I hear this term everywhere I go and from almost everyone I meet. I know this means to be more empathetic.
I wonder why this expression was even coined and what was its origin?
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Proverbs as obvious as this one are unlikely to have a unique origin. As metaphors go, they’re completely transparent. Even if an earliest written citation could be pinpointed, it probably wouldn’t be the one all later uses derived from. It’s such a simple, everyday expression that probably many people have independently “invented” it on their own.
This probably accounts for why so many closely related variants identical in sentiment coëxist happily:
Support for the hypothesis of independent invention can be found in how often equivalent refrains occur in other languages. For example:
It’s probably not the case that one of those is the origin of the English refrain, nor vice versa. Those versions probably all arose independently without reference to the English versions. It’s sentiment that transcends any particular culture of language.
In Folklore Unbound: A Concise Introduction, author Sabra Webber calls this one a common folk saying:
Proverbs a community shares can encourage members to see a situation differently, and proverbs carry the weight of communal wisdom. If my mother-in-law and I start criticizing someone, she often stops herself to say, “We can’t really judge her unless we walk a mile in her shoes.” The common folk saying, “Before criticizing a man, walk a mile in his shoes” might echo the point of a folktale, be found in a sound, or be changed, so that the speaker might say, “Walk a mile in my shoes” thus claiming his critics have neglect the old folk saying that should be invoked on his behalf.
According to this planetofsuccess blog the expression is of Cherokee origin:
The earliest traces [...] of the proverb date back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans, who said “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”.
The author then claims Harper Lee popularized the concept in To Kill a Mockingbird, writing:
“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1960
The blog then delves deeper into the meaning of empathy and how to achieve it - so it seems it answers the more philosophical part of the question as well.
I'm not saying this is the origin of the idiom, "putting oneself in someone else's shoes" but you be the judge....
Ruth 4:7-8 in the Bible state, “And this was formerly done in Yisra’ĕl concerning redeeming and exchanging, to confirm every word: one man took off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was a witness in Yisra’ĕl. So the redeemer said to Bo‛az, “Buy it for yourself.” Then he took off his sandal.” Ruth 4:7-8 TS2009
To simplify: I believe the original expression (now shortened) was, "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes." This means, if you could live their life for a period of time, you would be able to see things from their perspective.
(As far as origin: I'm looking... apparently it's not biblical... I'll try folk-songs next...)