Are We Teaching Cultural Empathy to Future Generations?

by Kevin Irelan, Brand Leadership

When I was growing up, I moved around quite a bit. My father was in the Navy and our family was constantly getting relocated. As a young boy, and as I grew into a young man, I entered many different school systems. Now that I am older and I’m able to reflect on my experiences, I’ve realized that some people can be just plain mean. People will always tell you to be yourself but it feels like being yourself only leads to being judged by your peers at a time when we are striving to constantly find acceptance.

So where does this “meanness” begin? Are bullies born this way? I moved from Hawai’i to Texas in the 4th grade. I was a pretty boy to say the least. I wore floral button up shirts, parted my hair to the side and spoke differently than the kids I shared a playground with. It was pretty clear that I hadn’t lived in Texas my whole life. While I did make friends, I also constantly took a lot of crap from people.

Where is the love these days? Where is the compassion and understanding many of us so greatly need to function as human beings? What does it really mean to be culturally empathetic and sensitive? What is this innate capacity that we as humans have, which is the ability to see the world through the eyes of another and walk a mile in their shoes?

The Importance of Being Empathetic

In today’s society, it seems that everything is moving so fast in all the hustle and bustle that it becomes easy to lose sight of what is going on around us. It’s much more difficult to perceive what’s being felt around us. I have found this to be especially true when it comes to marketing. Everything has become so competitive and the rate of execution and the implementation of new marketing ideas and strategies are turning at a remarkably rapid rate.

So how important is empathy to marketing; and is it being effectively imprinted in the Gen Z minds of the future? In the U.S., our education system places a high emphasis on subjects like English, math, science, history and fine arts, but what emphasis do we place on empathy and more specifically, empathy and awareness for cultures outside of our own? Are we being taught to not only merely tolerate different cultures, ideas, and  beliefs but to also learn from them and perhaps embrace them?

Science’s Take on Cultural Empathy

Science says that empathy can actually be taught, which goes against the popular belief that you either “have it or you don’t.” A low level of emotional intelligence could very well be the result of a lack of education toward building empathy from early childhood. That’s right, I said it. Empathy like any other scholastic discipline can be taught and the result could be higher emotional intelligence.

A recent study on compassion and empathy was conducted out of Stanford University by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, also known as CCARE. For 8 weeks, randomly selected groups would meet for a training that consisted of daily meditation, mindfulness, self-awareness and acceptance. At the end of the experiment, the participants showed increased emotional processing and decreased levels of both social anxiety and signs of depression. A large number of the participants tested to be less worried or stressed and to be more satisfied with life after completing the training.

Science has gone so far as to identify the part of the brain that controls empathy. The supramarginal gyrus is a part of the cerebral cortex and changes to this part of the brain has shown a direct link to changes in measured levels of empathy for human beings. A recent study at the University of Michigan showed that empathy levels among today’s college students is much lower than students 20 or 30 years ago.

The Implications of Cultural Empathy

Advertisers can attest to the shift in the way we market in the last decade. The content we create now has to be human-centered in order for it to be easily shared and adapted by the individuals we market to. There has never been more of a need to fully understand our consumers and their feelings. Cultural empathy and awareness is key to successful marketing. Understanding their needs will ultimately make us better marketers.

So is there more we can do to teach children and young adults to be empathetic towards others and towards other cultures? Is it possible with the rise of digitalization and constant exposure to the types of media we are constantly exposed to, that we have begun to lose sight of what could arguably be considered the key component to building morality and compassion? Perhaps it’s time to step back from the fast-paced environment we are immersed in and get more in touch with our own feelings and the feelings of others.

To learn more about cultural empathy and how to reach a diverse audience, follow Dieste Inc. and be sure to subscribe to Provoke Weekly for the latest trends in multicultural marketing.


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