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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    I'm not sure philosophical arguments about the impossibility of free will in a deterministic neurochemical system are strictly on topic here. You might be better off directing those questions to a dedicated stack exchange site, if there is one, or to a suitable subreddit, or to a semi-comatose stranger at the end of a party, as is traditional. – Useless Aug 21 '15 at 13:46
  • And yes, it would be amazing if you could get some scientific insight by asking rambling questions on wholly unsuitable sites :) – Useless Aug 21 '15 at 13:47
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    It has nothing to do with dopamine, nor does it mean "be more empathetic" (meaning to share another's feelings). It means, "Look at things from the other guy's point of view." This can be taken literally (maybe if you stand where he is you'll see something important that you're now overlooking, eg), or more figuratively, and it may result in you appreciating the feelings of the other guy, but the metaphor does not require that. – Hot Licks Aug 21 '15 at 21:34
  • "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!" – John Lawler Jul 28 '16 at 3:28

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:

  • put oneself in another’s shoes
  • put oneself in another’s place
  • walk a mile in someone else’s shoes
  • see the world through someone else’s eyes

Support for the hypothesis of independent invention can be found in how often equivalent refrains occur in other languages. For example:

  • German: eine Meile in seinen Schuhen gehen
  • French: se mettre à la place de quelqu’un, se mettre à ma/ta/sa place
  • Italian: mettersi nei miei panni
  • Spanish: ponerse en los zapatos del otro, ponerse en mis/tus/sus zapatos, ponerse en el lugar de alguien, ponerse en mi/tu/su lugar

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.

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    To stand in someone's shoes "see things from his or her point of view" is attested from 1767. etymonline.com/index.php?term=shoe&allowed_in_frame=0 . As for the Italian, "mettersi nelle scarpe di qualcuno" is a very rare expression. "Mettersi nei panni (clothes) di qualcuno" is the expression used. – user66974 Aug 21 '15 at 20:57

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.

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    When I was a kid, the expression was “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his moccasins” and it was supposedly an Indian expression, although how or why an Indian would use "mile" as the measure I don't know, and I have also found it as "until you have walked two moons in his moccasins” online, which makes more sense. I remember the first time I heard it as "a mile in his shoes" (around 1972) and thinking that I was an odd Europization of the phrase. – Malvolio Aug 21 '15 at 15:07

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

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  • Year? What is the date of publication? – Mari-Lou A Feb 26 '17 at 20:20

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...)

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