In December, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel of educators at Compassion Research Day at Facebook HQ. The daylong conference brought together some phenomenal minds doing work on compassion, including Dacher Keltner from Berkeley’s Center for Greater Good, Emiliana Simon-Thomas from Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (don’t you want to work at a place with a name like that?) and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton from Berkeley’s Relationship and Social Cognition Lab, among others doing great work in the field of compassionate social interactions.
As a panelist and learner, the question I brought to the conference was: How does social identity facilitate or detract from our ability to be compassionate? In other words, when it comes to compassion, how does diversity matter?
Here’s an example of diversity as a lens for understanding compassion: in trying to understand how people “read” compassion in others, Keltner has found that touch and tone of voice convey this emotion more recognizably than facial expressions. Interestingly, he also notes that men have a tougher time understanding when women are conveying anger, while women find it harder to discern when men are trying to communicate compassion.
That would explain a lot of cross-sex misunderstandings.
For me, this research underscores that it’s helpful–not just politically correct or divisive–to recognize how social identities matter. The point isn’t that sex determines your ability to communicate effectively with others, but rather that acknowledging how nature and nurture shape how we express ourselves and how others understand us can help us communicate better with anyone.
But doesn’t that lead to stereotyping? Talking to men one way, and women an emphatically other way?
I don’t think it has to.
Recognizing how identities matter–how different groups of people are different–isn’t the same as stereotyping, which is a default choice to engage with others on autopilot so we don’t really have to engage with them as they are, but as we imagine them to be.
Rather, when we notice how social identities matter on a group level and take from that revelation the humility that our way is not the only way, then, the next time someone–man or woman, white, Jewish, adolescent or physically disabled–doesn’t seem to be getting our frustration or empathy, we can remember that everyone isn’t us and try a different tack to connect with them.
What I’m suggesting is that social identity is a lens, not a conclusion, that helps us to engage others with more self-awareness and the presumption of diversity, rather than homogeneity.
If you want more professional or just human development on compassion, check out the videos of the speakers here (in the “Compassion Project Dec 7, 2011” video library. FYI: I’m in the 4th video segment with Kathryn Lee and Mark Basnage from Prospect Sierra):
You can also hear more from Arturo Bejar, the Facebook engineer who seemed to be in charge of the event, in this NPR interview: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/03/144627631/facebooks-bejar-takes-on-compassion-challenge?ft=1&f=5.
What resonates with me is his theme that we should try to engage person to person when someone posts something on-line that we object to. (Or when they write something in the newspaper that gets our goat–see my Dec 13th and 14th posts: yes, I sent them to PB.) I agree with Bejar that while organizations can and should step up to support their communities, policy, authoritative intervention and public complaint should be secondary recourses, at least if compassion is part of our goal and practice. Because face to face we’re more likely to treat people with compassion. Avatar to avatar or special interest group to special interest group, not so much.
* Note: I’m not on Facebook and have no real idea of what it’s like in there, so the Facebook portion of this post could be a load of hooey.