Extending Our Empathy

Have you ever heard somebody across the room laughing and smiled yourself, without knowing what inspired the original outburst of laughter? Do you sometimes cry while watching an emotional scene in a movie? The ability to empathize, to share and understand the feelings of others, comes easily and naturally to many of us. It is an important trait to be practiced daily especially in a globalized world where we encounter people who are somehow different from us on a daily basis.

Together with its commitment to provide enriching intercultural experiences to its program participants, AFS works on implementing its Educational Goals in the four major areas: personal, interpersonal, intercultural and global. These goals help us achieve our mission, which is to work on establishing a peaceful and tolerant global society. Students who go on an exchange with AFS develop certain personal traits and skills which help them become global citizens. But on top of personal growth, during the exchange or afterwards, those touched by AFS programs also develop in the interpersonal realm. One of the important characteristics of this sphere is empathy.

Among major traits of a truly empathetic person is the ability to listen and be mindful of the needs of other people as well as the ability to use different perspectives in approaching problems and everyday situations. An empathetic person shows a deeper concern for and sensitivity to others and perceives and responds to the values, feelings, and realities of others. All of this leads to the ability to manage disagreements with others in an effective and respectful manner.

We invite you to watch the following video and learn more about empathy:

Embrace the other and take it to lunch

This week in the United States started by remembering the achievements and deeds of Martin Luther King, the great activist for civil rights and racial equality. Dr. King was also one of the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureates for his non-violent methods. The speech that he delivered in 1963, now regarded as one of the most famous oratory pieces ever, “I have a dream” aimed to end racial segregation and inspire the acceptance of others.

We can also perceive “the other” as more than just belonging to another race – people get divided based on their cultural or social background, sexual orientation, age or political views. Student exchange programs, like the ones conducted by AFS, are designed to educate and increase the knowledge of everyone touched by them – the exchange students and host families themselves, but also the greater communities who get in touch with other cultures, such as schools, teachers or volunteers. This increased knowledge and sensitivity give rise to empathy and greater connections among different cultures, which help people accept those they previously considered as “the other” - as different and so of a potentially lesser value.

Have you thought about who that “other” is for you? Even if we don’t go to the extreme such as racial discrimination, we all have certain preconceptions about those who seem to be different and disagreeable to us. We share the following two videos with you as a source of reflection on what you can do today to reach out to those who represent “the other” for you:

Thandie Newton: Embracing otherness, embracing myself


Elizabeth Lesser: Take “the Other” to lunch


The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Outrospection” and Empathetic Thinking

Philosopher Roman Krznaric has coined the term “outrospection” to provide us with a new way to approach our relationships with others. Outrospection is a way to get to know oneself by developing relationships and empathetic thinking with others. Krznaric does not see empathy as a soft social concept used to connect with those who are dis-empowered, but rather as a discovery of oneself by “stepping outside ourselves and exploring the lives of other people and cultures”. In this way empathetic thinking is a pathway to expand your social influence, overcome stereotypes and barriers about those who are different and engage individuals in collective empathetic movements that can make change. Learn more about “outrospection” and empathetic thinking on Krznaric’s blog or by watching this RSA video in which his words are accompanied by drawings about this theory.

As you watch the video, you will hear about several ideas that are closely related to intercultural learning and the work that we do at AFS, such as overcoming stereotypes, affective and cognitive empathy, perspective-taking, worldview, beliefs, assumptions, attentive listening, two-way dialogues, etc.

“Highly empathetic people get beyond those labels by nurturing their curiosity about others. How can we might nurture our curiosity? How can we find inspiration?”