Riana Betzler brought us a nice reflection on how at least a large part of us felt empathy for one another during these pandemic times. She pointed out how difficult it is to clearly state what empathy is. There is indeed a lot of disagreement on the matter. But if we want to advance in talking about empathy (which seems much needed not only in our current times, but for some decades now), we need to find some ground to agree on the meaning of the word. Riana proposes, then, a rough-and-ready definition that tracks contemporary thinking about it, in the empirical literature and everyday discourse: empathy is the ability to feel with other people — to feel what other people are feeling. She adds that such a feeling with also breeds understanding, gives us knowledge about the other person’s situation. She develops an interesting argument from this definition, which those reading this post can see by checking her previous post in the ISHPSSB blog.

I would like to bring to the discussion a concept that has become increasingly important in my current work, but which I had just began to deal with. It is for me a good exercise, then, to share some thoughts about it. This concept is ‘intercultural empathy’, which raises controversy in the literature on intercultural communication,[1] but is rather relevant when we think on the building of empathy across different communities, societies, peoples, cultures, as a time like the one we are living challenges us to do.

Empathy is often treated in fields like psychology and counseling as a personality trait, as diverse forms of ability (for instance, the ability to accurately predict internal states of others, to assume the role of others in cognitive terms, of communicating so as to reach a sense of understanding of the other), and as emotional identification.[2] However, if conceived this way ‘empathy’ is not very fruitful to tackle intercultural situations, due to obvious difficulties of accurate perception and/or assuming the role or place of the other. Much of the debate around the concept in intercultural communication derives from this difficulty. If it is not evident how we can put ourselves in someone else’s shoes when we share the same cultural background, it is even less so when we are considering people coming from other sociocultural realities.

A critical perspective on the so-called Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” — paved the way to advances in elaborating an understanding of empathy apt to deal with intercultural situations.[3] This rule is committed to a similarity assumption, namely that others are just like us and want to be similarly treated. However, this implies the idea of a shared absolute sense of reality, it brings us dangerously close to ethnocentrism. Bennett proposes, then, a replacement to the Golden Rule, which he calls the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they themselves would have done unto them”. From this perspective, empathy is not so much about projecting ourselves onto the other, or the other onto ourselves. Rather, empathy becomes fundamentally participatory, or, in Bennett’s words, empathy becomes “the imaginative intellectual and emotional participation in another person’s experience”.[4]

In these terms, we locate empathy in relationships among individuals. A notion of situated, relational empathy can then be built, according to which empathy emerges in the relationships themselves. In this sense, empathy is not had by anyone, but it comes to be in-between individuals. The dialogical notion of betweenness, as belonging to the nature of empathy, can be framed by the idea of a ‘third-culture’ that can be understood, supported, and defended by all who shared its development, that is, who worked together in “the construction of a mutually beneficial interactive environment in which individuals from two different cultures can function in a way beneficial to all involved”.[5] Conceived in these terms, empathy is meaning-productive, as much as it is relational. It emerges from a participation in the experience of one another that is not only intellectual, but also — and fundamentally — affective, making it possible to coexist and co-learn despite our differences, no matter how radical they are.

Empathy in this sense is much necessary in our world today. It may help us build together the knowledge and practices needed to overcome the pressing and concurrent crises we are living through. It demands, however, that we become capable of truly participating in the experiences of each other. To do so, it is no doubt we need to reinvent ourselves as another kind of beings than what we have been up to now.

All the situations we are currently living should open our eyes for this need. As I write this, I am not very sure this will happen. It seems we are moving towards going back to ‘normal’, that exact normal that brought us to the worst socio-environmental crises we might imagine in our wildest dreams. It seems that all around people are thinking that some minor adjustments in our way of living will do. Worse than that, actions seem to be going in this direction, despite much talk about becoming ‘green’. These adjustments will do… until the next pandemic or worse… As the Indigenous leader Ailton Krenak has been wisely insisting, we are having the chance of thinking of a new mankind.[6] Turning back the page does not seem an equally wise option.

Charbel N. El-Hani
Institute of Biology, Federal University of Bahia, Brazil.
Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.
National Institute of Science and Technology in Interdisciplinary and Transdisciplinary Studies in Ecology and Evolution (INCT IN-TREE), Brazil.

[1] DeTurk, S. (2001). Intercultural empathy: Myth, competency, or possibility for alliance building? Communication Education, 50(4): 374–384.

[2] Broome, B. J. (1991). Building shared meaning: Implications of a relational approach to empathy for teaching intercultural communication. Communication Education, 40: 235–249.

[3] Bennett, M. J. (1979). Overcoming the golden rule: Sympathy and empathy. In D. Nimmo (ed.), Communication yearbook 3 (pp. 407–422). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

[4] Bennett (1979), p. 418.

[5] Casmir, F. L. (1999). Foundations for the study of intercultural communication based on a third-culture building model. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23: 91–11 (p. 92).

[6] Krenak. A. (2020). Uma nova humanidade. Available at: https://www.uol.com.br/ecoa/reportagens-especiais/o-mundo-pos-covid-19-15---espiritualidade-e-natureza-por-ailton-krenak (in Portuguese)