In a touching Medium post a few days ago, the writer and programmer Paul Ford shared what he thinks is the secret to his politeness. In conversations with new acquaintances, Ford asks plenty of questions and lets the other person do the talking. He tries not to ask what they do for a living, but if it comes to that, he responds to their job description—whatever it is—with, “Wow. That sounds hard.”
“Nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult,” he writes. He describes how this process once worked with a woman whose work is not something most people would consider taxing:
I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.
What Ford describes is known, in research circles, as empathy. It sounds simple, but it's actually counterintuitive: If we humans are locked in a nasty, brutish, and short struggle for resources, why would we stop to give a hoot about each other?