Illustrating The Empathy Gap With Music

There is a huge empathy gap out there.

A lot of the examples of this gap require a lot of explanation (depending on your personal experience), so I’m going to try to explain it with something both visceral and pretty commonplace: music in any common area.

Maybe it’s your workplace. Maybe it’s your home or apartment or dorm or park – it doesn’t matter.

Come into my world for a second.

I knew early on that my musical tastes weren’t like most people’s. (You can look at my last.fm profile if you like; my top artists for the last year are Tycho, The Prodigy, Amon Amarth, Crown The Empire, and Fall Out Boy.)

There are people with more extreme preferences, absolutely. I do not claim to be a connoisseur of the unusual. I just typically like music that isn’t pop music. What I know about the top 40 of the last two decades is largely due to movies or mashups. The popular music I do enjoy tends to be classified by whatever “alternative” label fits that decade.

I’m aware of this. Whenever I share a workspace with the more “normal” of my co-workers, I don’t just play music that I like. In fact, I go out of my way to make sure there’s lots of “regular” music.

(PLEASE NOTE MY ARTISTIC LICENSE) For example, there’s an unofficial “department” Pandora account. It’s got a lot of stations on it…120 at this point. Nearly all of them are on the “shuffle” function.

Two thirds of those stations are “pop” music. A lot of them are overlapping – like “90s, 2000s, Today’s Hits Radio” and “2000 Hits Radio” and “Today’s Hits Radio”. And then there’s the individual artist stations that further overlap, like “*NSync Radio”, “Ariana Grande Radio”, “Barenaked Ladies Radio”, and “Boy Bands Radio”. Remember that there’s about EIGHTY stations that fall into this category.

Out of the remaining third, half are “country” in some way, with equal amounts of overlap. So that’s another twenty to twenty five.

The final sixth are stations that I don’t mind or like. Some examples here are “80s New Wave Radio (e.g The Cars, Men At Work, Talking Heads)”, “90s Alternative Radio (e.g. Blink 182 and Green Day)”, “Garage Blues Rock Radio (e.g. Dorothy, The Black Keys)”, “Queen Radio (e.g. Queen)”, “Rock Hits Radio (e.g. Queen, Cream, Foghat)”, “Hair Bands (e.g. Poison, Def Leppard)”, and “Pink Floyd Radio (e.g. Pink Floyd)”.

You might notice that a lot of those also have some overlap with “pop” music. The only one of my “top” artists in the last year that’s represented in the shuffle mix is Tycho (which is not “extreme” at all). There’s only about three (out of over one hundred) stations in the shuffle that wouldn’t be played on a “mix” radio station at this point.

If you are someone who likes today’s pop music, that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me at all that people like different things than I do.

What I want you to do is to imagine that they are all instead some genre you don’t like. Whether that’s rap, metal, country, throat singing, or Gregorian chant doesn’t matter. Imagine that you rarely get to hear music that you like, and for the greatest part of your work life, you “get” to listen to music you pretty actively hate.

And y’know, I deal with it. As I’ve mentioned, I’m well aware that my musical tastes aren’t the mainstream. As long as sometimes there’s a three to five minute respite from the onslaught of insipid crappy music every so often, I’m okay. And since I have to spend most of my time listening to music I actively dislike, I don’t want to make someone else feel that way.

Which is why it annoys me so freaking hard when some of my co-workers deliberately turn it off of shuffle when they realize that it’s playing more than just “pop” music.

Again, substitute the musical genres you like and don’t like for my examples above. Remember that you cannot get out of the situation. (Headphones are not an option.) Remember that this is the environment where you will spend most of your life.

And the people around you would rather make you listen to music you hate all the time rather than let a single song you care for play once every hour or two.

How would you feel in that situation? How hurt would you be after seeing that your peers would rather have you be uncomfortable all the time rather than give up their preference for what they want all the time? That even though you went out of your way to make sure others felt included, they actively excluded you?

With me so far? Do you see how that would get really irritating?

Yeah, this is a petty and trivial example. That’s my point. Because I bet that eventually you’d get pretty upset with this small, trivial thing.

And it goes on constantly in much, much larger ways.

White people not understanding why racist policies are so bad, because they don’t feel the impact. Christians confused why there are objections to monuments to their religion on public grounds. Straight people not understanding why “bathroom bills” and avoiding deadnames is so important. The implicit bias in our data crunching that assumes that men are “normal”. Even the way that everything is designed to an “average” that doesn’t exist.

There are so many examples where the “majority” (or at least, the group with the majority of the power) simply don’t bother to consider that other people might be different from them. Even in ways as trivial as one’s taste in music.

We can, each of us, do better.

Featured Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

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