After one of the most divisive presidential elections in American history, many of us may be anxious about dinner-table dialogue with family and friends this Thanksgiving. There is no denying that the way we communicate about politics has fundamentally changed with the proliferation of technology and social media. Twitter bots, fake news and echo chambers are just a few of the highlights from this election season. Much of how we’re conversing online can’t — and shouldn’t — be replicated around the family table. We are getting out of practice at conducting meaningful, respectful conversation.
There’s not a quick fix. We need more empathic communication — the slow, deep (inter)personal discourse that can nurture identity and build and strengthen relationships. Yet contemporary communication platforms can make it harder to build empathy with conversational partners. Even the phrase “conversational partners” seems unfitting in the world of 140-character limits, followers, likes and shares. In many ways, our devices help us talk at (@?) instead of with one another.
Literally meaning “in-feeling,” empathy is a process of internalizing another person’s perspective. Empathy-building is unselfish; you suspend your own sensibilities and try to fully imagine and embrace those of someone else. You can gain empathy by learning about other cultures from different media, by experiencing what others have gone through personally, or by having deep conversations with others.
My research into cross-cultural communications has taught me that empathy is not only the key to feeling connected — “I understand you” — but also the foundation for changing our narratives about one another — “now I see we are not so different.” That’s an important point to remember after such a difficult political experience. Building empathy requires communication, specifically talking to one another. But, not just any talking will suffice — especially not the type of talking promoted by today’s highly popular communication technologies.