People who seem kind on the surface but lack genuine empathy often display these 5 behaviors

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Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani novelist, once said that: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” 

And you know what? He’s right. 

This is the very quality that separates genuine empathy from just surface-level kindness: mirroring. Or, the ability to see yourself in another person, especially when they are going through a really rough time.

This is because empathy is a sentiment that means way more than just understanding someone’s struggles intellectually.

It is more so about trying to step into their shoes and in turn, into their life. 

This way, you are able to emotionally connect with another person, and experience their highs and lows as if they were your own.

Of course, this journey is not for everyone. For real, not all that many people are equipped to shoulder this kind of emotional weight.

If you are wondering whether you can spot the difference between someone who is merely kind, and someone whose empathy runs deeper than all the surface-level stuff, here are five tell-tale signs, starting with: selective memory.

1) They don’t know all that much about you

I have experienced this particular one many, many times.

Usually, I will make a new friend, and be vibing with them, but later it will hit me: does this person even know a thing about me?

Sure, they seem cool on the surface, but I’m just not sure if there is all that much beneath it all.

If you’re not sure you can relate, maybe it goes like this. There you are, pouring your little heart out about your latest holiday, and they nod along, grinning in all the right places.

But when you bring up the trip not long after, they look at you with a blank expression. 

This is not a lapse in memory—it can’t be, you only mentioned it an hour ago!—rather, it is a clear lack of genuine interest.

To be honest, if they are not absorbing the details of your life, what is the point of friendship? To me, this is a red flag.

I might sound like I am being a tad harsh, but I have reached a stage in my life where I simply don’t have the time or energy to have fake, surface-level friends.

True friends and empathetic people tend to soak up the bits and pieces of your life. Not everything, but they get the most important stuff.

If this isn’t happening, it suggests they are not emotionally invested in you or your friendship. 

Remember, it takes two, baby!

2) They don’t ask follow-up questions if you say you aren’t feeling okay

If you notice a friend who is visibly upset, what’s your next move? 

An empathetic person might lend a listening ear and encourage them to open up. 

A real friend might even comfort them, giving them a hug or words of support if they feel they need it.

Anything less than this, and you wouldn’t feel like the nicest person, right?

Well, that’s how I feel people who are only surface-level kind are like, they might check in if you’re okay, but then proceed to change the subject and steer the chat into the direction of their own stuff.

This not only suggests insincerity but also reveals a lack of connection with the emotions of the people around them.

Usually, these are the folks who will go ahead and say “I’m here for you,” but when it comes to you needing them, they vanish into thin air.

In this case, they are not acknowledging the problem, seeking a solution or offering comfort.

After all, real kindness and empathy is about taking the time to understand, relate, and offer support.

3) They don’t check in when they know you’re going through a rough time

This one is a little like the previous point, only it’s turned up a notch.

Here’s the thing with people who are without genuine empathy, often, they might only be there for the good times.

Over the years I have had a few friends like that, and I began to refer to them as simply “party friends.” 

When I was young, my mum actually taught me her generation’s phrase for it: a fair-weather friend.

Pick your poison, I guess!

Whenever I went out on the town, I knew I could count on these friends. 

But that is where it ended. I knew I could not count on them to look after me, or be there for me,  but I knew I would of course be there to extend a helping hand to them.

This behavior is a dead giveaway that a person’s kindness may be more surface-level than empathetic.

This is even more glaringly obvious when going through a rough patch, and empathy shows up in the form of support, understanding, and a reassuring, stable presence.

Checking in on someone during their low moments is the test for true empathy.

But why is it that some people shy away from the discomfort of other people’s pain? The uncomfy truth is that empathy requires real effort. 

It demands people stepping out of comfort zones, facing the messy reality of emotions, and being present for others when life gets tough.

For the surface-level kind folk, this effort seems like the challenge of a lifetime—one they frankly cannot be bothered for.

4) They dramatically shift their behavior to suit different social situations or social circles

We live in a world of social chameleons

That’s right—the people who are able to shift themselves into whatever the social situation demands of them.

This act is often a sign that a person’s kindness is more of a performance than a real, heart-to-heart connection.

For me, I think that if someone can switch from serious to silly without missing a beat, it might be because they are not fully grasping the emotions at play.

5) They expect a lot from you emotionally, without offering up much in return

People who are without real empathy might also come with a ton of double standards.

Ever met someone who’s quick to demand your support and time, but when the tables are turned, are conveniently absent whenever you need emotional support? 

What it comes down to is this: empathy is a two-way street. 

It thrives on a sustained, healthy back-and-forth. It is not just about receiving—it’s about giving too. 

Of course, empathy is not about tit for tat or keeping score—that goes against what it truly strands for. 

What I mean is that if someone consistently takes without giving, it is a total red flag.

Surface-level kindness is like benefiting from relationships without contributing anything. Who wants that?

Final thoughts 

There is no real kindness without empathy—it is the very quality that separates deep friendships from random situational acquaintances. 

If you have opened up about a tough experience with a friend only to be met with a nod and “aw, that sucks”, take that as your first sign.

And if there are no follow-up questions, or check-ins, then it is likely you have a fair-weather friend on your hands.

It pays to ask yourself: is this person genuinely interested in me, or is it all merely an act?

And then there is the social chameleon. You don’t really feel like you know who they are, deep down.

Feeling like you’re doing all the heavy lifting in a friendship? They take but rarely give? Then you are definitely dealing with someone who is only kind on the surface.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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