On Empathy and Apathy: Two Case Studies

  • The suffix -pathy means “feeling” or “suffering”
  • The prefix em- means “within” or “inside”
  • The prefix a- means “not” or “without”

By definition, empathy is the opposite of apathy.

Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” — within + feeling or inside + suffering.

Apathy is defined as “a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern” — not + feeling or without + suffering.

I believe empathy and apathy exist on a spectrum. The degree to which one feels the feelings of another determines whether one’s dot is plotted closer to the empathy or apathy extreme.

To have the most possible empathy (and therefore the least possible apathy) can then be described as feeling the feelings of another with the greatest accuracy and effort. On the other hand, to have the most possible apathy (and the least possible empathy) is to have no accuracy in feeling the feelings of another — to simply not try at all.

Both of these “modes of being” are contagious; by definition, they require two people to exist. Contagious means “spread from one person to another by direct or indirect contact.” One person who chooses to — or who is intrinsically disposed to (a distinction I’ll explore at a later date) — act with empathy or with apathy has the power to infect everyone around them.

I believe it is the empathy-apathy disposition spectrum that is, at the very core, responsible for creating organizational and communal culture. And it only takes one person to plant the seed.

I recently came across two stories that I think serve as terrific examples of how one person’s temperament can both create and indicate the attitudes and behaviors of their respective environments. First, an act of empathy demonstrated by Panera Bread, followed by an act of apathy demonstrated by United Airlines.

Empathy at Panera Bread

A 21-year-old college student named Brandon Cook visits his grandmother in the hospital. She is dying of cancer. She’s craving soup, but hates the hospital food. What she really wants is clam chowder from Panera.

Brandon loves his grandmother and knows she doesn’t have much time to live. Watching her die is hard every day. He wants to make her happy and knows that doing so will make him happy too. Brandon probably hasn’t eaten his grandma’s hospital food, but he can imagine how bad it is. He feels she deserves better, and he wants to give it to her.

Panera only sells their clam chowder on Fridays. Today, the day Brandon’s grandma wants clam chowder, isn’t Friday. He doesn’t want to wait to get grandma what she craves because he isn’t sure how long she has to live. Today is what matters.

Brandon calls up the local Panera and asks for the manager. He explains the situation and the manager listens. The manager is touched by the love Brandon feels for his grandma. She can imagine what it feels like to know you’re about to lose someone who means so much to you and want to make them happy in the time you have left. Though today isn’t Friday, the manager decides to go out of her way to make the clam chowder. She tells Brandon when he can come pick it up.

When Brandon arrives at the Panera in Nashua, New Hampshire, the clam chowder is waiting for him. Along with it, the manager gives him a box of cookies. The manager doesn’t know Brandon’s grandma and doesn’t know if she likes cookies, but she knows how most people feel about cookies. She can imagine that a free and unexpected box of cookies will make Brandon’s grandma even happier than a cup of on-the-wrong-day clam chowder.

Brandon is so thankful to Panera for helping him deliver clam chowder to his dying grandma. Not only did the manager go out of her way to make the soup for only one customer, she also gave him a box of cookies for free. Brandon imagines that it must have been an inconvenience to make a whole batch of soup on a day they hadn’t planned to. He also imagines that giving away free cookies isn’t commonplace at Panera. He recognizes that the manager understood his situation and felt his pain. She not only wanted to fulfill his wish, but surprise him as well. She must have really cared about him and about his grandma.

Brandon felt so moved by the kindness the Panera manager showed him and his family that he wanted to repay the favor. He wanted others to know what had transpired so that they could feel amazed and happy too. Brandon posted the Panera story on his Facebook wall for his friends to see. It was the best way he knew how to tell the story to as many of his friends as possible.

As it happened, Brandon’s mom, Gail Cook saw his wall post. She admired her son’s initiative and deep care for his grandma (her mother-in-law), and was so impressed by the kindness and generosity of the manager at her local Panera. She imagined that both Panera fans and its employees nationwide would be delighted to hear this uplifting story. Gail reposted Brandon’s wall post onto Panera Bread’s fan page.

The story spread like wildfire. Less than two weeks later, Brandon’s wall post has been liked almost 750,000 times and has received nearly 32,000 comments.

An article by the local Nashua Patch, Of Clam Chowder and Comfort Food for the Soul, identifies the Nashua manager as Suzanne Fortier. Adweek recapped the incident in How a Fan Post on Panera’s Facebook Page Got Half a Million Likes, and that link made its way to me.

When Suzanne was asked why she did it, she said that anyone at Panera would have: she “just happened to be the one to answer the phone.” This can be read two ways: (1) Panera encourages empathy for others, or (2) working at Panera, one is allowed to preserve and demonstrate one’s own innate level of empathy. I believe these go hand-in-hand. [Note: I am pleased, but not surprised, to have happened upon Panera Cares, the company’s non-profit foundation which has opened a chain of pay-what-you-can cafés around the country.]

Suzanne doesn’t want the glory. The result of empathy is intrinsic and doesn’t require validation. Instead, Suzanne thinks Brandon is the real hero; it is his devotion to his grandma that has most affected her. Gail, Brandon’s mom, feels the same way, saying that she doesn’t believe most people his age would have demonstrated the same affection.

“I think it’s so touching to other people because they are relating to the situation.”

Empathy: an ability to relate.

Brandon’s reaction to the virality:

“I totally wasn’t expecting this to take off like it has. If my grandma even knew what a Facebook page was, I’d show her…My grandmom’s biggest fear was dying with no friends. I wish I could show her how many ‘friends’ she has out there, and how many prayers people are saying for her.”

Apathy at United Airlines

A 10-year-old girl named Phoebe Klebahn is flying by herself on United Airlines from San Francisco to Grand Rapids, with a layover in Chicago, on her way to summer camp. She has plenty of time to make her connecting flight. When she lands in Chicago, no one greets her at the arrival gate. She isn’t sure what she’s supposed to do or where she’s supposed to go. Again, she’s 10 years old.

Phoebe waits for someone to find her, scared and vulnerable. She eventually approaches the agents at the gate counter to ask for help finding her next flight, but she is told to wait. The gate agents are busy helping other customers and ignore a 10-year-old girl who is traveling alone. She doesn’t have a cell phone and asks the agents if she can use their phone to call home. They again tell her she has to wait. They make her wait so long, she misses her connecting flight to Grand Rapids.

When she finally gets an agent’s attention, she asks if they can call the camp to make sure they know she missed the flight and is safe in Chicago. The agent says they will call. They never do. They don’t offer to call her parents, they don’t help her get on the next flight to Grand Rapids, they don’t ask her if she’s hungry or thirsty or needs to use the bathroom. No one helps at all.

The flight lands in Grand Rapids, and the camp folks are there to pick Phoebe up. When she doesn’t get off the flight, they worry. They had not been notified of any change in plans. They call Phoebe’s parents and ask for an update.

This is the moment when Phoebe’s parents learn she’s missing. Three hours after she has landed in Chicago. They immediately both call United Airlines in search of their daughter. Phoebe’s mother reaches a customer service rep in India who checks the manifest and says that Phoebe must still be in Chicago. “I’m sure she is fine.” She neither attempts to contact anyone in the Chicago airport to find Phoebe, nor apologizes in any way (despite it not being her fault that Phoebe is lost). When the rep offers no solutions, Phoebe’s mom asks to speak to her supervisor. She is then put on hold for 40 minutes before the supervisor takes the call.

Meanwhile, Phoebe’s father is also on the phone with United Airlines. Because he has Premier status on United’s MileagePlus program, he is connected to a United employee in the Chicago airport. When he asks why his daughter didn’t make her connecting flight to Grand Rapids, the United employee says she has no idea why and puts him on hold. She does not say whether his daughter is safe or express any concern about the nerve-wracking situation. When she gets back on the line, she informs Phoebe’s father that the outsourced unaccompanied-minor service that United Airlines pays for apparently “forgot to show up” to transfer Phoebe to her next flight. She doesn’t know why. And she still hasn’t sent anyone to find Phoebe in the airport.

Phoebe’s parents were never told, either verbally or in writing, that unaccompanied minors are not escorted by United Airlines employees, but rather that they use a third-party vendor. Ironically, they had been required to pay a $99 fee because Phoebe was traveling alone underage.

At this point they’re completely shocked that their 10-year-old has been abandoned and that no one has made any effort to locate her or comfort them. They are completely helpless. Phoebe’s dad asks the United employee if she can please go find his daughter. The United employee’s response: my shift is over and I can’t help.

Phoebe’s dad pleads with the United employee, asking if she herself is a mother. The United employee says, yes, she is. Phoebe’s dad asks what she would do if her daughter was missing. The United employee says she understands and will try to help. She puts him on hold for 15 minutes while she tracks down whomever in the airport is in contact with Phoebe. Eventually, they get her on the phone and are assured that she’s okay. Phoebe makes it to Grand Rapids on a later flight and her camp picks her up without incident. She is shaken and disturbed and far away from home, having just grown up a little bit faster after seeing the mass incompetence of dispassionate adults.

There is so much more to this story — lost luggage that took 3 days to arrive, an impossible complaint process that prevents negative feedback, United Airlines’ refusal to acknowledge the fuck-up entirely until a local NBC TV news-reporter came calling — all of which you can read along with The Klebahns’ full write-up of what transpired, in an appropriately titled post United Airlines Lost My Friend’s 10 Year Old Daughter And Didn’t Care by Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and professor of management at Stanford University.

Sutton’s background qualifies him to have a professional opinion on these events, which I found rather astute:

This is the key moment in the story, note that in her role as a United employee, this woman would not help Perry and Annie. It was only when Perry asked her if she was a mother and how she would feel that she was able to shed her deeply ingrained United indifference — the lack of felt accountability that pervades the system. Yes, there are design problems, there are operations problems, but the to me the core lesson is this is a system packed with people who don’t feel responsible for doing the right thing. We can argue over who is to blame and how much — management is at the top of the list in my book, but I won’t let any of individual employees off the hook.

Sutton’s post went viral, no surprise, and the media had a field day. In Sutton’s follow-up post, he shares the official statement from United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart:

“We reached out directly to the Klebahns to apologize and we are reviewing this matter. What the Klebahns describe is not the service we aim to deliver to our customers. We are redepositing the miles used to purchase the ticket back into Mr. Klebahn’s account in addition to refunding the unaccompanied minor charge. We certainly appreciate their business and would like the opportunity to provide them a better travel experience in the future.”

Are you as disturbed as I am? Good.

Sutton explains:

I also want to reprint United’s statement because it lacks even a hint of empathy or compassion. Note that it does not question any of the facts put forth by Annie and Perry and also note that no attempt was made to reach out to Annie and Perry until United was contacted by NBC reporter Diane Dwyer. As one executive I know explained — he is in what they call Global Services, the top 1% of United customers — even the statement is a symptom of how deep the denial is and how shallow the humanity is in the company

Even after all the bad press and public outcry, United Airlines has continued to exhibit the deepest possible apathy across the whole organization. Each employee’s actions have been consistently depraved and there is no indication that there’s any change in sight.

Phoebe’s parents have opted out of the media circus and instead have chosen to take the high-road by starting a petition to encourage widespread policy change regarding unaccompanied minors across United Airlines and the entire industry. You can read their statement in Bob Sutton’s post A Call for Change at United: A Statement from Annie and Perry Klebahn and sign their petition at Change.org.


Can one person make a difference? Yes, especially when it comes to fostering organizational culture.

Remember Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal (in size) and opposite (in direction) reaction. Empathy and apathy are two-way streets. How we choose to behave shapes the way others behave around us; how others behave around us shapes the way we behave. Apathy is a vicious circle; empathy is a virtuous one.

Both of these examples involved distressing family situations. In one case, an organization had taught its employee to act with compassion and bend the rules when she felt it was appropriate. In another case, an organization had taught its employees to act with detachment and under no circumstances deviate from protocol. In the former, the employee was empowered; in the latter, the employees were pawns.

Those who aren’t treated humanely cease to feel like human beings. Inevitably, it becomes impossible to see others as human beings worthy of being treated humanely.

When an organization treats its employees with empathy, they become capable of experiencing and imparting empathy in turn. When they receive apathy, they give it right back — to customers and colleagues alike.

It’s time to get real: where do you sit on the empathy-apathy spectrum?

What are you going to do today to change the way your organization behaves? How will you set a positive chain of events into action? How will you show you care?

Do you?

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    • says

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, Jeffrey! The juxtaposition of these two organizations helped me to see that it really does only take one person to make a difference.

  1. says

    I had heard the United Airlines story earlier and was horrified. I love the way you connected this with an opposite but equally compelling story, and the connection between the two. Thanks for sharing this, Whitney. You’ve had a heck of a lot of good posts here lately!

    • says

      Marc, thank you for your kind words and unwavering support. Let’s hope together our guidance can produce more Paneras and eliminate the Uniteds.

  2. says

    One of the best things I’ve read all week, Whitney! It just so happens Panera is my favorite (chain) restaurant. From coast to coast if I see one I know I can trust it and get wholesome food in a clean setting. And they have wi-fi! United. Sheesh. I avoid United at all costs. One of the first social media disasters: United Breaks Guitars.

    • says

      Michael, coming from you that means the world to me. Thank you! There are only two Paneras in NYC and I don’t eat much bread these days so I haven’t been a patron in ages. But my grandma was a big fan of theirs and always talked about how nice they were. That was in South Florida in the early 2000s. Goes to show that empathy is at the core of the organizational culture and has been for a very long time.

  3. says

    This is a really great post, and 2 thought provoking stories. I have sent this around to our support staff. For me really got me thinking how I personally would react in those situation.

    I also read another stories recently on a company that showed total apathy to their customers. These days they are to prevalent in our society.

  4. Tracey Halvorsen says

    You’re on a roll woman! Great post. Empathy was one of the lacking elements in the last biz I worked for, and it (or the lack of it) inspired me to start Fastspot. When an employee has something going on in their personal lives – that is the most important thing in the world to them, and they never have to worry about the company being apathetic to them. When my mom was in a bad car accident, it was the empathy of others that helped me through it, and helped me help my mom through it. When I am greeted by apathy from other human beings – my blood boils. Here’s to more empathy in general!

  5. says

    Another excellent example of your superior insights and wisdom Whitney—not to mention impeccable writing skills. This article hammers home for the importance of the empathy/apathy issue in how we treat others not only as a business owner, but how we treat our clients as designers. Very tasty food for thought indeed.

  6. says

    At the risk of backlash, am I the only one who thinks sending a 10 year old alone on a flight, especially when it requires a connection, is probably a bad idea? Of course, that’s just as apathetic as United was in the cited situation. Admittedly, I’m 25 and couldn’t be less ready for children, so there is also that bias. I’m just too paranoid about today’s world that any future children of mine that young would never fly solo. This may be a stretch, but I can’t help but be reminded of it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearance_of_Madeleine_McCann

    • says

      Your thoughts and concerns are rational, but off-topic. When applied as an answer to the problem of United not-doing what it said it would do (and generally acting irresponsible/inhumane along the way), it comes off as changing-the-subject to blaming the victim for being careless. I don’t think that’s what you intend to do. But in any case, that lets United off the hook in a big way, and as a matter of fact it’s a staple of crisis PR techniques lately. Blame the victim, save the offender.

      From what I know, a child is never really “alone” on a flight if they’re being sent via an unaccompanied adult service. As an oversimplified explanation: the employees of the airline are supposed to monitor (and be responsible for) these children in ways unlike their general inattention to the everyday adult passenger. And children who aren’t participating in such a program are not allowed to be dropped off at an airport unattended – I believe there’s supposed to be some sort of handoff to the airline. (Here’s where I would Google to get more info; otherwise just talking off the top of my head) This is a fairly common service used by a lot of customers. But many people, understandably, have never thought that there could be anything like it.

  7. says

    Great post, Whitney.
    I’m a huge fan of empathy as a core component to proper living.

    Matt C., I almost thought the same thing about negligence, but the problems occurred during the connecting flight — I assume the parents escorted her to the original flight. I’ll agree that it’s hard to imagine letting a 10-year-old take such a long flight by herself though.

  8. Let's Reframe This says

    Just as Brandon himself delivered the soup to his grandma, Phoebe’s parents themselves could have delivered their child to camp. Phoebe’s parents treated her like living air freight. They temporarily lost track of their freight—a child whom they sent away without knowing about collect phone calls, etc. What parent does that?

  9. says

    What a great post, Whitney. Everyone talks about empathy (especially lately in our industry) but few people actually hold this virtue at heart. I truly believe that everyone can make a difference. It is as simple as giving your seat to someone on the train, or helping someone pick up their dropped belongings on a busy sidewalk. You do it because you can empathize with how that person feels and because you care. Opportunities to make a difference are all around us. The choice is whether to seize the moment (happily) or to look the other way.

  10. Phyllis says

    As a mom of a daughter, I wholeheartedly agree with Matt. A 10 year-old child should not take a connecting flight alone as this situation demonstrates. The child is a victim of a very bad choice by the parents and now they are blaming others when all didn’t go as planned. Yes, the airport employees should have and could have been more empathetic. So could all of the adults in the airport. What a scary way for a child to learn she can’t depend on her parents to be parents. She should have had a cell phone at the very least (be prepared/always have a “plan B”)- but that still doesn’t make it a good decision. Once you decide to be a parent, you have to “man up” and do the job. Thank goodness nothing untoward happened to her and her parents should be thanking their lucky stars that she was okay in the end, not pointing fingers.

    I do believe that attitudes and quality of service comes from the top. If a work place, school, or even a home is dysfunctional – look to the person/people in charge. Their demeanor towards others and life reflects on and affects everyone else’s approaches to their jobs and interactions.

  11. Alex says

    This was an awesome post and gave some really great insight into how the cultures of companies spirals in either direction.

    Just wanted to comment on the unaccompanied child flying question. As a kid, I flew unaccompanied quite often to visit and stay with family during the summer, but also to get to camp a couple times. I don’t think there is anything irresponsible or uncaring about the parents doing this. It’s really expensive to fly and it doesn’t make sense for a parent to pay for two round trip tickets to somewhere they aren’t going to stay for more than a few hours. Ideally a child would be on direct flight, but given availability and where the child is flying that can be tricky. When I had layovers, I was escorted and waited in a separate area (sometimes a separate room) to wait in. I never felt like my parents didn’t care; in fact I could tell it made them nervous every time. It was pre 9/11 so my parents could walk me all the way to the gate and some one could meet me on the other side (I’ve heard you can get an exemption and still go through security with your child). I don’t think this a question of the parents not caring.

  12. Lis says

    The same scenario happened when my niece flew with a paid unaccompanied-minor escort on American Airlines, and was forgotten at Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport; she was 7 years old. The escort left her to continue on a connection with another unaccompanied minor, and the new pre-paid escort never showed up. My niece’s ordeal was resolved sooner than Phoebe’s, probably only because a family friend in Dallas decided to go to the airport to see her during the layover. But she wasn’t at her connecting gate, and no airline employee knew where she was or seemed to care. The friend found her, abandoned and forgotten, still sitting at her arrival gate, by then having missed her connecting flight. As in Phoebe’s case, the airline’s response was to refund the cost of the flight and extend an oblique apology.

    Thousands of children fly unaccompanied each year, for a wide variety of reasons, some of which are beyond the control or desires of one or both of their parents. When readers’ comments imply that the example illustrating the author’s points about apathy aren’t rightful –– because they believe the “real” problem is the parent allowing the child to fly with a paid escort –– those readers have entirely missed the point of the column. Neither Phoebe’s situation nor my niece’s are isolated cases of apathy (even just by airlines); just as the example at Panera is certainly not the only instance of empathy by that company’s employees.

  13. says

    This is a fantastic post Whitney. United’s behavior doesn’t surprise me but I’ll leave that aside for now!
    I would like to raise a question (or several). As well as showing the contrast between empathy and apathy, do these examples also illustrate a contrast between big and small enterprises (or even comparable sized firms in different industries)? Could it be that that once job roles become “commoditized” in big firms coupled with management more likely being based on control, or even a fear-based model? (I’m using ‘model’ in a non-academic term here!), it causes empathy to be devalued? If firms focus too much on managing systems and processes rather than people, I would imagine that everything becomes dehumanized and then empathy is threatened because employees have to go out on a limb to demonstrate it in any way. If you’re being paid a pittance and risk pay or shifts being taken away, or if you’re paid very well but force-fit into some artificial bell-curve, do we all more likely become very selfish and descend into automaton-behavior? Do smaller firms, especially startups, by contrast, have the luxury of maintaining focus on values thereby allowing individuals to make spontaneous decisions in accordance with the firm’s values and their own human instincts? For employees, doing something that feels right has to be balanced with the risk of disproportionate punishment – maybe a slap on the wrist might be more likely in a smaller firm where everyone knows everyone and their motives. Whereas in a large chain-of-command, the employee is a cog in a wheel and there’s always someone else competing against them?

  14. SD says

    this really made me tear up. i’m learning about empathy in my acting class and it’s just so vital in our society today. stand together or fall apart.

    big companies are modeled to make money. it’s a tragedy when people focus on that and forget each other.

  15. says

    This is an excellent article about the spectrum of empathy and the lack of it in organizations. Culture and philosophy are the most important elements of a company. Any product can be replicated, but human interaction cannot without the culture of a company being in line with caring about people.


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