They say that empathy, along with the ability to view the world through someone else's eyes, is vital in intercultural communication. But what is empathy?
It’s true that empathy involves understanding the world from another's viewpoint, which is not the same as placing oneself in their situation. No, I’m talking about truly seeing through their eyes.
Take, for instance, you being vegetarian and I’m not. We come to a soirée where you can eat only Barbajuans. If I try to put myself in your shoes, I might unhelpfully suggest, "Get a blini with salmon, I’m sure you’ll like it, it’s just a fish!"
But seeing through another's eyes means to empathize with how their vegetarian lifestyle makes sense to them. The phrase "If I were you, I would..." becomes irrelevant. Empathy is about a deep, shared understanding.
"Is trying to see the world through another's eyes akin to mind reading?" a skeptical reader might ask. Indeed, it's a challenging and subtle endeavor, and it becomes even more complex within the confines of different cultures.
I will give you an example from my life. I belong to a group of French/Monegasque colleagues with whom I share a musical hobby. About a year ago, we gathered in Paul's office to decide roles for a concert — determining who would sing, who would play what role, who would manage the concert, the venue, and even the number of performances. We distributed music sheets and then parted ways. This was followed by sporadic rehearsals, with people singing, playing, and new individuals joining the group — the group dynamics evolving with each gathering, and some not participating at all.
Then, a few weeks ago, Rob (another active member) sent a message in our chat: "This is impossible!! We must make this project happen, define it, meet, discuss, and select the songs!!"
At that moment, a close friend, of Russian origin, showed a blatant lack of empathy and a total failure to appreciate the French perspective. He replied in the chat: "Are you joking? We decided all this a year ago..." among other things. His temperament and cultural code lack the patience to accept that a year later, we needed to 'gather and discuss everything once more.'
He was visibly irritated but also realized that it was entirely an intercultural issue. Rob needed a process of discussion, to revisit the issue. Alexei aspired to be empathetic, but struggled to find the energy and distance to overcome his annoyance.
This is crucial to grasp. More effort is required for intercultural comprehension and the exercise of empathy.
There are times when we deem certain behaviors meaningless. Overcoming irritation in such situations is notably challenging. Is it possible to consciously choose to be empathetic? To learn empathy?
Unfortunately, empathy isn't always automatic. It's effortless to sympathize when we watch Breakfast at Tiffany's and see Miss Golightley in the rain embracing her cat. Some can even cry tears watching this moving moment. But how to extend that sympathy to something we find repugnant? How to empathize with long decision-makers, with those who need a spoon to eat pasta, with people who are too talkative, with those who come too close to you? How to empathize when our instinct is to avoid the experience, rather than be open to the cultural expressions of others?
Our empathetic response depends on our motivation. Yes, we can feel for that person scratching their bare heel in the seat opposite us, but this complex emotion requires a journey—experiencing and reflecting on cultural experiences, feeling for other people. Empathy is intricate work.
Cultural empathy isn't about simply deciding to be nice; it must be learned. It's a time-consuming process that starts with understanding ourselves. Then, we understand the cultural logic of a person (my friends need a process of debate throughout a project's implementation. Without discussion, their interest wanes), and then we develop a new pattern of response.
The best way to comprehend cultural logic is to study intercultural communications. Welcome to La Classe.
P.S.: Living within a culture doesn't guarantee an accurate understanding of it.