DeTurk, Sara — Intercultural Empathy: Myth, Competency, Or Possibility For Alliance Building?

DeTurk, Sara. “Intercultural Empathy: Myth, Competency, Or Possibility For Alliance Building?” Communication Education 50.4 (2001): 374. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

This article explicates the role of empathy in intercultural communication, the debate of empathy’s importance within these encounters to promote tolerance rather than ethnocentrism, and whether the concept of intercultural empathy is plausible in unequal instances of power or in fighting oppression. DeTurk begins by discussing the difficulty one might face (especially in the United States) in realizing that “other societies [have] valid worldviews and important wisdom,” that it will “take a special kind of attention to take in and understand there are other ways of seeing the world.” This special attention interculturists seek to cultivate has led to the identification of specific traits learners must grasp in order to lead to successful intercultural exchange. Empathy, in particular, is seen as a “key competency”; however, DeTurk discusses the ambiguity of the concept’s definition across multiple scholarly disciplines, as well as its questionable role in intercultural understanding of power relations. (374).  She presents empathy as a paradox: “Is it a trait, a learned skill, or a contextually emergent relational state?” She notes that the most influential definitions arise from a psychological approach, which is problematic because it expects “perceptual accuracy in communication across cultures.”  Other definitions are equally troublesome, as defining empathy as “the ability to replicate what one perceives,” which makes it only an intrapersonal phenomenon, “a technique for self-actualization rather than […] understanding” (375).  The creation of understanding is at the forefront of intercultural communication, which empathy should promote.

DeTurk defines empathy as something that “builds a shared meaning”; but she notes that it difficult to understand others across different levels of power. The idea of empathy as a cultural universal is clearly suspect, she suggests, since the more dominant groups who have greater social power will “universalize” their own experiences, silencing the minority (377).  Those who choose to “challenge or express anger at this injustice […] are rebuked as overly emotional, angry, or violent, and are accordingly controlled through ridicule or punishment” (378). As a result, DeTurk says, the submissive learn that communication amongst themselves is the less dangerous choice, and empathy will likely include conflict. However, this dynamic can actually build common ground since “everyone has experiences some type of oppression or marginalization over the course of our lives, and thus has the potential for this type of understanding” (381).

DeTurk’s discussion of empathy in intercultural communication and resolving intercultural conflicts speaks directly to nonviolent communication and whether empathy is innate or can be learned. She highlights questions I have concerning the role of cultural imperialism in promoting violence, which at the very basic level deals with language. Because empathy is built on “shared meaning,” it suggests people of opposing cultures might communicate effectively and in a nonviolent way. This brings up the idea of having a monolingual society, a concept pushed by ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism. Is a single language really the only way to create empathy amongst a diverse group of people? Would it be better to learn all languages and cultural differences? In like manner, is empathy required to nonviolently communicate or resolve conflict? A monolingual society might be less violent, but only through various kinds of oppression, it seems.

DeTurk spends a good portion of the article discussing the role power dynamics have in promoting conflict rather than empathy. In particular, a dominant group in a society might impose their own experiences as the ostensible truth. This would make the minority experiences oppositional and subordinate, and a shared meaning would not likely be reached if their own experiences are not considered as truths as well. [This is directly related to how Western perspective critically denounces the treatment of gender or religion in non-Western cultures, or even simply individualism versus collectivism; I immediately consider the Malala incident in Pakistan.] DeTurk questions whether empathy can be something truly understood in the more “superior” culture. Are the intentions of the superior group to create a shared meaning an oppressive way of resolution, or is it the only logical step the group can take? And if it is considered oppressive, does the subordinate group choose to acknowledge the shared meaning in order to simply move on? Can they actually resist it? In this regard, I hope to examine how language, transcribed by media, can create the characteristics needed for nonviolent communication and a kind of intercultural exchange in which superior groups take into consideration of other notions of meaning beyond their own, beyond what they assume is shared.

—Madiera Dennison



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