Emerging Empathy

Reviewed By

In The Chairs Are Where the People Go, Shelia Heti and Misha Glouberman explore all topics that Glouberman cares about, including feeling like a fraud, seeing John Zorn play Cobra, and asking a good question.

Misha Glouberman is hard to label. He teaches classes on playing charades, hosts a series of lectures by amateurs, and runs “unconferences” that focus on mingling. The front of his new book of essays, The Chairs Are Where the People Go, co-written with Sheila Heti, offers three vague descriptors: “performer, facilitator, and artist.”

On the surface, this book is just as unclassifiable. Its origin story, printed as an introduction, is quaint: Heti and Glouberman were friends and former collaborators. She convinced him to help her write “a book of everything he knows.” The two spent a few months of mornings sitting and drinking coffee, Glouberman riffing as Heti transcribed, and the essays that emerged cover topics from Glouberman’s undergraduate education at Harvard to guidelines for improvisational acting.

The subject matter is charmingly random; the voice, whimsical and conversational—appropriately, since the book is Glouberman’s transcribed speech. One of the chapters is entitled “Seeing My Friends Drunk for the First Time”; another, “Making the City More Fun for You and Your Privileged Friends Isn’t a Super-Noble Political Goal.” Snappy and relatable. In the introduction, Heti writes that Glouberman is her “very good friend,” and the book is enough to spark envy.

But a seemingly scattershot collage would fall apart without glue, and this book in no way unravels. Underlying the amoebic subject matter is a strong ethos: that empathy is a means to most every end. The word “empathy” never actually appears, but in essay after essay, Glouberman offers a blueprint for the practice of imagining, understanding and valuing other people’s perspectives. This central thread not only unites the book, but also gives it resonance. It’s a meaty read, concealed inside a light package. Like a dumpling.

The message is most blatant in the essays on life as a young city-dweller. Glouberman lives in Toronto, and the book’s longest piece describes a drawn-out dispute between the Residents’ Association, which Glouberman founded, and the owners of a restaurant with a disruptive bar business. The conflict escalates when the restaurant makes plans to open a patio, which would bring the noise into the street (and right next to Glouberman’s apartment). But at the end of the essay—which manages to remain captivating and tense through pages of intricacies—the two sides reach a mutually beneficial conclusion. Instead of blocking the patio, which might antagonize the bar owners and discourage them from turning down their music, the parties agree on a small patio with a dinner business that will supplant the bar business. Each side worked to understand the other’s needs and got something even more palatable than a win.

The application of the empathy principle gets more interesting in the essays about the improv games Glouberman teaches. Pieces like “How to Teach Charades” and “The Gibberish Game” describe exercises that are practice sessions in stepping outside of your own mind. In the Conducting Game, for example, you walk around a room with a bunch of people, making noises. If you want to be conducted—that is, make noises in response to someone else’s movements—you point to yourself, and another player comes over to gesture at you for a minute or so. The conductor should “trust that the person you’re conducting is great at what they do and is going to make great sounds. Know that the gestures will be interpreted as having meanings that you do not intend—that’s okay.” The conductee “should respond to the emotional content in the conducting and ascribe as much meaning as possible to every component of their gestures—their facial expression, whether or not their fingers are curved.” The challenge is to interpret sonic or body language that you couldn’t possibly know, because someone else has made it up. If you can do that, communicating thoughtfully in a common language seems easy.

Glouberman’s impressive ability to devise games that push actors out of their own brains is matched by his intuitions about audiences. The title essay offers the kind of realization that is obvious only in retrospect: when you’re arranging chairs for a show, think about what the audience needs. For a reading, don’t take up space with large tables up front and have the majority of people stand in the back: “You’re pretty much intentionally designing things so that a lot of people will find the reading boring.” These people might talk, too, ruining the experience for everyone else. But for a concert, you want talking and mingling, so standing room is great. The same instinct is applied to plays (close seating in the dark is fine) versus interactive shows (people need to see each other, so a bit of lighting and seats in a quarter-circle in front of the stage are best).

If empathy is the ability to vicariously understand another person’s mindset, its opposite is narcissism: the inability to do so. And narcissism abounds. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb charges that upper-middle-class American twenty-somethings are more apt to be insecure (and thus seek out therapy) than ever before. The major reason: their parents, intent on raising happy children who experience no discomfort, forgot that frustration is a necessary and important part of growing up—and that their kids’ definitions of contentment might differ from their own. These twenty-somethings—“Generation Y”—are charged with narcissism just as readily. And our federal government’s bickering exemplifies, in an instance too obvious and pathetic to discuss in depth, an inability (or refusal) to explore other perspectives.

The ethos that emerges from The Chairs Are Where the People Go—and I say “emerges” because it is only ever implicit—offers a possible way out of America’s inwardly focused mess. Glouberman and Heti never admonish or direct, but as a reader, seeing empathy in practice is helpful and encouraging—even, and maybe especially, if it’s demonstrated through an improv game.

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City. She's contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and The Atlantic Cities, among other places. More from this author →