Contrary to what most people told me before leaving, my first experience studying abroad in England was not a pleasant one. It was, however, the first time that I learned the necessity of putting empathy into practice.
Upon entering the U.K. and going through the immigration line, I stressed to myself that I needed to obtain a special study visa. The coordinator of the Cambridge program to which I had been accepted highlighted repeatedly in our emails — bolded, underlined, in all caps — that we needed to obtain this study visa instead of a regular visitor one, or we would not be allowed to stay at Cambridge. Since study abroad was what I had been looking forward to my entire junior fall as the cure to my depression, I determined that I could not fail in this area.
I marched to the man sitting behind the glass door, looked him straight in the eyes, did not even bother to breathe or say hello and blurted out “I need to get a special study visa.”
The man looked at me for a second, blank-eyed and silent, before saying, “OK, do you go up to a mechanic and tell him what is wrong with your car?”
I was confused by how quickly the tone of the encounter had turned. Unsure of what I had done wrong or where the conversation was going, I stuttered “n-n-no.”
He then proceeded to ask me a similar series of questions involving a doctor and his patient and a teacher and his student, all of which ended in the answer “no.”
He concluded, “Then why would you walk up to me and tell me how to do my job? It’s disrespectful.” He shrugged and grimaced, and I began to cry.
After profuse apologies and explanations about my anxiety, I walked away with his curt “Just advice for the next time” and “Good luck.” I spent the rest of the day upset and thinking that if every British person were like him, I would hate my time here in the U.K.
Luckily for me, my experiences were only positive afterwards. Even more luckily, I eventually stopped blaming the officer for his irritation.
There were many layers to the misunderstanding between us. What was only my apprehension about not losing my opportunity seemed to him to be rudeness and a mistrust of his ability. My brusqueness, my desire to cut straight to the point was construed as pure American arrogance. On the other hand, what was his indignation at not being allowed to do his job seemed to me to be bullying.
Because each of us was concerned with our own past experiences and our own insecurities, we couldn’t see the other’s true intentions. This was something I was learning, not just about this man, but about people in general.
We are all too caught up in ourselves to ever consider that others have similar issues, feelings and traumas that influence their behaviors in ways that are not always beneficial to us. When someone does something slightly impolite or traumas that influence their behaviors in ways that are not always beneficial to us. We never consider that perhaps they were a little tired that day and we came at the wrong time, and that in fact their negativity had nothing to do with us at all and everything to do with their own pressures.
Empathy is a word that is flying around the United States and, I daresay, the world right now, yet we aren’t even certain of what it means. Empathy is more than just some abstract understanding of how someone else is feeling — it is a form of communication. Most people would not stand there and talk at someone if they were not responding. Yet we are willing to project our feelings onto the whole world without even considering other people’s responding emotions. Maybe that is why we constantly feel disconnected and lonely.
When we empathize, we learn to hold a conversation where both our feelings and others’ have equal weight. The officer and I could not properly communicate because our personal emotions took up the conversation space and we couldn’t hear what the other’s emotions were saying. To empathize is to communicate, and, if there is to be true connection between two people, one cannot exist without the other.
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