Empathy gap, in a queue for the loo

Last Sunday it was sunny at last and we went to a festival of art and craft. A lovely day was marred a little by an incident in the queue for the ladies’ toilets. As I went through the entrance, there was a group of women and girls waiting. Some seemed to be waiting for family members to come out; some seemed to be waiting to go in. The toilets were in several separate blocks, each with two doors and beyond the doors, four cubicles and washbasins. I couldn’t make out how the queue was working – whether there was one queue or several; whether they were waiting for a particular door or just going in whichever one someone came out of.


Several women came out but I couldn’t see anyone going in, so I headed for the nearest door to see whether there was a free cubicle. A young woman came rushing in the other door of the block and crossly pushed in front of me, saying, “I was in the queue before you” and, as if to all the other waiting women, she added, “So rude!!”


I had been accused not just of queue-jumping, but of doing so deliberately, and worse still, I had been labelled as “rude”. It felt so unjust and horrible that I could have cried. Instead, I responded with, “Not rude, just desperate,” as if to excuse myself.


Desperation abated, I carried out an empathy analysis of the situation.


My action was, I knew, more or less innocent. I know the rules of queuing in Britain and would never jump a queue without asking, however desperate the situation. I get cross when people jump a queue that I’m standing in. However, the young woman did not know of my moral commitment to the rights of those in front of me in a queue; she assumed, on seeing me go in, that I had tried to get an unfair advantage, was deliberately denying her her rightful turn.


If I creatively imagine how it felt to be her, watching me go in front of her, I can understand why she might feel cross.


But our separate feelings of unhappiness came from a missing empathy step. She didn’t stop to imagine how it might have been for me – perhaps I was in desperate need of the first available toilet? In another five years, that might well be the case. She didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt; she didn’t try out the idea that I might not be jumping in front of her but just be confused as to the queuing system. She missed that step and leapt straight to assuming I had acted knowingly and so deserved her insult – “rude”.


Result: both of us went away upset.


Lesson: when we feel upset by something someone does, we can try a little empathy of the creative imagining type. What other reasons might there be for that person doing what they do?


And not leap straight to insult.


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