and shown how to consume information:

Excerpt: “We have an information banquet at our finger tips.  It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears; a smorgasbord of colour, content and a constant (sometimes annoying) presence in our lives.  Information has become the new flavourful, colourful commodity that dominates our lives and it’s shared on a fast-moving and highly-connected supply chain…But we have only so much space in our grey matter and we are presented with a ‘bountiful diet’ of mass information every day.  Ensuring that we access and share high quality, accurate information is important. Not only for our personal (mental) health and the health of our families, but for the health and wellness of our communities as well.”

In short, not only do we need to monitor our information diet (“calories” in, “calories” out), we need help in understanding how best to consume information in a balanced way. Especially in this fast-paced, socially-media driven world that we live in. This requires some work – discernment and critical thinking. Some good guiding principles can be found through these sources:

 

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Understanding conspiracy theories and cognitive styles in a post-truth era

Over the past few years, I’ve read, enjoyed, and learned a great deal from the friendly banter that goes back and forth between Stephen Lewandowsky (@STWorg) and Dan Kahan (@cult_cognition) on Twitter. While Kahan often points to politics and ‘tribes’ as triggers for risk perception and behavior, Lewandowsky reframes things in a slightly different way. He suggests that perceptions may be less shaped by political ideology and more by something he calls “cognitive styles.”

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“Cognitive style” is a way of thinking that can often invoke conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky sees the tragic events such as 9-11 or the assassination of Kennedy as random events.  These random events are frightening and highly unpredictable. And humans (the ‘survivalists’ that we are) will create a story to make sense of these kinds of events that appear to defy explanation. These tragic, random events are then readily woven into the conspiracy theory narrative (A good example of this is The Beatles Never Existed; the greatest, weirdest conspiracy theory of all time” — yep, it’s a thing. I kid you not).

There are a couple of key behavioral characteristics of a conspiracy theorist:

  1. If a person believes in one conspiracy theory, he/she is likely to believe in others;
  2. He/she will often believe in conspiracy theories that contradict one another. (i.e. Princess Diana was murdered in a plot contrived by MI6 and Princess Diana’s death was a hoax and she is still alive and well).

The other common element to conspiratorial thinking is that the cognitive style frequently requires the fabrication of a malicious enemy. You probably know where I am going next here.  Big, bad Monsanto. Let’s face it, no story is complete without a “villain.” Without a villain, there can be no victim and, by default, no hero.  According to Lewandowsky, creating a villain gives the storyteller or conspiratorial thinker a “sense of control” and it “makes him/her feel better.”

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What does this mean for us as science communicators? Consumer perceptions will be influenced, to some degree, by the stories circulated by the conspiracy theorists. Conspiracy theories (and theorists) are never going to go away.  But continuing to chase fiction-filled ambulances is futile. It’s sort of like playing an ongoing game of whack-a-mole. Instead, we need to:

  1. Think proactively about how and when conspiracies may originate.
  2. Understand the triggers (events or things (i.e. new products and technologies)).
  3. Anticipate how people will potentially respond to them.
  4. Be aggressively positive about the work we do and love.
  5. Frame stories in ways that are authentic to self and, at the same time, meaningful for diverse audiences.
  6. Commit to sustained engagement. We must continue to share stories about how science improves societies and economies.

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References:

Lewandowsky, Stephan, Gilles E. Gignac, Klaus Oberauer. (2013). “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science.” PlosONE. Volume 8, Issue 10. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0075637

Buckley, Thea. (2015). “Why Do Some People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-some-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories/. July 27th.

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Ideological Bias & Social Survival: don’t get voted off the island!

My colleague, Bill, popped his head into my office one day with two words: “Ideological bias”. Then a few more: “What do you know?”

I shared some info with him. And I thought that I would share it with you, my reader.

ideological bias

Ideological bias is less of a ‘thing’ than it is a family of things. It is defined as a collection of ideas, or beliefs, held by an individual, or a group of people. Ideology and bias – together – are built upon commitments to and consistency of ideas usually in the form of promise, effort, money, beliefs, relationships.

Ideological bias is a part of a broader family of interconnected behaviors and biases.

  • There’s confirmation bias where humans like to seek out information that affirms their world views. If faced with (accurate) information that shakes the ground beneath ‘sacred cows’ (beliefs), one is more likely to retreat and follow information that supports a personal world view. And if that accurate information is delivered in a such a way that is received as a ‘personal affront’ (so, poorly communicated), we are left with a backfire effect that can push people even deeper into ideological spaces.
  • There is also identity protective motivated reasoning which reinforces personal standing in social groups. What dominates people’s fears today is social alienation. This kind of motivated reasoning protects people from this.
  • We also become solution averse (which is linked closely to both identity protective motivated reasoning and confirmation bias) where we just avoid workable solutions (like GE crops) because they do not resonate with our ideological bias or world view.
  • Biased assimilation might sometimes be involved (or appear to be involved) when identity protective motivated reasoning is at work. But because sticking to what one believes doesn’t always promote one’s status in one’s group, people will often be motivated to construe information in ways that have no relation to what they already believe. (Kahan looks at this / see his quote below).
  • Further complicating (polluting?) the environment is media bias wherein decisions by editorial staff and journalists shape news stories to suit political opinions. We see this in play out currently in ‘fake news’ or through ‘alternative facts’ (not to mention, our interconnected, social media-driven world just adds to all of this).

There are others: intellectual and emotional bias, political bias, sensory bias, social bias, and content bias. The list is endless. But a key underlying element to all of this is how personal networks become a very important ‘enforcement’ factors for and key outputs of ideological bias. Yale’s Dan Kahan says it best:

“People acquire their scientific knowledge by consulting others who share their values and whom they therefore trust and understand…The trouble starts when this communication environment fills up with toxic partisan meanings — ones that effectively announce that ‘if you are one of us, believe this; otherwise, we’ll know you are one of them’. In that situation, ordinary individuals’ lives will go better if their perceptions of societal risk conform with those of their group.”

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Social networks are important to the human animal; for status, personal identity, and for survival. In our outreach efforts, we must seek ways to communicate the good news about science and modern agriculture in ways that won’t alienate people from their close personal networks – and compromise their identities.

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Food fads and grey matters

brain-storyIn his article “The Logical Failures of Food Fads” (published in Slate in April 2015), Alan Levinovitz raises an important point that often gets lost in our science communication pursuits:

“Spotting the fatal flaws requires no scientific knowledge whatsoever, just a rudimentary grasp of rhetoric and logic…”

Many of us in the science communication space have realized that traditional, patriarchal, deficit model-driven strategies often fail because of the ‘backfire effect’. Maria Popova (Brainpickings) quotes David McRaney about this phenomenon:

“Once something is added to your collection of beliefs, you protect it from harm. You do this instinctively and unconsciously when confronted with attitude-inconsistent information. Just as confirmation bias shields you when you actively seek information, the backfire effect defends you when the information seeks you, when it blindsides you. Coming or going, you stick to your beliefs instead of questioning them.”

Our lesson here? While communicating the value of science is very important (and, truly, we shouldn’t lose sight of that), how we actually carry it out matters even more.  Perhaps the end goal here is less about changing hearts and minds and more about encouraging critical thought.

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Sketching out some cognitive maps through some of those more messy food myths may sometimes be the best way to help people discern between facts and fiction. The human brain is a magical, messy place. If our outreach efforts don’t include ways to help people navigate their grey matter, we will lose folks to those that tell the best, most provocative stories.

And a bit of self-reflection on our part – constantly challenging our own biases as science communicators – doesn’t hurt either.

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Related: Here is a link to one of my go-to pieces, Cook and Lewandowsky’s “Debunking Handbook” (6 pages, a quick read). One of the most important points that the authors make here is that you can’t debunk a myth without providing some kind of narrative to replace that myth.

FOIA. It’s the New Four-Letter Word.

bullet-LeafSeveral weeks ago, I was notified by my alma mater (the University of Saskatchewan) that the US Right to Know (USRTK) had submitted an Access To Information Act (ATIP) request seeking the production of documents pertaining to “…Camille (Cami) D. Ryan, formerly a professional associate in the Department of Bioresource Policy Business and Economics at the College of Agriculture”.

I was not surprised. Why? For the past year or more, I watched this Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) issue unfold. High profile academics working in agricultural research and outreach all over North America, and their home institutions, were subjected to public records requests from USRTK. I have had close working relationships with only a few of these academics. One is my former PhD supervisor, some have been co-authors on articles or chapters, others I have had the opportunity to meet/work with at conferences or other science-related events. Many I haven’t even met while others I have only connected with in passing. I know them all by reputation. These academics are credible, public sector scientists with decades of experience working in agriculture-related research. They are plant and animal geneticists, political economists, plant breeders, microbiologists, etc., who – through their work – are making significant steps forward in crop research, varietal development, and in how our food is produced and distributed in the world. While I recognize that I am just a ‘small fish’ in a ‘large pond’ of brilliant academics, I knew that it was only a matter of time before I received a request due to these connections that I have and (more likely) to my recent move to Monsanto.

What the FOIA?!

FOIA and its Canadian equivalent, ATIP, are laws enacted to allow for the full or partial disclosure of documents controlled by government organizations (including public sector universities). These laws and the ‘request mechanisms’ are intended to protect public interest by ensuring that public sector organizations and those that are employed by them are operating on the up-and-up. Quite simply, they are accountability mechanisms.

Early last year, 14 US scientists were targeted with FOIA records requests. As of now, that number has risen to well over 40 and more recent efforts have expanded into multiple rounds of searches of emails requested by not only USRTK, but other NGOs, activists, and journalists as well. All are intent on looking for “nefarious” connections linking public sector researchers with corporations and other industry organizations.

Let’s be clear. Relationships between academics and industry do exist. I have blogged about the Genome Canada model here. Few, if any, academics would apologize for these kinds of interactions. In the agriculture sector, academic-industry connections have led to important changes in the food security system, to the development of better crop varieties, and other innovations that have social and economic value.  The impetus behind this is laid out in the Morill Act  (Steve Savage talks in more detail about that here) with the stated purpose for Land Grant universities to promote research, education, and outreach in the “agricultural and industrial arts”.  Yes, outreach. The relationships between the public and private sectors are part of this mission to ensure that socially and economically valuable innovations reach the people who need them.

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FOIA Me. FOIA You.

The tidy little package that the USRTK will receive from the U of S will consist of only 168 pages of emails sourced from my account via the university server. These emails were generated based upon a search (17 search terms identified by USRTK such as “Monsanto”, “Syngenta”, “BASF”, “Ketchum”, etc) of my email folders covering the two-year span of time from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2013 (when my research contract ended with the U of S).

Yep. That’s 168. Pages. This is a mere drop in the FOIA bucket. In my case, the estimated invoice for production of these documents by the U of S for USRTK is ~$3500 CDN. But this amount doesn’t even begin to reflect the actual costs imposed on university faculty and personnel, including those that work in IT, administration, and the university’s legal department. Now, amplify these kinds of costs across 40+ FOIA respondents and their home institutions. Imagine the time, administration, and opportunity costs that have been amassed all across North America for this FOIA initiative.

The social and economic costs are considerable. This means less time spent on conducting research, training graduate students, teaching, and writing/administering grant applications.

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While USRTK and others purport to uncover mass collusion in agricultural research, what they are really uncovering is the social, human animal at work. Nothing more. These are scientists – #scientistsarepeople – working in related areas, interacting with one another and exchanging ideas, collaborating on projects, and co-publishing; working to find solutions to social, economical and scientific challenges that cannot be addressed by any one person, organization or institution in isolation.

So, who the FOIA cares?

We should all care. The costs alone are problematic (see above). These email requests amount to taking a subset of raw footage and twisting it into stories that feed into an inflexible, pre-conceived narrative. While freedom of information laws are designed to serve a public good (ensure accountability), they can also be used as tools to intimidate and diminish public good – to subvert democracy.

The silver lining to this cloudy issue may be in the ‘call to action’ for those of us working in the areas of agriculture, science, and innovation. Scientists are the experts. As experts and advocates in private and public sectors, we need to continue to work (collectively) towards solving problems that make sense for societies. But we also need to communicate better about how these relationships are structured and why they matter. Now – more than ever – we need to be transparent about the work that we do and how we do it if we are to earn and maintain public trust.leaf2

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 “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop. But just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.”

― Dara Ó Briain

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Related articles:

Brown, Kristen V. (2016). “How internet trolls silenced a scientist…and why we need to rethink our entire approach to harassment online.” Fusion. February 24th.

Brown, Tracy. (2016). “It’s silly to assume all research funded by corporations is bent.” The Guardian.

Genetic Expert News Service. (2015) “Biotech researchers concerned FOIA requests could chill public outreach.” September 8.

Johnson, Nathanael. (2015). “Are Scientists that Collaborate with Industry Tainted?“. The GRIST. September 9.

Kroll, David. (2015) “What the New York Times Missed on Folta and Monsanto’s Cultivations of Academic Scientists.” September 10.

Lipton, Eric. (2015) “Food Industry Enlisted Academics in G.M.O. Lobbying War, Emails Show.” New York Times. September 5.

Parrott, Wayne. (2015). “Time to end transparency double-standard targeting biotech scientists.” Generic Literacy Project. September 15.

Ropeik, David. (2015). “What’s More Dishonest: Scientists Taking Corporate Cash or Mudslingers Attacking Them?” Big Think.

Savage, Steve. (2015). “An Important Public-Private Partnership is Under Attack.” Forbes. August 31.

Senapathy, Kavin. (2015). “Misuse of FOIA: Bullying a mother, scientist, nutrition and lactation expert.” Biology Fortified. September 10.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2016). “Who Should Fund University Research?” BioBeef Blog.

Van Eenennaam, Alison. (2015). “I’ve been FOIA ed.” Genetic Literacy Project. September 11.

Select References:

BioChica. (2015). “The funding of science: public & private sector collaborations.” FrankenFoodFacts.

Bruininks, Robert H. (2005). “Regional Economies in Transition: The Role of the Land Grant University in Economic Development”. Paper presented for discussion to the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).

Chassy, Bruce. (2015).”The USRTK FOIA: 40-plus years of public science, research and teaching under assault”. Academics Review.

GeneticsExperts.org (2015). “Freedom of information requests reveal how scientists interact with seed, chemical and organic companies”.

Giddings, V., R. D. Atkinson, and J.J. Wu. (2016). “Suppressing Growth: How GMO Opposition Hurts Developing Nations.” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. February.

International Development Research Centre. (2014). “New public-prviate partnerships address global food security.” http://www.idrc.ca/en/regions/global/pages/ResultDetails.Aspx?ResultID=133

Kastner et al. (2015). The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens the U.S. Innovation DeficitReport/Cases studies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. April.

Kniss, Andrew. (2015). Three-part series beginning with “Who funds my weed science program?”, “I am biased and so are you”, and “On transparency, intimidation, and being called as shill”. Weed Control Freaks. August.

Novella, Steven. (2015). “FOIA Requests to Biotech Scientists.” NeurologicaBlog. http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/foia-requests-to-biotech-scientists/

Orac. (2016). “Transparency” should not equal a license to harass scientists. Respectful Insolence. http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2016/01/11/transparency-should-not-mean-a-license-to-harass-scientists/

Spielman, D.J. F. Hartwich, and K. von Grebmer. (?) “Public-private Partnerships and Developing-country Agriculture: Evidence from the International Agricultural Research System.” Future Agricultures. http://www.future-agricultures.org/farmerfirst/files/T2a_Spielman.pdf

The Library of Congress. (2016). “Morill Acts.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/Morrill.html

 

The Dose Makes the Poison: 2016 edition

This table has received a ton of attention over the years. I appreciate your interest and your requests for pdfs of it. It is, however, tired and outdated and it always lacked the greater story and context around chronic toxicity.

Enter the great work of @MommyPhD and @Thoughtscapism. Together, these smart souls have re-imagined the information on acute and chronic toxicity into colourful, informative tables in high resolution format.  Check out Measures of Toxicity on the Thoughtscapism blog!

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Today is a good day to (re)launch my personal blog – now titled “Camistry” – showcasing its new, snappy design. Thanks to my very talented cousin, Shawn, for his creative input and for “re-imagining” my online look.

I also took the opportunity to update the “Dose Makes the Poison” table. Since I originally posted it exactly two years ago, it has gotten tens of thousands of hits.

Here is that table. The content is the same, but it now comes with a bit of an artistic facelift. 🙂

toxicity table 2017

This table is also available in pdf format (better resolution). Send me a note if you would like me to send you the file via email.

In her shoes: the role of empathy in our conversations

Ruth's sensible footwear

Ruth’s sensible footwear

Last month marked the closing of the Dewdney Players production of The Calendar Girls (Tim Firth). It was a whirlwind few-months of rehearsals leading into three weeks of packed houses and standing ovations. The experience was a brilliant one for all of us (cast, crew, directors, stagehands, and technicians) and the prospect of striking the set after the final performance was heartbreaking to say the least. I reluctantly let go of “Ruth Reynoldson”.

Theatre is a passion of mine. As audience member and actor, I have found theatre both entertaining and therapeutic. Stories that play out on stage provide a lens through which to view life, society and people a bit differently.  Having roles in plays allows for even more introspection. By stepping into the shoes of a colorful character (like “Ruth”), I have had the opportunity to transform into someone whose world views were different than my own. I learned to empathize with that character.

The set of Calendar Girls Rotary Performing Arts Centre Okotoks, Alberta

The set of Calendar Girls
Rotary Performing Arts Centre
Okotoks, Alberta

What is empathy and why does it matter?

It may surprise you to know that the concept of empathy is a relatively new one. In her article in The Atlantic, Susan Lazoni provides a nice overview of the term’s 100 year old history.  “Empathy” is a translation of the German word Einfühlung which means “feeling-in”.  At the time the term was coined, it was defined as not only a “means to feel another person’s emotion…” but to “enliven an object, or to project one’s own imagined feelings onto the world.”

And who doesn’t appreciate the idea of empathy? It only makes sense that the better we relate to the plights of others, the more that we respond kindly, ethically, morally, respectfully to them. Nicholas Kristoff suggests, though, that we have slumped into an “empathy gap”; a place where we have lost our capacity to understand another’s troubles. Our cognitive ‘muscles’ have become a bit sluggish, so says Kristoff.

“Even though I do not look like you or act like you, nonetheless I am like you when it comes to the capacity for suffering, and so I deserve to be treated the same as you…” – Denise Cummins, 2013.

The more empathy, the better. It’s a no-brainer, right?

Yale professor Paul Bloom views empathy a bit differently. He qualifies empathy as “narrow-minded, parochial, and innumerate”. Oooh. Ouch. Now, before we all get up in Bloom’s grill over this, it might be best to qualify his perspective a bit more.  Make no mistake, Bloom does value the importance of empathy as part of human-to-human interaction and a basis for mutual understanding. But Bloom states that empathy, in practice, can often be divisive. Especially when empathy is muddied by emotional bias and when that emotional bias leads to bad social policy.

So, maybe society’s struggle is less about an ‘empathy gap’ but, rather, with ‘misplaced empathy’. We need to ask ourselves: Are we unduly influenced by our tribes and by our cognitive biases? (Likely, see Kahan 2012) Are we stuck in echo chambers where we are completely unaware that our empathies may be misplaced? (Yes, and our ‘fast information nation‘ only serves to exacerbate the problem).

I am not advocating for the abandonment of empathy through these musings. Not at all. Rather, I see this as more of a call-to-action for us to better understand how our emotions, biases and behaviours drive our actions. A combination of empathy, self-awareness, AND reason seem to be in order here (see Cummins and Cummins 2013 and Konnikova 2012).

“Feeling in”: What can we learn about empathy from the acting profession

Our first (very human) reaction is to dismiss people, things and messages that run counter to our world views or way of thinking. We are naturally protective of our personal beliefs. We automatically seek out information that informs, supports and validates those beliefs.

Kevin deLaplante hosts a terrific podcast with an episode entitled “What Critical Thinkers and Communicators can Learn from the Performing Arts”.  In order to carry out their craft, actors need to understand the background, the mindset, the limitations and the possibilities of the character they are to portray.  They need to slip into that role with authenticity. They need to “be” the character and “live” the story through eyes that are often very different from their own.

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship optimism and renewal. Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

The sunflower figures heavily in the story of The Calendar Girls. It is a symbol of remembrance, forgiveness, friendship, optimism, and renewal.
Photo courtesy: Jenny Dewey Rohrich

We spend time having conversations with others about health, food and food production, science, politics, religion and a range of other (often controversial) topics. We constantly struggle to understand positions that are diametrically opposed to our own because that is part of the age-old human condition. In order to overcome this, we need to cultivate communication skills that force us to challenge our personal biases. Take a cue from performers: “[They] cultivate the ability to empty themselves; to forget who they are and totally and completely become someone else.” (Kevin deLaplante)

This is hard work. And having conversations about controversial topics is hard work.  Here are a few things to think about (adapted from deLaplante) as we move forward in those conversations:

  • Acknowledge the importance of background and subject matter knowledge
  • Understand the arguments of both the defenders and the skeptics
    1. Be willing to put yourself in another’s headspace and be prepared to dwell in that space for a while
    2. Understand how the human animal processes information (cognitive biases and intellectual habits)
    3. Identify beliefs, values and assumptions that drive opinions and behaviors (including your own)
  • Commit to reconstructing the reasoning that has led to deeply held convictions/beliefs (including your own)
  • Remember, it’s a conversation, not a conversion
  • Value truth, understanding, the relationship and the person above any ‘conversational wins’

As Iida Ruishalme so artfully asks and answers in her article here:

“…[W]ho do you think might be more effective … someone who is judgemental, appealing to science, or someone he or she perceives as a friend, who is tolerant of his or her viewpoint, who wishes to understand? I don’t know if I could be that understanding friend. But I know I would like to be.”

I aspire to be that kind of friend and conversationalist, too.

Filling and “Feeling in” those shoes

“Ruth Reynoldson”

There is nothing like donning the sensible footwear, a conservative cardigan and the thoughts and emotions of a story’s character. In the world of theatre, exercising empathy is an important process in understanding and adopting a character’s identity and motivation. It’s about building, animating and authenticating the story.

“Calendar Girl” Ruth Reynoldson is a most interesting character, one that I have grown to love since I was given the role this past June. Over the months, I built a relationship with Ruth. Through her eyes, I learned more about the other characters in the play and I have even learned a little bit more about me.

“Walk a mile…” they say ’cause everyone has a story. Understanding the whole story – the ‘bigger picture’ – takes time, commitment, empathy, critical thought and a lot of self-awareness. Mind you, the whole (story) is even greater than the sum of its parts. So, investing in that kind of conversation is worth the effort.

Thanks to Jenny Dewey Rohrich for allowing me to include her beautiful sunflower photo on this blog post. 

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