Friday, 13 July 2012

Empathy and Riches

Yesterday I read an article in New York magazine summarising a number of studies suggesting that richer people and people who've been primed to be more money oriented are less empathetic, possibly because being rich makes people feel important and thus less likely to empathise with poorer people.

The article was interesting, and spoke to a lot of the debates at the moment about high corporate salaries, inequality, poor social mobility, and so on. But fear not, this isn't going to turn into a pro-Occupy screed, although I can do that too. It actually niggled at me because it fed into one of the things that's wierdest about being out here - that here, I'm rich.

In the UK, I've got used to being not poor, but certainly only just comfortable. In Oxford I biked rather than getting the bus to save money, I only bought clothes in charity shops, I had two jobs, I made packed lunches, I lived in a house where we crammed lots of people in to keep the rent down, and whenever I went to the supermarket it would take ages because I had to compare the prices of everything to get the cheapest thing (including occasionally going to multiple supermarkets. Fun fact: in Headington, if you get Waitrose Essentials it's often cheaper than the Co-op and it doesn't fund the Labour party).

Here, I'm loaded to a level that is ridiculous. I still spend ages in the supermarket looking for the cheapest thing because it's what I do... but all the time I'm knowing that I don't have to, and sometimes I buy imported cheese or canned things because I can. I get taxis rather than the bus, because I can. I eat out often, because the food's good and it's a nice experience, and because I can - and a bit because I couldn't while I was in Oxford and I'm making up for lost time. And I still save most of my money.

It weirds me out on two levels. Firstly, the rapid change means that I've had to turn my self-image on it's head - to go back to the Occupy thing, I used to be the 99%, and now I'm the 1%. Globally, I suppose I always was the 1%, but here it's very, very obvious. Secondly, whereas in Oxford, I felt like a normal person, here, I don't. I feel like I'm a special breed - not a person, but an expat, in the same way I feel that rich people in the UK don't live on the same planet as the rest of us.

There's also an irony to it. In the development sector, developing-country experience is prized, mainly because it shows you understand how programmes work, but also because it's supposed to give you insight into the problems of development. I suppose it does, but in a way that makes the problems of development utterly distinct from the problems of poverty. Because here, I'm rich, and how can someone who's rich possibly understand what it's like to be poor? If anything, to understand what it's like to be poor we should be spending time doing insecure minimum wage jobs in a super expensive part of the UK - while all the while telling ourselves that we'd be middle income in a lot of poor countries.

So the empathy article fitted in with some existing concerns I've had. As a suddenly rich person, as well as becoming an expat rather than a real person, am I less empathetic? It's true that I've been grumpy a lot, but maybe that's just because I don't get enough sleep. And I've been a bit rubbish at trying to get to know my colleagues, but that's mainly because I'm moving away soon so couldn't be bothered. I don't think I'm particularly important which suggests that I don't yet have an exaggerated sense of my own importance. And yet... I get cross with taxi drivers for saying they know they way then they don't, although I know they only do it because they need the money. I don't always tip as much as I should. I know that one of the guards is desperate to learn English, and I could have helped him but didn't.

How far are these me being human, and how far am I losing my empathy? Of course I don't want to second-guess myself all the time, and I shouldn't believe everything I read on the internet. But, just in case, if anyone notices me turning into an evil bitch, please, please say something!


  1. Not enough sleep ... she says while posting blog posts at 4am ... Hug x

  2. Haha, my blog still thinks I'm in Russia so it's just the timezone being wrong, I was actually posting just after 11pm, which is much more reasonable!