An Empathy Gap Of 250 Miles

May 1, 2014

I crossed two items off my musical bucket list last weekend: seeing Arcade Fire perform and following a band from city to city.

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Kansas City, which Peepshow editor Alex says is home to the best barbecue in the world: Arthur Bryant’s.

The cities were the two biggest in Missouri, separated by 250 miles and a three-and-a-half-hour drive on Interstate 70. Having been to neither Kansas City nor St. Louis, I was nearly as excited to explore the neighborhoods and cuisine as I was to see Win Butler and co. put on their show.

Kansas City, with its historic West Port neighborhood, lush green spaces and flowing fountains, immediately struck me as a beautiful city. Thanks to one of the few permissive open-container laws in the country, the city’s trendy Power & Light District reminded me of an unlikely union of downtown Minneapolis and the Las Vegas Strip.

My first impressions of St. Louis were not as charitable. The city’s hard industrial look was a stark reminder we had left the grain belt for the rust belt. Okay, I thought, but what about this “not being able to find an open restaurant downtown on a Sunday night” thing? Maybe this city isn’t for my foodie ways, I thought.

But I’ve always been a geography nerd. I study maps and I watch travel shows; I read histories of cities, Wikipedia articles and regional newspapers. All for fun. So I wasn’t about to let my initial impressions of a city sour me on the place.

The cheese on the pizza we ended up ordering for dinner? It’s called Provel, and the people of St. Louis love it. The abandoned buildings spotted from the freeway? There’s a reason for those in a city that has lost 70 percent of its population. It’s certainly a fate no one would wish on their city, but everyone we talked to was warm and kind. They seemed to love their city.

There is always an empathy gap between people whose milieu is different from one’s own. So while I may be pining for fine dining on a Sunday night, it takes merely a look in the New York Times to remember that my ideals are not the universal values of every human.

Six years after we arrived, we have two daughters, ages 4 and 2, which gives me the authority to answer, definitively, the question of where people in St. Louis are when they’re not in a restaurant at 9 o’clock on a weeknight: we usually eat dinner about 5:15, and by 9 o’clock I’m getting ready for bed. But somewhere along the line, I started to really like living here. In fact, I would be happy to stay in St. Louis forever.

Empathy has long been a hot topic in the user experience world and is making inroads into other parts of business. Whole books have been written about the subject.

Some of these books are on my reading list. I’m sure I’ll get to them after that next book about a city I’ve never been to. In the meantime, if I find myself having trouble seeing from someone else’s point of view, I know what I will do. I’ll get in a car or on a plane and go somewhere, even if just for a weekend.