Does empathy translate?

Since I started my post on what I do to forgive myself, empathy has been big on my mind. Part of this has been self-centered — I have always been seen as (and consider myself to be) deeply empathic. I believe the ability to empathize is twofold, being both a natural capacity and an action. I have a natural capacity to empathize with people — I feel the pain I believe others are feeling, and I read between the lines of almost every interaction I have with people. I find it fairly easy, in this way, to identify with the people around me and to have that available as something to factor into my decision-making.

Empathy is also action. Offering someone empathy can look like telling them you understand what they are feeling. It can look like telling someone their feelings are valid. It can look like helping meet a need they have (whether expressed or not). It can look like voting for people who want to enact legislation that eases unfair, systemic burdens and brutality. It can look like imagining what someone might be going through. Empathy can be very active, and probably should be active to some degree if we think empathy to be good. (Not everyone does!)

All of this — the ability to pick up on what someone else is feeling and acting in response to that perception of others — is bound to culture. I’m able to identify what is behind certain cues because my culture and upbringing taught me to tie those cues to certain emotional states. A raised voice means angry. A certain movement of the hands means fearful. A movement of the eye signals doubt. These signs are not universal (though some facial expressions seem to be!) and I recognize them in part because I have a strong natural capability to pick up on even tiny cues, but also because I was taught from a young age which cues go with which emotions.

In a recent leadership course through work, we read about some studies on the way different cultures communicate, and what each culture means by those behaviors, in the workplace. Certain cultures are more direct, others indirect. Certain cultures believe a rigorous debate of overlapping, loud voices signals respect for the ideas and people, while others believe calm, orderly debate is more respectful. The same cue (a raised voice) signals something entirely different (respect vs. disrespect) depending on the culture.

Of course, actions are cultural, as well. We are raised to “know” which emotions are best met with what action, or what underlying need an emotional expression is, well, expressing. In the workplace, if someone is feeling insecure about an upcoming presentation and asks to run through it with you, here in the U.S. we’re taught the best way to meet that need is to offer a praise, a criticism, and a praise. In other cultures, only criticism would be helpful. In other cultures, only praise would be offered (though the way that praise is given would communicate what changes need to be made).

(I think the differences and similarities in the way different cultures approach empathy is most profoundly seen in cultural practices around death and mourning. So many seem to involve food, but the other details vary widely.)

All of which leads me to wonder… would I be so strongly empathic if I were born and raised in another culture? Does my natural ability to “connect the dots” translate across different cue-emotion connections?

I struggled quite a bit interpersonally when we first moved to Hawai’i, and I think part of why I struggled was that my empathy was all out of whack. It was assuming emotions that were not behind the cues I saw, and I was often confused and a little panicked. I was struggling to connect and to feel like I fit and was at one point called an “ice queen” by someone in my office. That comment devastated me, because I saw myself as working hard to please people and understand how to “be” in this new place.

In a lot of ways, I don’t blame the people I met when I first got to Hawai’i. They were doing the best they could, I was doing the best I could, and we both made mistakes and missteps that were hurtful but probably to-be-expected. They didn’t work as hard as they could have to empathize with me, and I let my own feelings of fear and insecurity cloud my ability to empathize with them. To be honest, I believe people in Hawai’i should be less inclined to work to empathize with incoming haoles and that haoles should work the harder to calibrate their empathy with the cues and emotions of Hawai’i because of so many things, mostly the history of devastating colonialism across the islands. So my point here is not to criticize them, but to realize that the quality of being an empathic person does not necessarily translate across cultures.

My strong, innate ability to connect cues and emotions goes everywhere I go, but those connections need to be relearned (or built upon) everywhere I go. I can’t assume that the actions I took in my home town that are experienced as empathic will be received as empathy in a different place. In fact, in new-to-me cultures, these ill-fitting actions will reveal my empathy to be what it actually always has been — my beliefs about what the other person is feeling. Empathy at heart is about the person perceiving; it can tell us something true of the other person, but only by accident. To rely on our empathy (as I have often done) can actually have the detrimental effect of us not really seeing the other person at all. We can get so wrapped up in what we perceive and believe that we miss what the other person is actually telling or showing us about herself.

So perhaps to stay empathy, empathy must be translated for each individual across cultures, lest it devolve into egocentrism.

And nobody ever will…

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