The Empathy Paradox

By: Sarah Louise Hansen

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The cover picture of this page shows me with my tailors Raj, Kalam and Mohd. Raj always has a smile on his face and soon as he spots a frown on my face, he encourages me to smile. He has two kids back in India and a wife that he didn’t meet until the day of the wedding. Kalam is always kind, pleasing and sympathetic, and he always asks how my father is doing. Mohd is quiet, observing and very polite. He used to live in Saudi Arabia, but moved to Dubai about a year ago. He misses his friends and his life back in Saudi Arabia, but is slowly getting readjusted in Dubai.

I spend a lot of time sitting at the tailoring shop, chatting with my tailors while sipping chai tea. They’ve taught me how to count to ten, and how to say “Hi” and “Thank you” in Hindi. In spite of cultural barriers and prevalent class differences, I’ve always put effort in getting to know my tailors and treating them with respect and kindness. Moreover, even though I am a small business, with very limited resources at hand, I do my best to show my appreciation by bringing gifts for Diwali, Ramadan and so on.

Contrary to what you may think, me emphasizing the effort I put into being a nice person towards my tailors is by no means an attempt to heighten myself. In fact, it is an attempt to underline the paradox that is about to prevail.

The Unambiguous Gut Feeling

As Bowery & Fourth slowly reached the stage, where I felt confident scaling up the business, producing with my tailors was no longer profitable or sustainable. I started searching for alternatives and inevitably ended up looking into manufacturers in China. The Chinese are damned efficient and before I knew it, samples from five different manufactures made their way to my office. I inspected the samples, found my preferred manufacturer and started negotiating.

Still, my gut feeling wasn’t right. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but I remained very hesitant. It wasn’t until I by mere coincidence ended up watching The True Cost, a documentary about the flipside of the retail business. As I watched the documentary, the unambiguous gut feeling unfolded itself and became a fact carved in stone; the reason why I remained so hesitant to proceed with the Chinese manufacturers was because I had absolutely no idea whether or not their business was ethically sound.

Indifferent empathy

How is that in line with altruistic image that I portrayed of myself earlier? Well, it isn’t. The problem is that numbers and altruism do not go very well together. We care deeply about the death of a young man. A child missing makes world headline news. We mourn the suicide of a public figure. Don’t get me wrong, empathy is a great thing about human nature and this is by no means an attempt to be scornful. But the level of empathy expressed is extremely disproportionate to the feelings that we experience, when we hear about the thousands of refugees drowning as they attempt to escape suppression and war, the millions of children who die of hunger in Africa – the list is endless. Moreover, perversely enough we seem to care less and even reach a state of indifference when death tolls reach a certain threshold.

The word's relevance

In research, this is often referred to as the empathy paradox. Researchers often highlight the case study of Baby Jessica, an 18-month old girl, who made world news in 1987 after she fell down into a well. The whole world was glued in front of the TV as they watched the 58-hour rescue auction. Baby Jessica made it up the well alive and is now an accomplished young woman, who lives a pretty average life. Yet, she remains the personification of a pretty substantial aspect of human nature.

I remember reading an article about this a couple of months back - this particular topic with a certain level of ridicule. Not due to the topic itself, but because I believed that I was somehow above making these kinds of cognitive biases. In hindsight I have to admit defeat and acknowledge that my brain is no more refined than the average Homo Sapiens. I am also prone to these biases. I care deeply about the wellbeing of my tailors. Still, I fail to realize it is not just the significance of factory workers in Bangladesh, who died when the building collapsed, but also it’s relevance to me.

The word's relevance is key here – because this is highly relevant. Not just for the fashion stakeholders of the industry, but also the consumers. Just remember that everyone is someone’s Baby Jessica.


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