Friday, June 12, 2009

Cross Cultural Empathy

Have you ever heard of Cultural Empathy? Do you know what it means? And can you do it? Can you , not only place yourself in the shoes of another person and see through their eyes, but also adopt their cultural perspective and understand why they see things the way they do?

This is one of the toughest forms of Empathy to cultivate because you are no longer within your own comfort zone when you place yourself in this type of perspective. It is completely foreign, and if you are not careful, influenced by your own opinions and prejudices (prejudices, in this case, do not necessarily mean racism, but simply the normal prejudices that are attached to your own cultural perspective) which can, in turn, taint what you are perceiving.

So lets take a look at some definitions to bring this topic into focus, shall we? And then we will look at how it really works, and an example of cultural perspective that few dare to think about in light of the war.

The Definitions

An Empath is a person who has an acute or highly developed sense of empathy. Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another's emotion and feelings and is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes".

1. Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.
2. Culture is the systems of knowledge shared by a relatively large group of people.
3. Culture is communication, communication is culture.
4. Culture in its broadest sense is cultivated behavior; that is the totality of a person's learned, accumulated experience which is socially transmitted, or more briefly, behavior through social learning.
5. A culture is a way of life of a group of people--the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
6. Culture is symbolic communication. Some of its symbols include a group's skills, knowledge, attitudes, values, and motives. The meanings of the symbols are learned and deliberately perpetuated in a society through its institutions.
7. Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand, as conditioning influences upon further action.
8. Culture is the sum of total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.
9. Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.

Cultural Perspective is the complex set of meanings, attitudes, values, and ideas belonging to a cultural group.

Cultural Universals are cultural traits that are shared by all of humanity collectively. Examples of such general traits are communicating with a verbal language, using age and gender to classify people, and raising children in some sort of family setting. No matter where people live in the world, they share these universal cultural traits. However, different cultures have developed their own specific ways of carrying out or expressing these general traits.

Cultural Empathy is the capacity, within a person, to identify with the feelings, thoughts and behavior of individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

Cultural Relativity is the suspending of one's ethnocentric judgments in order to understand and appreciate another culture. Anthropologists try to learn about and interpret the various aspects of the culture they are studying in reference to that culture rather than to their own. This provides a better understanding of how such practices as polygamy and cannibalism can function and even support other cultural traditions.

Culture Shock
occurs when feelings of confusion, distress, and sometimes depression, that can result from the psychological stress caused by the strain of rapidly adjusting to an alien culture, arise in a person. This is a common phenomenon for travelers who are totally immersed in the language and customs of another society, day and night, without a break. It is largely due to being forced to constantly experience new, unfamiliar cultural practices and traditions. Transculturating people also are likely to experience culture shock. Until the new culture becomes familiar and comfortable, it is common to have difficulty in communicating and to make frustrating mistakes. This is usually compounded by feelings of homesickness. These feelings can be emotionally debilitating. However, culture shock eventually passes for most people.

Cultural Anthropology is the scientific study of the development of human cultures based on ethnologic, ethnographic, linguistic, social, and psychological data and methods of analysis.

Cultural Anthropology is a type of anthropology that deals with human culture especially with respect to social structure, language, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology.

Cultural Anthropology is the study of contemporary and recent historical cultures all over the world. The focus is on social organization, culture change, economic and political systems, and religion. Cultural anthropology is also referred to as social or sociocultural anthropology.

Linguistics is the study of the nature, structure, and variation of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics.

Linguistics is the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language.

Mediator is one that mediates, especially one that reconciles differences between disputants.

Mediation aims to assist two (or more) disputants in reaching an agreement. Whether an agreement results or not, and whatever the content of that agreement, if any, the parties themselves determine rather than accepting something imposed by a third party. The disputes may involve states, organizations, communities, individuals or other representatives with a vested interest in the outcome.

The Empath & The Mediator

There are many definitions of Empathy and Empath on the internet, beyond that which is listed above. Not to mention lists of traits, characteristics, benefits and shortcomings. But one of the few abilities within the scope of Empathy that is rarely mentioned is the ability to be a natural mediator or peace keeper. And when it is mentioned, it is more or less a footnote in comparison with the other things listed.

Mediator, as stated above, is one that mediates, especially one that reconciles differences between disputants. Trained Mediators use appropriate techniques and/or skills to open and/or improve dialogue between disputants, aiming to help the parties reach an agreement on the disputed matter. Normally, all parties must view the Mediator as impartial. During mediation, the Mediator attempts to foster empathy between two disputing parties, in the hopes of finding a common ground upon which both parties can find mutual understanding.

From this point, it is important to understand how a mediator does this, because it takes a very specialized skill to make this type of thing possible. A Mediator must possess the ability to see from multiple perspectives, from the perspectives of disputants and from a more neutral perspective uninfluenced by personal prejudices and opinions, at any given moment during the process of mediation. And this specific skill, is what those who are Empathic can bring to the table.

Does this mean that all Empaths are Mediators? No. Does this mean that all Mediators are Empaths or are predisposed to possessing an empathic nature? No. It simply means that this skill, which a Mediator should possess to a certain degree or another, exists within many Empath's as well, which tends to make them natural Mediators, even without training.

The Empath & The Cultural Anthropologist

In the Empathic Process it is important to possess the ability to see from different perspectives. And this process can happen on many different levels. One of those levels is called Cultural Empathy, by which a person sees another culture through the eyes of those within that culture, instead of through the eyes of an outsider who will see and judge things based on their own cultural perspective and prejudices.

A Cultural Anthropologist is one such person who attempts to do this as they study different cultures. Cultural Anthropology , as stated above,is a type of anthropology that deals with human culture especially with respect to social structure, language, law, politics, religion, magic, art, and technology. These things could not truly be understood if one approached them through another culture's perspective, because they would be judging one culture by another culture's standards. This in turn, would cause the perception of the other culture to be tainted with personal prejudices based on their own cultural perspective.

A good example of this kind of tainted perception is to look at how certain Native American tribes were seen and the opinions formed of them, by those who came from Europe during the mass migration of Anglo Saxon people to North America. Because they appeared as a less advanced culture, they were seen as savages whose belief systems were denigrated through comparisons to devil/demon worship. They were also seen as blood thirsty animals who would rape any white woman they found and who would butcher men, women and children alike, simply to collect a scalp.

These tainted perceptions, were based in large part on stories and rumors, and not real world experience. As well, they were based on prejudicial cultural and religious perceptions, from white supremacy to religious superiority, which were already in place through European encounters with African cultures, which were viewed in a similar light.

The people that encountered these diverse cultures judged them through their own cultural perception, and found them lacking. And did not take the time to discover the richness of depth that was unique to each of those individual cultures.

This is what a Cultural Anthropologist attempts to do, in that they seek to learn about the culture from the viewpoint of the culture, instead of through their own tainted perception.

In seeing the difference between people with a tainted perception and people who seek to understand a culture though that culture's own perception, you begin to discover what cultural empathy truly is and to what depths it truly goes to.

But even if one does not take it to such depths, as an Empath, you still possess the ability to see through another person's eyes, particularly if they are of a different culture, religion, or ethnicity, to understand them from their own point of view.

The Empath & The Linguist

A Linguist is a person who specializes in linguistics, is accomplished in languages, and speaks several languages. Linguistics, as stated above, is the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language.

The importance of understanding the nuances of any given language, is that it offers up a unique perspective through which one can view and understand a culture. When one speaks a language fluently they can take part in conversations that they might have been excluded from before, simply because they could not understand the more subtle meanings of a conversation which could only be read beneath the surface of that verbal exchange.

So this too becomes an important piece in understanding a different culture in all of its subtitles, because language helps to mold and shape a culture through the commonality of the shared words of a single language.

Cultural Empathy In Perspective

In this section, I am going to offer up an example of Cultural Empathy, through something called perspective writing, which means it is written from a perspective that is foreign and little considered by the Western World:

Footprints In the Bloodied Sand

She awoke from her slumber to another bright and arid morning amidst the surrounding dunes of sand and the tall rocky mounds that strained to reach toward the heavens without ever succeeding. She quickly and quietly dressed herself in a gown of pale blue material that enshrouded her from head to toe, while the slumbering forms of her husband and children slept on in their beds. After dressing, she knelt down on a small woven reed mat to give thanks to Allah for the new day. And when the alloted time for prayer had elapsed, she rose to set about her days work, for her days were filled with the needs of her husband and of her children.

An hour passed as she prepared the meal that her family would eat. And in that time the two daughters of her family rose to help in preparing the meal and readying their home for the time when their father and their brothers would awaken.

And finally, when the men arose, and they had finished dressing and giving thanks to Allah in prayer, as the women had done before them, they sat to their meal and began discussions of the days happenings and coming events.

In the space of a moment her husband's eyes met hers in a loving smile of thanks and acknowledgment. And if one was not paying attention, they certainly would have missed the way the husband's affections softened his face and crinkled the skin around his dark eyes. But the children saw, and the children knew, for the two sisters looked at one another and smiled.

As the discussion continued, it turned to the impending arrival of a celebration that filled all of them with exuberant excitement and expectation. For the coming event was the advent of their cousin's eldest son's wedding to a young woman from a neighboring town. It was also their cousin's first opportunity to give such a celebration since his own wedding of many years ago. It was going to be a joyous occasion filled with family, friends, food and much laughter. And it is needless to say, that all of those who sat around the small table that morning were caught up in the excitement of the coming event.

When the morning meal had ended and the men had set out for another days labor to earn another day's wage, the mother and her daughters, with two small boys in tow, began the happy discussions of what they would each where to the evenings festivities. They each in turn held up fabric after fabric of gauzy silken materials to examine them for rips and breaks in the delicate threading. that would need mending before nightfall. The small boys chased one another around their mother's feet as the women sat to their mending and discussion.

It was in that moment that eerie sounds reached their ears from outside. So they rushed out to see what the cause was, and there they saw planes flying overhead and they knew that the invaders had come. And as they stood, mesmerized by the sight of the planes, explosions began to erupt about the city, throwing people into chaos and shaking the very ground upon which they stood.

The women began to scream as they ran to pick up the two small boys who had wandered a short distance away. The two sisters reached them first and scooped up the children into their arms. The mother stopped, short of breath, but sure that her boys were safe in her two daughter's arms. And there she stood, with planes flying overhead and people running for shelter in the chaos, as a bomb fell on the street before her and exploded as she watched helplessly. It erupted where her children stood, sending each of them flying in separate directions. And then the bursting and flaring waves of heat, fire, and blood reached the mother, knocking her to the ground as it scorched her clothing and her flesh in unison.

When her husband, who had seen the planes and heard the bombs, reached his home, he found his wife in the street, barely clinging to life and weeping. He held her to his chest, as she moaned and cried incoherently, and turned to survey the carnage. And to his horror, he saw what little remained of his children scattered about the road, littering it like garbage. The sand was drenched in blood, and he sat, defeated, and weeping tears that he did not even realize he shed. Anger and sorrow, stronger than any he had ever felt, mingled within him and the seeds of vengeance were planted for another day. But now, now he held his wife's limp body in his arms, unseeing, in shock. Now his heartbeat drowned out the wailing cries of the injured and those left who had found their loved ones' bodies. In that moment his world ended, ceasing to exist. And for what, he wondered, as violent cries of sorrow finally broke from his lips combining with the multitude of other people's sorrow. For what, indeed?

Author's Notes: This is a story of someone's family who is lost to us within the hot arid desert of what seems like another world. But is this world really as foreign, as alien, to us as we believe? We each go about our daily lives working, marrying, loving our families, in the attempt to give our children a brighter future, never expecting terror to come to our shores. Is this world really so foreign? Are their children any less deserving than ours? Or in a world as diverse as our own, where the peoples of every nation are multiplying by the day, is it the color of your skin and the religion you follow that defines your worthiness? In this world of power, wealth, and privilege centered on a very select few who control the world's economy and wield the power of the nuclear bomb, we are all interconnected on the tidal wave of someone else's whim, be it soldiers who follow orders, the people of a conquered nation, or the citizens of a nation that slowly chips away at their rights and freedoms. At the end of the day, what does it really matter who hurt who first, when countless lives are lost on whichever front you stand on? The blood of ours and theirs runs just as red and mingles in the sand.

My words are not written nor meant to advocate any one religious group or a jahad. They merely offer up an alternative perspective that is to little seen in our country. The effects of war take their toll on the conquered as well as the conquerors. And while this particular story is a work of fiction, it is written to make the reader think.

Cross Cultural Empathy

As an Empath, what will you do when you come upon people from lands that are foreign to you? Will you try in earnest to understand their culture, even if it is vastly different from your own, or will you be one of those who casts stones of judgment on them? In this day and age, this is a very important subject to consider. So think about it.

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