When I think of all the social skills that people should have to get by in the world today, I think empathy is possibly the most important.
This capacity to understand one’s own emotions and those of others and to relate to other people’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts is essential.
It helps you navigate complex social situations, form relationships, and understand other people’s actions and motivations.
So what happens if someone has low levels of empathy or doesn’t seem to have any at all?
Many people fall into these categories, with the extreme examples being some people on the autism spectrum, narcissists, and psychopaths.
Their social interactions are often unusual, and they have difficulties building and maintaining relationships.
So, how can you tell if someone is low on empathy?
People who lack empathy often display these seven behaviors without realizing it, so you’ve got some clues to help identify and understand them.
1) Difficulty understanding others
The first behavior you might notice in many people who lack empathy is that they can often have difficulty understanding other people.
Well, that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
If you don’t have the capacity to understand or relate to other people’s emotions, you’re going to miss out on an awful lot that drives their behavior and motivates them.
My boss at my first real may serve as a pretty good example of this.
It was quite a while ago when I was young and didn’t know much about anything. However, looking back at his behavior, I suspect that Joshua had really low levels of empathy, if he had any at all.
Since it was my first real job with a real manager, I didn’t think it was strange the way he ordered his staff around, telling people to do things that had nothing to do with their positions. This made the staff really uncomfortable all the time since they might be randomly told to do something at any time that was out of their skill sets and comfort zones.
I think his perspective was, “I’m the boss. This needs to get done. I will tell an underling to do it.”
Some of the older, bolder staff members complained to him about this, but their criticisms fell on deaf ears. Then, one day, he was gone. We never found out if he was fired or quit, but his replacement was such a breath of fresh air that no one thought about it very long!
It was really strange to find a person like Joshua in a management position because he seemed to lack empathy and the ability to understand his staff’s needs and feelings.
2) Not caring about others
Another behavior you’ll often notice in people who lack empathy is that they seem not to care about others.
I say “seem” because we have to take a step back and understand what it means to “care”.
This is a very empathy-focused definition, however. And it’s hard for people without empathy to show this kind of caring when they don’t pick up easily on whether others are happy or unhappy.
See, people who lack empathy still have their own emotions. They just lack the capacity to recognize and relate to those of others.
Intellectually, they can certainly rationalize the idea like this: “I like being happy. Other people say they like being happy. It would be good if they were happy.”
This kind of logic can characterize a person’s thinking when they lack empathy.
So they can still “care” about others in this sense without the deep feelings that most of us associate with caring.
When you don’t have the capacity to constantly take in and consider the emotions of others, it’s easy to not think so much about them.
For those of us who have empathy, the emotions and concerns of others take up a whole lot of our energy.
We may lie awake at night wondering why Janice made that one comment at the office or worrying about Antonio, who’s been feeling down lately.
People who lack empathy, though, are liberated from a lot of these thoughts and feelings.
They’re able to focus more on themselves and their own feelings without being distracted by the feelings of others.
It should be no surprise, then, that people with empathy usually find people who lack empathy to be selfish.
They seem to be overly focused on their own concerns and not enough on those of others – because they are!
4) Difficulty making friends
If you don’t understand other people well, don’t seem to care about them, and appear selfish to others, it can be a major challenge to make friends.
Even the friendships you have from childhood may end up being more about familiarity than anything else.
People who lack empathy might spend time with others with whom they share interests or who stimulate them intellectually. But there are often very few feelings involved.
For example, when a lifelong friend becomes seriously ill, they might not feel like visiting them at the hospital because they don’t feel empathy toward their situation.
This doesn’t mean, though, that they don’t want to have friends or don’t feel bad if they are rejected.
Quite the opposite – they definitely feel that they gain things from their friendships and feel hurt when people don’t want to be friends with them. They just don’t necessarily get that others feel the same.
5) Not being appropriately happy for others
One behavior that you might notice in people around you, which may be a sign of lacking empathy, is not being appropriately happy or celebratory for others.
When a friend tells you they’re expecting the baby that they wanted so much or that they got the job they’d been trying so hard to get, what’s a normal reaction?
Most people would immediately tune into their joy and share it with them, giving them congratulations and huge smiles.
But someone who lacks empathy may not act like this at all. They might say things like, “Babies are a lot of work,” or “Now you’ll have less free time.”
Sure, both of these comments might be true, but they’re not appropriate to the situation and don’t reflect the happiness your friend is expressing.
It’s important to remember, though, that there are other reasons why people might react in these ways. They might not lack empathy.
Instead, they might just not really care about that person, or they might be jealous.
So, this behavior isn’t a sure sign of a lack of empathy, but it could be one of your many clues.
6) Hard time reading body language
If you don’t really pick up on and connect with other people’s emotions, it can be a real challenge to interpret body language.
Things like posture, gestures, and especially facial expressions often go right over the heads of people who lack empathy.
The words we say are only one way to communicate. If you always take them at surface value, you’re going to miss a lot of subtext.
Meanwhile, people are constantly showing an emotional component to their communication through body language.
Someone might say, “I love this song!” but also roll their eyes.
If you have empathy, you’ll instantly recognize this as a sign that they’re being sarcastic or funny. But if you don’t, you might simply follow their line of sight up into the air.
This is a basic example, however, and most people who lack empathy eventually learn to memorize simple body language cues and their meanings over time. This allows them to interpret others and function in society.
But more complex signs of nervousness, lying, or secret pleasure will still evade them.
7) Inappropriate behavior
People who lack empathy will often react inappropriately to other people’s emotional displays or behave strangely in social situations.
We already saw how people who lack empathy demonstrate inappropriate responses to positive situations, but I’d like to expand on that.
In fact, when they don’t know what other people are experiencing on the inside, it can be very hard for these people to tailor their behavior appropriately.
If, for example, a group of people is sitting in the far corner of a room, huddled together and talking with their voices low, the empathy-less person might walk up and loudly try to join the conversation.
Or if they walk into a room and everyone is smiling and excited, they might start talking about how bad their day is going.
Both of these readings are way off because they don’t have their fingers on the emotional pulse of the situation.
People who lack empathy often display these seven behaviors without realizing it.
If you have empathy, you’ll hopefully understand them and their motivations better now that you know how they tick!
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