Updated: Jan 26
Empathy is important in the hospitality industry.
Edith Stein, a German phenomenologist stated that the act of empathizing cannot be taught. It's unique given to us "non-primordially." We find it as an experience rather than making it happen. It can be recognized. It cannot be forced upon the self or others. Hence, empathy cannot be taught, it is self-manifest. Empathy is derived from the Greek & German equivalent word Einfühlung, meaning in-feeling. It is a trait of being able to emotionally connect with not only human beings, but also with things in and around the surrounding environment.
Atithi Devo Bhava — the guest is God
Life in a village is devoid of the hustle and bustle inherent in cities. People here share a common way of life. They get into each other's day-to-day activity, cooperate and work together. You don't have a marriage in a family, it's a marriage celebrated by the village. A death in a family means that the whole village shuts down and condoles it. The elders lead by example and pass on the trait to the children. I recall my granny. Though widowed at a young age, she was independent and raised her children single-handedly. Despite all the limitations in her life, she was always generous when it came to hosting guests. Atithi Devo Bhava — the guest is God- is the traditional concept of hospitality in India. My grandmother literally followed this. Dasappas were nomads who moved from village to village singing songs praising God. People gave them alms according to their capacity and wish. My good old granny had a place even for them. They usually stayed for a day or two. She ensured that they were fed like family members. The nomads were never forced to leave. They never left empty-handed. She always sent them off with a pack of grains.
Hospitality runs in the blood
As days and years rolled on, grandma grew old, lost her movement, lost her memory, lost her ability to eat, became bed bound. It was clear to us that she was waiting for death to relieve her from this life. Her empathy did not leave her even then. It stayed with her till her last breath. I had visited her with a friend, Dr. Rekha, just before she died. My friend was a total stranger whom she had never before seen or heard of. Grandma’s first reaction on seeing my friend was “Take rest, eat something. You must be tired after your long journey”.
I was fortunate to experience this empathy towards unknown guests on another occasion. My friends Mohan, Raju, and I were in our initial days of setting up a startup - Eldomo. We were scouting for a place in Coorg for our project. Kiran, another friend, was of great support as he was a resident of Madikeri, Coorg. It was in the middle of October, we started late in the evening from Bangalore. Kiran was unable to accompany us. Mohan, Raju, and I set off from Bangalore to Coorg. We reached Madikeri around 2 am - it was dark and cold. We were shivering in the teeth-chattering cold as we walked the short distance of 100 meters from the car towards Kiran’s home. All the cold magically disappeared as we were warmly welcomed by his father Mr. Ganapathy, an ex-police serviceman. Soon we were accommodated in the guest room with warm blankets. We just crashed onto our beds and were asleep in a second. At 6 AM, boiling water was ready for bathing in a Gujarat boiler. Though it was still freezing outside, we managed to wake up and take a bath. The next moment a warm, inviting cup of coffee was ready along with a delicious breakfast. Breakfast had a lot of varieties of local Coorg cuisine, prepared by Kiran’s mom. All this was something we never expected, coming as we were, from a city like Bangalore, where people are unaware of their next-door neighbor. Mrs. & Mr. Ganapathy were so cordial, they made us feel at home. They appeared to do this effortlessly and naturally - Atithi Devo Bhava in the true sense. We have visited them several times since then. Their hospitality has never diminished. It only seems to strengthen with passing time. Questions kept arising in our minds as to what made them so cordial towards us. They were empathizing, able to understand our needs even without us expressing them verbally. Empathy was deeply embedded in the hearts of these ambassadors of hospitality.
1. Are people born with empathy or is it inherited or can it be taught? Research on the development of cognitive empathy has shown that parenting and environment both play a role in their development.
2. How to improve your level of empathy? Listening to others is a very good way of developing empathy. Attempt to understand people with differing opinions and beliefs. Treat people in the same way, irrespective of who the other person is - rich or poor, irrespective of religion or caste.
I end with this article with a meaningful quote from former President Barack Obama "The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes.