Empathy, Culture and the Words You Use
In the many scales that exist about characterizing one's personality, be it Myers Briggs or Process Com, i inevitably fall under the "empathic" or "feeling" type. I guess no matter how many of these tests I'd take, this will always be the main streak in my character. I feel first, thought and reason come second. I value too, but that's for another blogpost. It is both the bane of my existence, and a strength I've learned to use in communication with others.
I've lived in the United States for two years. And there is one thing that I really haven't managed to this day to understand, or rather, to come to terms with, it's what I would characterize as superficial empathy. I observed North Americans quite a bit, and in my observations, I often came across people who use and overuse a tone, or words, which want themselves to be empathic, but which simply don't touch me. The use, or rather overuse, of "I love", "I like", "you are great" and other positive sounding wording just does not sound right to my empathic ears.
First, with people I don't know. I came with the idea of this blogpost while reading a blog where the blogger answered most comments (which I think is good) by praising the person who commented, their thoughts and thanking them. The thanking I find great, I think we never thank enough. The praising however, after the first three comments, struck me as a fake calculated tactic to make people "feel good". Except just reading those answers made me feel uncomfortable. Too much love spoils the love, I would say. To some extent, reading these comments in a row made me feel as if the author was putting everyone on the same level. If I'm being great, somehow, in my mind's eye, it must be because I am to some extent "better" than others. Maybe I have the wrong scale here, but I want to feel special. Not part of a chain-letter type answer to my commentary which puts me on a par with everyone else. Praising is good too, don't get me wrong. I also find we don't praise enough. But I guess I have a limit. It's a bit like eating caviar everyday. After a while, you don't realize that it's a special thing anymore. North Americans, I find, do that a lot (again, this is a generalization and not all North Americans, but it is a trend I have noticed there and in no other country I have visited or lived in). And frankly there comes a time I don't believe this appreciation any more. To me, it end up being a fake varnish of appreciation, which might work for a while, but ends up losing all kind of reality. Mind you, I suppose if you read just the one comment addressed to you, you'd probably feel good. But reading all of them in a row made me pause. If I wrote a comment there, and the author praised it, I would not really feel as if their words were sincere. I sincerely believe this is a very cultural thing, maybe because the French are rather stingy with praise, I don't know.
Second, with people I know. I guess here the clash comes between what I have come to know of the person, and what their words are trying to say. Example: a colleague I worked with, whom I know for a fact has absolutely no empathy whatsoever in everyday life, or in their job, but who acts in public as if they were the most empathic people in the world, appealing in their external communication to understanding, loving each other and other empathic whatnots. I guess that's even worse than the first. Again, I've only experienced this with North Americans (or could-be North Americans), and in English. I find it extremely disturbing (and here I mean it in a very physical way) to read someone's words with the knowledge that they can't possibily be "feeling" any of those words. They might "think" those words, but they don't "feel" them. And "thinking" words of love and empathy just does not cut it. Empathy comes with the heart, not with the brain. It can't be a surface thing, like a heart milk on a coffee. For the overly feeling person I am, it ends up looking like a scary propaganda tactic designed to blind people as to what the real deal is all about. It's a bit like sugar coating the bitter cake to make it taste better. Again, it's fake. And often, unfortunately, makes me miss the point of their words and try and find the catch. Which definitely isn't a good way of taking in an attempt at communicating, I guess.
I wonder if I'm the only one reading those people and feeling the same way. So I ask you, have you come across people whose words of love and empathy you could just not relate to? Do you feel/think it might have to do with culture and/or language?
- Lara604, Latte Heart 2 , March 24, 2009, on Flickr, CC-BY-SA 2.0