The most important thing you can do to understand your characters, your scripts, and your neighbors better – and why it’s becoming harder and harder

What would you say if I told you the things you enjoy the most are keeping you from understanding your world?

It may sound odd or far-fetched, but it’s true. Thanks to social media, we are becoming more and more close-minded, but this is not simply my opinion. This is actually the way social media works, and it’s preventing more and more of us from experiencing empathy, something we all need to be able to function as voice artists, writers…and human beings.

The fact that we are doing this to ourselves may surprise you.

Empathy: what it is and why it’s important

id-10044279-sep-coupleMost dictionaries define “empathy” as not just understanding, but identifying with the feelings or thoughts of others. Being able to relate to others’ concerns, experiences, and attitudes broadens our own understandings and helps us to respect those who do not share or own opinions.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the comments section on any random Facebook post often reveals how little respect there is for others. There may be many reasons for this lack of respect, but one reason is an inability among many to care to understand another point of view; a lack of empathy.

And unwittingly, you, yourself are exacerbating this.

Algorithms and the shrinking of your world

Before we get to how empathy can help in your writing or voiceover career, we need to address how it affects personal relationships – and that starts with social media.

In the pre-internet days, we relied on the real world for our information: not just newspapers or tv and radio, but actual interactions with fellow humans who may or may not have shared our beliefs. We would discuss, read, learn from a variety of sources.

These days, the internet has opened a world of differing viewpoints, but is, ironically, closing us off to all viewpoints except our own.

ad-spaceHow?

Algorithms.

You see, every time you search Google, read a Facebook headline, or click an ad, you are telling someone what you like and what you don’t like. In return, the social media sites do their best to tailor your experience to the things they think interest you.

For example, if you see “chocolate chips” trending on Facebook and click to see the stories, Facebook deduces you are interested in chocolate chips. If you only scan the posts without clicking a story, your interest in chocolate chips may be dismissed, but if you click a story, Facebook now assumes you are even more interested in chocolate chips than it had thought.

So don’t be surprised if you see an ad for chocolate chips pop up in your newsfeed the next day!

Same with Google; if you check out a couple of recipes on Betty Crocker’s website, you might soon find cooking ads sprinkled throughout the sites you visit.

Now, while a chocolate chip addiction may not be cause for alarm, things get really problematic, really quickly…

Democrat, Republican, or Independent? Let’s ask Facebook!

Here’s a test: with which political affiliation do you most identify? If you’d like to find out what Facebook thinks, do this:

  • Open up Facebook, and on the far-right drop-down menu (to the right of the padlock icon), click “Settings.”
  • On the far left of the screen, click “Ads,”
  • Where it reads “Ads based on my preferences,” click “Edit” and then “Visit Ad Preferences.”
  • Under “Interests,” click on”Lifestyle and culture.” From there, you should see a box titled “US politics” – and if you have not already declared a political affiliation, Facebook has made a guess as to what it thinks you are!

How does it do this?? By using algorithms based on the sites you visit and other Facebook pages you like. For instance, if a person “Likes” the MoveOn.org Facebook page, Facebook will infer that you are a liberal; if you follow Glenn Beck, Facebook assumes you are conservative.

Obviously, there’s much more to it than that, but you get the idea. The more you tell social media what you like, the more of what you like social media will give you.

And therein lies the big, big  problem.

Where does all this lead?

What it boils down to is all of us living in our own little worlds of singular thought. The more we profess our disdain for Trump, the more pro-Hillary content we are fed; the more we dislike Obamacare, the more conservative content is provided.

The more we read about the Kardashians, the more news about the Kardashians we’re going to get. Oy.

id-100107463-man-screaming-2It is this narrowing and narrowing of our opinions and worldview that is not only harming our capacity for empathy, but our ability to be decent to each other and debate issues politely and respectfully. Being spoon-fed our daily news, we lose sight of all the other opinions out there and the fact that there are, indeed, living, breathing humans on the other end of those opinions.

How empathy comes into play

Empathy, as stated earlier, is not just understanding another’s feelings or opinions, but actually identifying with them, whether or not we agree with them.

Whether it’s the guy who cut you off in traffic, the woman who was too loud on her cellphone, or the person who holds opposing political views to yours, practicing empathy not only helps us interact with others civilly; it reminds us that we are all human and all imperfect.

For all the talk lately of ‘tolerance,’ a little empathy could go a long way…after all, tolerance without understanding has no foundation on which to stand.

A Trump supporter may not be able to understand how a person can vote for Hillary without making a concerted effort to put him/herself in a Hillary supporter’s shoes, looking past the political posturing to see the human being who is running and to understand why she is running.

Likewise, a Hillary supporter may not understand how a person can vote for a candidate like Trump until he or she takes the time to listen closely to a Trump supporter and puts him/herself where the Trump supporter is, recognizing and identifying with the Trump supporter’s experiences and values.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that Trump supporters or Hillary supporters are right or wrong, I’m not saying one is better than the other. That’s a decision individuals have to make, and this blog is not a political forum.

What I am saying, however, is that when we have a steady stream of news content delivered to us based on the ideas, opinions, and beliefs we already hold, the less we are exposed to other viewpoints.

Then, when we do happen to come across an article, comment, or post that goes against our tightly-held opinions, we are so taken aback that we cannot (or will not) take the time to try to consider why that person with the different opinion ever dared form it in the first place.

What does all this mean for writers and voice artists?

If you are a voice artist narrating a script or performing a character, it is imperative that you understand who you are and why you are saying what you are saying.

You don’t have to be a ‘character’ in the sense of a 19th-century British soldier or school lunch lady, either – even a narrator is, at heart, a character. To the listener, the narrator is the voice of reason, of reassurance, of solution. So take the time to think about this, wrap your head around the script, and try to identify with the speaker – as well as the person being spoken to.

Who are you? Why are you speaking these words? Who is hearing them? What might they think when they hear your words? And what is most important to the person to whom you are speaking?

If you are a writer, ask these same questions of your characters. And really, really, try to answer them honestly, from your character’s point of view.

I know of some authors who will stop themselves in the middle of a manuscript and throw one of their characters into a completely unrelated plot, then write a short story around that, for the sole purpose of getting to know their character better.

A lot of work, yes, but if it helps to create a better understanding, then it’s time well spent.

And come to think of it…asking yourself these questions each time an opposing opinion comes along might not be a bad idea, either. What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “The most important thing you can do to understand your characters, your scripts, and your neighbors better – and why it’s becoming harder and harder

    1. Thanks, Tabatha – wow, that article makes some extremely good points, particularly about the economic disparity between rural and urban areas. Living here in NH, I see it all the time – the small towns are primarily Republican, while the cities lean Democrat. Understanding why people think the way they do is so important!

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  1. Pingback: Poetry Friday: A spinal spine poem – Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme

  2. I guess I knew this was going on, Matt, but I enjoyed your particular take on why it might be dysoptimal for people whose job success relies on making empathetic connections. I’ve been trying to figure out how to converse with folks who really do have different experiences and tendencies than I do (in part so that I can get a chance to persuade them!) and it’s really difficult to get into conversation with them, short of pulling up next to someone in traffic whose bumper sticker identifies them.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, and reasons to stay off Facebook a little more.

    Like

    1. Thank you, Heidi, for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. You didn’t happen to check Facebook to see which political affiliation you are, did you? I know several people who checked, and Facebook has it completely wrong!

      Like

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