When Curiosity Doesn't
Include Sympathy

Three Friends in a Cafe

Etiquette asks us to show interest in others personally, and what better way to show interest than to ask questions – to be curious.  When I am curious about you, and really listen to you, you relate and remember me in this way.  You may like or identify with me.  And once liking happens, trust becomes possible, easily leading to friendship.

Being likable means that another could identify you as sympathetic.  You make every attempt to understand someone and show concern for their problems or suffering.  To have sympathy, a person first needs to be interested and curious about the state another person is in or a situation he is dealing with.

But curiosity without sympathy can greatly affect your likeability.

The Downside of Curiosity

Having a desire to know is positive and necessary for being alive.  We appreciate curiosity.  If a teacher remarked that your child is marvelously curious, you would be pleased for sure.

But the phrase, “idle curiosity,” and the saying, “Curiosity killed the cat,” are reminders of the downside of curiosity: of the times when a person let’s himself get sidetracked or wastes time at the wrong time, delves into places that aren’t his business, or in which he is situationally unaware.

When socializing, if you engage a person who baits you with comments like, “So let’s skip the boring small talk, and get into something deeper,” you’ve probably met someone who indulges in idle curiosities. 

Or when the person begins probing into yours or another’s life situation, seemingly just for the sake of gaining information, you realize you might be in the company of someone whose only intention is to seek that latest “update” or “news” about a trend or happening, rather than choosing to be interested in a conversation with you. 

The trouble with the wonderful fact of curiosity is that it can crowd out sympathy. 
“Jerry, you must feel pretty low since John was let go.  I’m curious—how long have you been friends and when did you sense he was having problems?” 

What happened here?!  Your coworker began with a sympathetic statement, then asked an innocent question, but folded in a “nosey” question. That is, the information being sought was irrelevant to the situation and slipping into a shady domain.

Avoiding the Trap

Falling into the trap of idle curiosity happens to the best of us.  By asking a few questions to check in with yourself, this can be easily avoided:

  • Are you putting yourself in the other person’s shoes? 
  • Are you about to ask a question that will be viewed as friendly or nosey?
  • Is your question an invasion of privacy?
  • Are you willing to be genuinely interested in the person you are talking with?

Another check point to remain etiquette-ful with curiosity means avoiding certain subjects.

  • Finances, money or income
  • Age or health challenges
  • Political stances
  • Religious views

There are exceptions, but in the general realm of social engagement, and particularly when you are just meeting someone, the above check points will help keep your interactions genuine.

Showing Your Sympathetic Side

Listen with curiosity.  Speak with honestly.  Act with integrity.  The greatest problem with communication is that we don’t listen to understand.  We listen to reply.  When we listen with curiosity, we don’t listen with the intent to reply.  We listen for what’s behind the words.

  ~ Roy T. Bennett

When in conversation with someone, and having used the check points above to avoid shallowness, how do you give a sympathetic response?

First and foremost, you are ready and willing to be interested in the other person.  A genuine interest automatically keeps you out of curiosity land mines and is felt by the person you are in conversation with. 

Other ways to show sympathy:

  • If you happen to know something has occurred in the other person’s life that must be difficult, it’s okay to mention you’re sorry that she is going through a lot right now.  Then pause and listen as an emotion will likely be expressed.  Let it be.  Nothing else needs to be added.
  • Let your curiosity lead you into kind places where respectful responses feel right or where you learn a playful response.  “Sarah, I love hearing the way you describe your graduation experience. Where do you think this kind of positive attitude will take you?”
  • Let your body stance express your openness to conversation.  Face the other person, keep eye contact, and avoid crossing your arms.  Be sensitive to another person’s sense of space. 
  • Nod and offer encouraging phrases: “Yes, I see.”  “Um hm.”  “Ah, yes.”
  • Listen and keep comments you might offer later in mind.  “Alison, earlier you said….” 
  • Don’t feel you must relate a similar experience.

As wonderful as it is, curiosity will not provide the same sense of connection as sympathy.  And if there is one thing we humans need, it is to stay connected to one another.

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