Cultural Empathy

You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.John Steinbeck

There should be no Us versus Them – We all can work towards a world where it is Just Us – together. When I talk to my children, I am so proud to hear them express their view of the world. Getting to know the younger generations gives me hope. Yes, there are greedy, selfish people in any generation, but there are much fewer in theirs than in mine. Perhaps the barriers between cultures are wearing down. It is my hope that the walls that separate one group from another truly are breaking down. Due to many factors, such as: international travel, business, immigration people are having to interact more with people from different cultures. Because of this cultural empathy is spreading throughout the world.

During my dozen years teaching in China, I think I learned as much from my students, or more, than they learned from me. This was due partially to cultural empathy. Perhaps I was more invested in understanding my students’ lives, because I was married and had an extended family. I had a rapport with my students that most teachers never developed. For whatever reasons: they were not there long enough or did not know how to devote the time, their relationship with students and the local culture never developed very deeply. I never felt superior to anyone because I am from a so-called “more developed” country. Okay, I admit during my first few months living in China, I did go through a culture shock meltdown or two. But, my comfort increased as my cultural empathy grew.

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone who is going through difficulties. Empathy requires a person to actually feel what others are feeling. We experience the feelings of others by appreciating their life. This understanding can lead to compassion. Compassion is to recognize the suffering of others and then take action to help. And it is compassion that we all need right now. Today talking with my daughter, her innate compassion for others shined through her voice. This is true with all three of my children, and with so many of my former students. They sincerely take to heart the feelings of others and want to help relieve suffering. In this way, their sweet empathy and compassion sets an example for me to follow as I “mature” and smooth more of the rough spots in my character.

New Research has shown that human beings from cultures around the world share around 70% of their facial expressions in the same social and emotional contexts. In a study of cross-cultural empathy scientists have shown there is a certain level of universality to human emotions. The study showed a connection worldwide between sixteen common facial expressions in similar contexts. Researchers analyzed the facial expressions used in six million videos from 144 countries. They found similarities around the world when people express: amusement, anger, awe, concentration, confusion, contempt, contentment, desire, disappointment, doubt, elation, interest, pain, sadness, surprise, and triumph. For the truly nerdy (like me) here is an online interactive map that demonstrates how the algorithm tracks variations of facial expressions that are associated with 16 emotions.

With the forty-three muscles around the eyes, nose, mouth, jaw, chin, and brow, human beings are able to make thousands of different expressions. Fortunately for me, I have always been a good mimic. This imitation skill allowed me to somewhat make up for my woefully inadequate language skills. In the end, we all belong to the human family. We truly are one people – human beings, in one world. There is Just Us – no Them.

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.James Baldwin

Published by cewheeler

Writer/Artist:12 years in China – univ. lecturer: writing,poetry,culture; editor – magazine/newspaper & actor. 40 years students of the Tao. Traveler. Father. Read my books at:

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