Think you have empathy?

Originally published at  Medium

Originally published at Medium

Your use of distancing language, language that puts you at arms-length from your customer, may say otherwise.

Empathy. You will frequently hear the call for it in and around Silicon Valley/San Francisco. The idea is that if you have empathy toward your end consumers, you will create a product, service, app, etc. that really resonates with them.

By definition, empathy means that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions. Yet, oddly enough, some companies use distancing language that puts a separation between themselves and others, and runs counter to their concept.

Thoughts become words, words become deeds, and so on. So, here are a couple of common examples of distancing language along with why they should be abandoned.


Startups call the people who make it possible for them to have a company, career, and job “users.” Even if you take the idiomatic definitions of the word (junkie, a person who takes but doesn’t give, etc.) off the table, what you’re left with is uninspired—“a person or thing that uses.”

Why not take the chance to reinforce empathy, especially internally? For example, if you have a service that allows people to track their running activity, does that make them “users” or “runners?” By referring to them as runners, every decision you make will be colored by a reminder that you are building something for runners, not “users.”


This example seems to be prevalent among farmers, chefs, small businesses, and even artists. Perhaps they’re trying to “talk the talk” of a big brand and sound more businesslike. After all, they are producers. Don’t they make product? And if you want to compete with the big players, you’ve got to talk the language of success, right?

Yes and no. They produce something, sure. And if they are trying to secure financing from investors, saying the word “product” makes sense as it signals repeatable and potentially scalable.

But by saying “product” to your target audience, you’re basically minimizing or negating the differentiation that you have as a smaller producer.

For example, if you’re making handcrafted jams, the people who might buy your jam are not thinking of picking up a jar of product. They want jam. So, if you’re interviewed on say, the Food Network, you need to talk about your jam in a way that makes people want to buy it, not as a “consistent product.”


And finally, we have “content”. A close cousin to “product”. When was that last time you fell in love with some good content? The answer is, of course, never. No one falls in love with “content”.

People fall in love with a book, movie or TV show. By using “content” you are distancing yourself from your customer. It is easy enough to change though. For example, if you change from “matching the right product to the right customer” to “matching the right book to the right reader” you effortlessly and instantly increase your empathy.

Last thought

So why does this happen? Probably out of habit. But the good news is that habits can be broken. Start by thinking about what you are offering and how it relates to their lives rather than defaulting to “users” and “product”. Start referring to them internally in a way that reinforces empathy. Because whether you realize it or not, words affect actions.

Thanks to Yael Goldstein for the assist.