7.4 Intercultural Interactions – Social Decentering

Mnookin, Peppet, and Tulumello (1996, 2000) studied empathy’s impact on negotiation as it related to assertiveness. Empathy and assertiveness are often viewed as competing approaches to negotiation. For example, highly assertive negotiators would use competitive styles while highly empathic negotiators would be accommodative (Mnookin et al., 1996, 2000). Mnookin et al. argued that the strongest negotiators are strong in both empathy and assertiveness. Such a combination involves a negotiator engaging in listening and demonstrating a nonjudgmental understanding of the other’s needs, interests, and views without a statement of agreement but with an expectation for reciprocation from the other when the negotiator asserts her or his own needs, interests, and views. Social decentering allows a negotiator to appreciate the needs, interests, and emotions of the other party while analyzing the appropriateness and effectiveness of various strategies. A strong application of social decentering helps negotiators separate their own thoughts and feelings (use of self) from those of the other party (use of specific-other or RSSD). Such awareness helps in selecting strategies that reflect an understanding and appreciation of the other negotiator’s stand. Such awareness also involves recognizing how one’s own level of unrelenting assertiveness is counterproductive to negotiation. And, as Mnookin et al. (2000) contend about empathy and assertiveness, social decentering enhances negotiation when both parties skillfully engage in it.

External communication in organizations deals with employees’ interactions with customers and clients. Empathy is seen as having a positive influence on customers. But the studies tend to focus on customer perception of empathy without regard for whether the employee is actually empathic. In other words, customers feel happier when they perceive positive, confirming behaviors from people like the sales staff or company representatives. For example, Weißhaar and Huber (2016) operationalized empathy as a multidimensional construct and had 215 customers of a German consulting firm complete questionnaires assessing the perception of salespeople’s perspective-taking and emotional concern. Perception of perspective-taking had a strong positive relationship to customers’ trust and commitment to the salesperson, and to a lesser degree, the perception of emotional concern. One study that directly assessed employees’ empathy was conducted by Wieseke, Geigenmüller, and Kraus (2012). Not only did they assess employee empathy, they also assessed customers’ empathy. Agents from 93 German travel agencies and their customers completed a multidimensional measure of their empathy that included items regarding perspective-taking, empathic concern, and emotional contagion (feeling the same feelings as the other). Employees’ empathy positively related to customers’ reported satisfaction and loyalty. Employee empathy had an even stronger impact on customer satisfaction when customers themselves were higher in empathy. Interestingly, customers’ emotional empathy sustained their loyalty even when satisfaction fell. The authors argue that the more empathic customers appear to be more sensitive to frontline employees’ emotions, and thus more inclined to forgive dissatisfying service encounters. Wieseke et al. suggested that employers should “hire service employees capable of sensing customer expectations” as well as “offering opportunities for frontline employees to learn and develop their abilities to sense customer thoughts and feelings” (p. 326).

But there is a toll taken on frontline employees for being other-centered. Varca (2009) found that the more service personnel at a call center engaged in emotional empathy with callers, the more they experienced stress and role conflict. The conflict was caused by their effort to form an emotional attachment with the customer while at the same time having little authority to meet the customer’s demands, leading to such service personnel responses as, “I feel as frustrated as you do, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.” Such a situation provides one explanation for high employee turnover at call centers and why the frontline employees you reach at a call center might seem detached – it’s their way of reducing role conflict. Varca suggested that call centers that want their employees to be other-centered need flexible policies that include giving more authority to the frontline employees.

Despite creating possible role conflicts, service companies would do well to seek employees with strong affective and cognitive social decentering skills. Social decentering training could include an awareness of their use of generalized-other in understanding and responding to customers and the need to develop more RSSD with ongoing customers and clients. Such skill development is inherent in sales approaches that emphasize an other-orientation, such as personal selling, relationship selling, and adaptive selling. Sales performance, loyalty, and satisfaction benefits from a sales staff who are able to gain enough information about customers to effectively apply social decentering in the development of sales strategies.

Social decentering and RSSD can take their toll on managers who become burned out from engaging in a significant amount of emotional work with subordinates. As discussed earlier, emotional work is inherent in some professions such as counselors, social workers, and nurses. But such burnout can also happen wherever a close relationship exists between an employee and a customer or client such as financial advisors (Miller & Koesten, 2008) and real estate agents (Snyder, Claffey, & Cistulli, 2011). Actually, any manager whose role involves significant interpersonal contact with subordinates can experience burnout (Cordes & Daugherty, 1993). Managers with strong social decentering and RSSD are susceptible to emotional exhaustion and depersonalization that result from frequent intense discussions with subordinates about the subordinates’ personal difficulties. The impact would be most likely to occur in situations in which managers experience the emotional burdens of multiple subordinates over extended periods of time. Miller and Koesten (2008) noted that their sample of financial planners managed emotional attachment by being able to “feel with” their clients, while also “feeling for,” and thus create “detached concern.” In other words, being able to engage in social decentering and RSSD but also being able to disengage, perhaps moving from affective responses of empathy to more cognitive response of analysis and perspective-taking.

A subtle but important feature of Wieseke et al.’s (2012) study was the inclusion of the customers’ level of other-orientation. The results of my studies reported in the relationship and marriage chapters confirmed the transactional nature of social decentering in relationships such that both parties affect and are affected by each other’s social decentering and RSSD. Both partners’ levels of social decentering and RSSD interact with the other, whether the relationship is between employees and customers, managers and subordinates, or co-workers. A subordinate who is strong in social decentering interacting with a manager who is strong in social decentering will produce more positive outcomes than a subordinate and manager who don’t understand or appreciate each other’s dispositions.

Parker et al. (2008) provide an extended examination of the factors that inhibit perspective-taking in organizations and how perspective-taking can be enhanced. As with social decentering, one of the most critical factors identified was the need to be motivated to perspective-take or at least to try:

A person who is highly motivated to understand where another is coming from will try harder, will engage in a wider range of cognitive, emotional, behavioral strategies, and will persist longer in order to learn the perspective of another. (p. 171)

Parker et al. point out that in some instances professional roles don’t seem to have perspective-taking as necessary or valued. Organizations would do well to expand the expectations for all personnel to more consciously engage in social decentering – take time to think about the dispositions of co-workers, managers, subordinates, customers, clients, and suppliers. Motivation stems partially from the belief that there is value in understanding others. The degree to which another person in the organization is important, either on a personal level (liking and friendship) or professional level (power and ability to reward), affects the degree to which people are motivated to engage in social decentering with co-workers. Organizations that foster a culture of considering other’s dispositions and adapting accordingly are likely to be more productive and enhance satisfaction with the work environment thus reducing stress and turnover.

7.4Intercultural Interactions

Effectively engaging in social decentering is easiest when the two interacting individuals are very similar and most difficult when the two individuals are very different. When someone is different, the use of self is less relevant (though not altogether) and the use of generalized-others can become more valuable particularly if people have built meaningful group schemas that apply to the other person. Everyone is different from everyone else to some degree but there are degrees of difference. At one end are differences in sex and age, and at the other end are differences in religion, ethnicity, and culture. Each difference limits the ability to effectively socially decenter until we acquire sufficient information. The ability to socially decenter will be minimally affected by the age difference of a 40-year-old person talking to a 46-year-old person. But a 20-year-old man from Iowa talking to an 80-year-old woman from Malaysia would only be able to socially decenter in very broad terms – a young man to an older woman. The first step in socially decentering with diverse others is mindfulness of the differences. The second step is considering the effect those differences have on our perceptions and behaviors toward the other person. We need to realize when our perception is distorted or biased and thus undermining our ability to effectively engage in social decentering. The third step is to begin applying social decentering toward understanding how the dispositions of the other person are different from our own. We quickly recognize when someone is a different sex than us, but do we really think about how that other person’s life is affected because of their sex. Do men understand the demeaning way women are often treated by men and how that affects the women? Is a woman, who believes all men are misogynistic, able to set that view aside in her initial interaction with a man? Regardless of the level of difference, social decentering is an important tool to use in appreciating, learning, understanding, and adapting to those differences. Social decentering is only one skill that individuals need when engage in intercultural interactions. Scholars have identified various sets of skills needed to successfully manage intercultural interactions, that are often labeled intercultural competence or intercultural communication competence. One of the more consistently identified skills that contributes to intercultural competence is empathy (see review by Matveev, 2017). But cultural differences and a lack of information often make it difficult to empathize.

Intercultural interactions are among our most challenging interactions due to potential differences in language, nonverbal cues, values, beliefs, attitudes, customs, and world views. In intracultural conversations there is a rather large level of intrinsically shared information that makes the interaction much more manageable. But in intercultural conversations there can be a significant amount that is unknown about the other which hampers the interaction and social decentering.

Social decentering in initial intercultural interactions generally relies heavily on the use of generalized-others method of analysis. We draw upon whatever preexisting classifications and stereotypes we have of people based on country of origin. For some people only one category might be used – foreigners. In other words, these people categorize anyone not from their country as alien or foreign. Such an encompassing category is an ineffective basis for social decentering since it produces little understanding or ability to predict. Some people have a multitude of categories, even to the point of having several categories in which to place people from the same country. For example, rather than just a category of Iraqi, an individual might instead categorize Iraqis as Sunni, Shite, and non-Muslim with an appreciation for the beliefs and values of each group. But as discussed in Chapter 1, having many categories can be unwieldy and defeat the purpose of creating easily accessible groupings of information. Our cultural categories are likely to be limited to those cultures with which we have the most experience or exposure.

The cultural categories we create and access in the use of generalized-other analysis provide initial information that we can use to understand and predict someone we have just meet from a given culture. Gudykunst (1995) observed that:

The categories in which we place strangers also provide us with implicit predictions of their behaviors. When we categorize strangers, our stereotypes of the groups in which we categorize them are activated. Our stereotypes provide predictions of strangers’ behavior and our interactions will appear to have rhythm if strangers conform to our stereotypes. (p. 22)

For Gudykunst, use of generalized-other allows us to coordinate our initial conversation to the degree that our expectations align with the actual behavior of the other person. But no one totally fits a stereotype, so it becomes important to recognize and adapt to differences between categorical expectations and the observed behaviors of the other person. Gudykunst (1993) identified the need to be mindful as an important element toward intercultural communication effectiveness. Three factors identified by Langer (1989) that contribute to mindfulness were incorporated into Gudykunst’s (1998) description of a plan for intercultural adjustment training. These factors are imbedded in successful intercultural social decentering. The first factor is a need to create new categories; categories that are more specific to each culture rather than relying on broad categories. The second factor is openness to new information, that is used in creating and refining the new categories. Inherent in this factor is a motivation to learn, as well as awareness and sensitivity to cultural differences. The third factor is recognition that there is more than one perspective, which Langer observed, gives more choices for responding. Essentially, Langer reminds us that the way we see the world is not the same as the way other people see the world and that we need to be sensitive to that in how we think, what we say, and what we do. Such awareness of other perspectives and consideration of multiple responses are intrinsic elements of the social decentering process. Social decentering is again the tool that, in concert with mindfulness, allows us to recognize different perspectives, be open to information we learn about others’ perceptions, and create new categories that facilitate successful intercultural interactions. Over time, we gain idiosyncratic information about the other that allows us to develop RSSD that incorporates relevant cultural knowledge and cultural nuances.

The social decentering scale was designed to assess individuals’ tendencies to form and use categories as part of the use of generalized-others analysis. Four of the 12 items that constitute the use of generalized-other subscale specifically assess people’s intercultural sensitivity:

  1. I have wondered what people in some foreign countries think about various world problems.
  2. I take into consideration both the situation and a person’s cultural and ethnic background when I’m trying to understand the behavior of someone I don’t know very well.
  3. I can imagine how some of my attitudes, beliefs, and values might be different than they are if I had been raised in a different country’s culture.
  4. I know some of the values, attitudes, and thoughts associated with different cultural and ethnic groups.

Interacting with those who are different from us creates uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. Gudykunst and Hammer (1988) extended uncertainty reduction theory to initial intergroup/intercultural interactions and added anxiety as a factor affecting people’s thoughts and behaviors. Gudykunst (1988) recognized that people feel anxious about interacting with others whose culture differs from their own. Gudykunst’s (1993, 1995, 2005) theory sought to identify the aspects of intercultural interactions that affect and are affected by uncertainty and anxiety. The aspects of his model most related to social decentering include ability to empathize, ability to adapt communication, knowledge of similarities and differences, and the ability to create new categories into which we place groups of people. Possessing such attributes reduces uncertainty and anxiety which in turn results in more effective intercultural communication.

On the other hand, Gudykunst (1993) claimed that when we exceed our maximum threshold for uncertainty or anxiety, we are unable to communicate effectively. The combination of anxiety and ineffective communication results in an inability to accurately interpret or predict the other person through social decentering. Use of self proves ineffective because of the significant differences between decenterers and their intercultural partners. The maximum threshold reflects a circumstance in which we have no specific-others or generalized-others to provide a foundation for interpreting or predicting.

Social decentering heightens our awareness that our interactions with someone from another culture differs from what we are used to and from what we expect. Such awareness results in increased stress and anxiety because of an inability to effectively understand and predict the behavior of the other person. Thus, social decentering contributes to the stress experienced by sojourners. On the other hand, travelers low in social decentering are likely to be somewhat oblivious to the cultural differences and therefore inclined to feel less stress. In a study of 644 international students attending Iowa State University conducted by myself and my colleague, Judith Bunyi (Redmond & Bunyi, 1993), the effect of social decentering was confirmed by a positive correlation between the students’ level of social decentering and their reported stress. Respondents were consolidated by countries and regions to produce 14 similar size samples. Analysis of variance of the 14 samples indicated no significant differences in their average social decentering scores. But significant differences were found among the countries/ regions in students’ ability to adapt, socially integrate, and communicate effectively. One possible explanation for the stress can be found by examining the level of difference between countries of origin and the host country. The similarity of social decentering scores among international students indicates that social decentering is skill that occurs across cultures unlike more culture-dependent skills such as communicating effectively. Some skills like language acquisition and knowledge of the host culture limit intercultural competence to interactions within specific cultures. On the other hand, social decentering is a transcultural quality in which people recognize similarities and differences in each culture they encounter and have the capabilities to observe, learn, analyze, and understand the people with whom they interact in each culture.

Geert Hofstede (1980, 1983, 1997, 2001) identified four central values that he found varied among cultures: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/ collectivism, and masculinity/ femininity. In a follow-up analysis of the data from the previous study, I conducted regression analyses for students whose cultural values were closest to the US values; and an analysis for students whose values were furthest away (Redmond, 2000b). Social decentering significantly contributed to the prediction of greater stress associated with differences and similarities for each of the four cultural values for both those close and far away in value. The following beta weights for social decentering for students coming from cultures most similar to the United States are listed in order of value: 0.31 – uncertainty avoidance, 0.23 –masculine/ feminine, 0.15 – power, and 0.14 – individualism/collectivism. Beta weights for students least similar to the United States were, in order of value: 0.30 – individualism/collectivism, 0.26 – power, 0.22 – masculinity/femininity, and 0.12 – uncertainty avoidance. For students coming from cultures high in uncertainty avoidance similar to the United States, the issue of similarity is probably less consequential than the value itself. Possessing the cultural value of intolerance for ambiguity is likely to produce stress regardless of the host country’s value. Social decentering is likely to exacerbate the stress for those with intolerance for ambiguity by increasing the respondents’ awareness of that ambiguity. Sojourners can expect that certain cultural differences between themselves and theirs host countries along with their engagement in social decentering will compound their initial stress.

Social decentering was not found to directly relate to the ability to cope with stress as they related to differences in the four values. One reason for this might be that social decentering did not relate to the countries of origin and thus did not differ relative to other communication competence differences between the native culture and the United States, as for example, language did. Communication effectiveness, ability to adapt, and the ability to integrate into the social network of the United States positively contributed to a student’s ability to cope with stress. Social decentering contributes to these three intercultural communication competencies and thus has an indirect impact on handling stress. For example, social decentering provides an understanding of host culture members that enhances the ability to adapt. Social decentering also helps sojourners predict a host member’s reactions to various behaviors and thus improve strategic choices. For example, through social decentering, a male student from Spain might forego his cultural norm of kissing females on the cheeks as a greeting and instead offer to shake hands when meeting a female student from the United States, predicting that she would back away if he tried to kiss her on the cheeks. Such awareness improves the likelihood of successfully integrating into the host culture’s social network.

Another term introduced to reflect intercultural other-orientation is cultural empathy, which Kim (1988) conceptualizes as the ability to be flexible in ambiguous and unfamiliar situations. Two dimensions of cultural empathy that were identified by Cui and Van Den Berg (1991) are empathizing with cultural norms and awareness of cultural differences. They found cultural empathy contributed to the intercultural effectiveness of US business people working in China. Unfortunately, the conceptualization and measurement of cultural empathy is inconsistent. For example, one measure of cultural empathy is the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (Van der Zee & Van Oudenhoven, 2001), that appears to be a general measure of empathy that does not include cultural contexts. Part of its validation consisted of comparing the respondents’ self-reports to reports about them from a partner, close friend, or family member. This measure has been used by other researchers as well (see review by Arasaratnam, 2014). The use of cultural to describe empathy is misleading and by default implies that there isn’t anything unique about empathizing with people from the same or different cultures. In contrast, the measure of social decentering includes use of generalized-others analysis, that assesses individuals’ ability to draw on their knowledge of other cultures in the process of understanding and predicting diverse others.

The term cultural empathy is also used to describe a special form of empathy utilized by counselors when dealing with clients from different cultures (Ridley & Lingle, 1996; Ridley & Udipi, 2002). Ridley and Lingle defined cultural empathy as “the learned ability of counselors to accurately gain an understanding of the self- experience of clients from other cultures” (p. 32) and to communicate that understanding with an attitude of concern. Several of the characteristics they associate with cultural empathy are also characteristic of social decentering, such as being multidimensional, being an interpersonal process, the similarity between counselors and clients helping to establish understanding, and the ability to learn the skill. The inclusion of communicating understanding as part of cultural empathy differentiates it from social decentering. As discussed earlier, social decentering and empathy are valuable tools for effective counseling. But contrary to Ridley and Lingle, I would argue that just as social decenterers might choose not to disclose their understanding or predictions, culturally empathic counselors might choose not to reveal their understanding or predictions when they think such revelation would undermine the relationship or therapy.

Ridley and Lingle (1996) identify counselors’ tendency “to impose their cultural values onto their clients” (p. 38) as a significant problem in multicultural counseling. This problem is similar to relying on the use of self analysis for making sense of clients’ cultural dispositions. Such an error comes from the incomplete application of social decentering. Use of self can be an effective tool in intercultural interactions by accentuating how the decenterer’s thoughts and feelings differ from those of the targets, leading to a keener understanding and appreciation of other people’s cultural experiences. But use of self without attending to how the self differs from others undermines intercultural communication. To effectively socially decenter in intercultural interactions, egocentrism (use of self while ignoring differences) and ethnocentrism (imposing our cultural values on others) must be avoided.

Building off Ridley and Lingle’s notion of cultural empathy as it applies to counseling, Wang, Davidson, Yakushko, Savoy, Tan, and Bleier (2003) developed the concept and measure of ethnocultural empathy. Ethnocultural empathy is conceptualized as “empathy directed toward people from racial and ethnic cultural groups who are different from one’s own ethnocultural group” (p. 221). The concept was initially operationalized as having three components, but four emerged from their data analysis: intellectual empathy (understanding racially or ethnically differences), empathic emotions (attention to and feel the other’s emotional condition), communicative empathy (expressing empathic thoughts and feelings), and empathic awareness (social and media treatment of racial and ethnic groups). As operationalized, the scale appears to have limited application to interactions between people from different countries, since its focus is on intracultural interactions that cross race and ethnicity. Many of the scale items revolve around attitudes on racism, hate crimes, discrimination, etc. But such awareness is also pertinent to intercultural interactions, for which there is a need to be sensitive to cultural biases held against various ethnic groups within other cultures.

The ethnocultural empathy scale does highlight an important application of social decentering to interactions among diverse citizens in the same country who differ in terms of race and ethnicity, to which I would add, differ from each other in religion, sex, sexual orientation, mental and physical abilities, and even social economic status. Each of these reflect groups within a given culture for which there might exist biases, prejudice, discrimination, conflict, and social mores. The ethnocultural empathy scale brings attention to these intracultural contexts and defines ethnocultural empathic individuals as those who are aware of how their shared culture treats people differently depending upon group identification. The definition of social decentering ends with the phrase “within a given situation.” Given situation is meant to reflect the specific circumstances that currently surround the person with whom we are socially decentering. But those circumstances go beyond what is occurring at a given moment and include the broader social-cultural context in which the other person lives. For social decentering to be effective, a white university student from London would need to consider the social climate and prejudices that a black student from Sweden has experienced. A consideration of the ethnocultural influences on each person is important if we are to truly understand their thoughts and share their feelings. In some ways, we create a category or stereotype of a particular group of people that is an amalgam of information about how members of that category are treated by the culture and society. As with any category, individual members of these ethnocultural groups do not all share the same experiences and for that reason, it is particularly important for individuals to listen and acquire information that allows them to develop and access the use of specific-other level of social decentering analysis and RSSD. In their discussion of cultural empathy in counseling, Ridley and Lingle (1996) emphasize the need for counselors to explore a particular client’s cultural group experience, particularly in terms of how it deviates from the normative.

Stereotypes and perceptions of outgroup members (other cultures) are often tainted with bias and prejudice that can then undermine effective communication (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2017). While contact leads to learning about outgroup members which in turn can reduce prejudice, Pettigrew (2008) observed that “empathy and perspective-taking are far more important” (p. 190). He noted that contact facilitated empathy and perspective-taking with the outgroup. Empathy as an affective process was seen as having a stronger effect on reducing prejudice than did the cognitive process associated with perspective-taking. Pettigrew and Tropp (2008) conducted a meta-analysis of extant research on prejudice, empathy, and anxiety that indicated that: anxiety had a negative mediating effect between contact and prejudice; empathy had a positive effect; and empathy and anxiety were negatively related. These findings led them to postulate that “initial anxiety must first be reduced with intergroup contact before increased empathy, perspective-taking, and knowledge of the outgroup can effectively contribute to prejudice reduction” (p. 929). As applied to social decentering this means that when people are anxious about interacting with someone from another culture that anxiety is going to inhibit their ability to socially decenter. Positive intergroup contact can reduce that anxiety (Pettigrew, Tropp, Wanger, & Chirst, 2011), which leads to increased information exchange and a reduction in the emotions that were blocking socially decentering.

Intercultural business interactions combine the impact of the organizational factors discussed earlier with issues of cultural differences. The earlier discussion of managers, employees, and organizations has a definitive western bent to it. While there is similarity in the roles and expectations of managers across cultures, there are also differences. For example, employers in France create very family-like relationships with employees, and subordinates in Saudi Arabia tend to avoid eye contact with superiors (Blacharski, 2008). Matveev and Nelson (2004) described the benefits of empathy in multicultural business teams:

A culturally empathetic team member has the capacity to behave as though he or she understands the world as team members from other cultures do, has a spirit of inquiry about other cultures and the communication patterns in these cultures, an appreciation for a variety of working styles, and an ability to view the ways things are done in other cultures not as bad but simply as different. (p. 258)

The broad description of cultural empathy imbedded in the above list is a better description of what occurs through social decentering than empathy. Social decentering provides a foundation for understanding, requires motivation, involves examining and comparing general categories of people including cultures and working styles, and the ability to learn by recognizing similarities and differences in cultures between oneself and others.

Matveev and Nelson (2004) hypothesized that coming from a more collectivistic culture, Russian managers would have higher cultural empathy than American managers coming from an individualistic culture, but the results of their study found no significant difference. They argued that the American managers were driven to perform and achieve individual growth that motivated them to be culturally empathic. This means individuals are likely to engage in social decentering when their individual motivations exceed the cultural value of self-orientation. Social decentering is an effective tool for accomplishing personal goals, and in that way, being other-oriented allows individuals to accomplish self-goals, which means it is of value in both collectivistic and individualistic cultures, albeit, for different reasons.

7.5Other Contexts

While the focus of this text has been on social decentering in interpersonal interactions, it can also be applied in less interactive contexts. For example, in writing this book I have tried to consider who will be reading it and what they might most want to know. I’ve also tried to consider how they will react to what I have written. I’ve relied upon my use of generalized-other in making that assessment as well as use of self. Use of self is sometimes problematic though because one’s ego and face come into play. I often experience negative reactions to re-reading something that I wrote a year earlier when I now find that I originally failed to notice its errors and weaknesses.

Most media involves some degree of audience analysis, which is a type of other-orientation that involves considering the dispositions of some general audience rather than a particular individual. But in today’s world of technology, more and more websites collect information about each user and then target ads and other information to that information; essentially, computers are being programmed to socially decenter, though inclusion of an emotional component is still a work in progress. I remember in the 1980s that there was a computer program that acted as a counselor. Essentially, the program simply sent back what the user typed and added a question mark or displayed a message “Tell me more,” or “How do you feel about that?” Obviously, the computer had no understanding or empathy but used counseling catchphrases to get people to explore themselves. Rather than simply providing robotic responses, it is important to convey the depth of understanding that you developed when you considered the other person’s dispositions and given situation.

Being audience-centered is a notion shared by public speakers, authors, producers, marketers, and entrepreneurs. Considering the dispositions of the targets can facilitate accomplishing one’s goals with live or mediated audiences, readers, or consumers. The process of social decentering applies here because people collect and analyze information that allows them to evaluate and predict the effectiveness of the messages or products they create. Marketing surveys are attempts to collect information about a target audience to create messages that can be adapted to that audience and thus be most effective. You have probably watched a TV commercial that you thought was senseless and wondered why it was ever created. In those instances, the creators either failed to understand you and predict your reaction, or more likely, you were not their target audience. But if your friends agree with you, that the commercial was senseless, that still might not mean the commercial failed since you and your friends are similar and perhaps none of you are the target audience. For example, in the United States, TV shows and commercials target 18- to 34-year-old viewers the most, which means in the US, that if you and your friends are over 40, the ad probably wasn’t aimed at you. Prandelli, Pasquini, and Verona (2016) found that having graduate management students consider the perspective of a potential user resulted in enhancing their creativity in considering and addressing the user’s needs while applying their own expertise. The experimenters activated the students’ social decentering efforts using the information provided about the user/consumer to evaluate and predict the user’s preferences thus enhancing their entrepreneurial success.

Audience adaptation is often a core principle taught in public speaking textbooks. Its role was explained by my colleague, Denise Vrchota and myself (2007), “Adaptation involves using your understanding of the audience and the situation to select strategies tailored to the audience’s needs and interests” (p. 11). Funny how this definition reflects my principles of social decentering, isn’t it? Even the questions we suggest readers answer are similar to the questions asked when social decentering, for example, “If I were sitting in this audience, what would I want to hear?” (use of self), “How is this audience different from me?” (use of self and use of specific-other), and “What does this audience want?” Interactions with audiences are somewhat akin to intercultural encounters in that they vary from speaking with audiences about whom very little information is known, to speaking to audiences with whom the speaker has an ongoing relationship and in-depth information.

For authors, social decentering not only allows them to consider their audience, it serves as a method of creating and expanding characters. One piece of advice from children’s literature editor Mary Kole (2012) to authors reflects the use of self as a way to write more effectively: “When you know the teen experience and can place yourself in your target readers’ experience, you’re that much more likely to write a book that resonates with them on a deeper, thematic level.” Authors of young adult fiction draw from their memories of their own teenage experiences, listen in to conversations among teens while riding the bus, and interact with teenage relatives as a foundation for adapting their writing to their readers (The Guardian, 2015). Such practices reflect authors’ efforts to gain information either from observation and memory, and by imagining life as a teenager, and then writing in a way that reflects that appreciation and understanding. Such authors utilize the use of self in both recalling and imagining their thoughts and feelings, extrapolate from their knowledge and experiences with specific teenagers (use of specific-others), and significantly employ use of generalized-others by creating categories of teenagers on which to build and develop characters. Strength in social decentering allows authors to create relatable and believable characters. Failure to effectively socially decenter has probably undermined the success of many an author.

Any communication that is directed to a specific person or target audience can be enhanced through the use of social decentering. Besides books, speeches, and advertising, social decentering plays a significant role in today’s world of electronic communication. For example, knowledge of another person allows us to “encrypt” text messages with references, abbreviations, or idioms we know the other person will understand. A number of studies have examined the impact of social media on empathy but with mixed results. Concerns have been raised about the negative impact of the Internet on people’s social skills with some studies finding a negative impact on face-to-face interactions and empathy among those spending considerable time online including social media and gaming. But a longitudinal study of 942 Dutch adolescents (10–14 years of age) found that the initial reports of social network use were positively related to higher cognitive and affective empathy a year later (Vossen & Valkenburg, 2016). The researchers concluded that frequent use of social media improved adolescents’ “ability to share and understand the feelings of others over time” (p. 123) by providing them opportunities to practice.

Another survey with over 1,000 respondents between the ages of 18 and 30 asked about their “time behind the screen” use (TV, computer, and phone) and used the basic empathy scale to assess their cognitive empathy (essentially thoughts about other people’s feelings) and affective empathy (feeling or not feeling what others feel) (Carrier, Spradlin, Bunce, & Rosen, 2015). Other assessments included virtual cognitive and affective empathy (the basic empathy scale revised to apply to an online context), and social support. No significant correlation was found between time online and either cognitive or affective empathy for men. For women, no significant relationship was found for time online and affective empathy, but a small negative relationship was found with cognitive empathy (r = −0.09). The kind of online activity appears to mediate the relationship between time online and empathy. Video gaming significantly reduced cognitive and affective empathy for women and cognitive empathy for men. Regression analysis indicated that the use of a computer for such activities as e-mailing and instant messaging lead to more face-to-face communication and that lead to improved affective and cognitive empathy. But such computer use did not directly affect empathy. The results of the study led the authors to speculate that social connections might result in more arranged face-to-face meetings or increased the chances of seeing the person off-line, which then increases the opportunities to hone empathy skills. Carrier et al. found that empathy significantly correlated with virtual empathy, but virtual empathy was not as strong. Cognitive empathy and affective empathy strongly related to social support (r = 0.37 and 0.24, respectively). Virtual cognitive empathy and affective empathy positively related to social support, but to a much smaller degree than general empathy (r = 0.15 and 0.10, respectively). The overall implication of Carrier et al.’s study is that people who are empathic maintain their empathy regardless of how much time they are online. While a high amount of video gaming was related to less empathy, those inclined to spend hours upon hours gaming are generally less empathic than the general population and their video gaming becomes a replacement for social engagement.

We can expect that the findings from Carrier et al.’s study applies equally well to social decentering. People who are strong in social decentering are likely to maintain that strength regardless of how much time they spend online. The relationship between social decentering and online activity is twofold: first, the degree to which individuals apply social decentering while online, and second, the degree to which online activity informs or influences social decentering. Imagine you are checking your Facebook page and see a post and picture from a close friend at a party looking sad and uncomfortable as several people crowd around trying to get in the picture. Because of your RSSD with your friend, you know that must have been an awkward moment since your friend dislikes being crowded and touched. So, you send your friend a personal message expressing your understanding and concern. In this instance, social decentering that exists outside the online universe is applied to understanding another’s online communication. On the other hand, the photo could be an indication that your friend is trying to be more social and that might prompt you to confirm that with your friend. As a result, you add to your knowledge of your friend and thus improve future application of RSSD. This example illustrates how social decentering can be used in social media to both understand and predict the communication of others and as a source of information to help develop further social decentering.

Our online experiences fall into two broad categories: passive and interactive. Passive experiences are those where we simply observe or consume without any direct interaction with the source. Watching an online video reflects this passive experience and responding to text messages and posting likes or commenting on someone’s Facebook post represent interactive experiences. Social decentering plays a different role in each. For the passive experience, social decentering is primarily activated to provide understanding. You might receive a text message from your boss and use social decentering in considering the meaning and intent without replying. When engaging interactively in social media, one of our prime concerns is the maintenance of our relationships. In these social-mediated instances, the application of social decentering is utilized as with any interpersonal relationship. Social-mediated experiences can also include reacting to strangers about whom we have limited information. We can engage in social decentering with these individuals, but are limited to what we observe, imagine, relate to, or use from our understanding of people in general.

Remember that the first thing that has to happen for social decentering to occur is for it to be triggered. Our detachment with people online is likely to reduce the likelihood of engaging in social decentering. If you have a lot of Facebook friends, you are likely to skim quickly through their posts and pictures with little in-depth analysis. A posting by a stranger is unlikely to stimulate social decentering if you perceive little consequence. The level of relational intimacy with the sender/ poster, the relevance of what is sent/ posted, and the importance you associate with a given online message are factors that mediate the decision to socially decenter. Once trigged, we attend to the information at hand, in memory, and imagined. A unique aspect of mediated communication is that we have records such as old text messages or Facebook posts that can be reviewed. For example, you could scan pictures on your friend’s Facebook page for confirmation of your belief that your friend is uncomfortable in crowded social situations and thus feel more confident about your social decentering and RSSD. The use of any of the three social decentering methods for analyzing and adapting to another person in the social media network is dependent on how much information is available about the person and the person’s situation. If we know a lot about the person we encounter on social media, then we are apt to apply use of specific-other or RSSD. If we only know a little about the person who texted or posted, we are likely to apply use of generalized-other to consider the thoughts and feelings associated with the message/ post – what do most people mean by such a post? The more we know about the situation, the more effectively we can apply use of self for analysis. Reading a detailed story online about the police mistakenly raiding the wrong address and arresting the resident provides enough information for you to apply the use of self analysis as your recall any similar incident happening to you or imagining it happening to you and how you might react. Next comes your internal response, the thoughts, and feelings that are aroused as a result of what we observe on social media. In instances where we are simply a passive observer, the accuracy of our understanding and emotional responses is fairly unimportant. When we engage in interactive social media experiences, usually within the context of ongoing relationships, social decentering plays a more critical role in helping us consider the person and their situation as we develop our response. Another advantage of some mediated interactions is the ability to take time to consider the person and the situation before responding. I’ve had to remind myself over the years when I’m irritated by someone’s email not to immediately send a response, but instead take time to consider how the other person will react to the various messages I might send. My response after waiting a day is almost always a lot more constructive. Which brings us to the last part of social decentering – to act. Sometimes, my analysis of the email and person who sent it results in a decision to do nothing. Of course, that makes it appear to outsiders that I did not engage in social decentering, but in reality, social decentering led me to conclude that taking no action was smart thing to do. As introduced in Chapter 1, social decentering is not a personality trait and not an unconscious reaction, but is social cognition. Such a distinction is not meant to diminish or deny the occurrence of truly empathic emotional responses or altruistic acts. It is meant to clearly identify the cognitive process presented in this book by which humans thoughtfully consider the thoughts, feelings, and dispositions of other people and in so doing successfully navigate their social worlds.


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