Given the diverse and multi-cultural world we live in, more and more people, be they multinational employees, exchange students, or in-laws, are exposed to a broader and broader range of human diversity. It’s important to consider the implications of our shrinking and flattening world on harmonious friendship across cultures.
Harmony in Friendships
Chinese perceptions of harmony often reflect a unity that recognizes diversity, rather than suppressing it. For example, in the Tso Chuan, (attributed to Zen Tsu 4th century, B.C.E.), stated that “Harmony is like soup. There being water and heat, sour flavoring and pickles, salt and peaches, with a bright fire of wood, the cook harmonizing all the ingredients in the cooking of the fish and flesh”. Harmony in friendship can be complex, especially across cultures. Friendships are voluntary ongoing interactions between two people that facilitate social and emotional needs and cut across generational, racial, gender, ethnic, ideological, and national boundaries. As Confucius pointed out, harmony isn’t social conformity but a recognition of difference, together (“Exemplary persons seek harmony not sameness; petty persons, then, are the opposite”, Analects, 13/23).
Compassion and Harmonious Friendships
Considering how complex typical relationships can be, cross-cultural friendships require a great deal of compassion.
A simple behavioral definition of compassion is:
- Noticing suffering (of self and others)
- Having an empathic emotional response
- Taking action to address the suffering
Some see compassion as a weakness, but when confronted with a body of research and trainable quality which entails fierce courage to not only address suffering, but sustain motivation to address the pain, many are surprised. Another surprise is the multi-faceted nature of compassion: We extend it to others, we receive it from others and we show it to ourselves by practicing self-compassion. Compassion research shows that all three directions are strongly correlated with improved immune system functioning, physical well-being, and improved psychological functioning. This is consistent with harmonious friendship, given the capacity to skillfully embrace cultural differences with care to manifest the true benefits of diversity.
Impediments to compassion can impact well-being as well. Our own research has established a strong, highly significant relationship between fears of compassion (Fear of receiving, fear or sharing, and fear of self-compassion) and symptomatic markers of stress, depression, anxiety as well as burnout and compassion fatigue. Thus, the more fearful of compassionate the more suffering, psychological and physiological distress. What is more, elevated burnout and compassion fatigue levels result in lower worker well-being and productivity. We also sadly see a strong significant relationship between positive leadership capacity and the three fears as well.
Compassion Skills Training (CST), which we (Martin, et. al., 2014) developed is currently utilized in organizations, hospitals and universities is developing compassion related interpersonal skills with relevance for the workplace. By integrating psychoeducational materials focused on dimensions of positive leadership, compassion and well-being through peer to peer discussions, we have established statistically significant differences in psychological pre/post-test measures (among others):
- Service Orientation
- Subjective Happiness
- Acceptance and Action
- Fear of Compassion for Others
- Compassion for others
While the program has been occurring in hospitals, corporations and universities, many studies have occurred in the most diverse school in the contiguous United States, two participants at a time with phenomenal resulting in unique and lasting friendships across cultures. Harmonious cross cultural compassionate friendships develop skillfully by understanding context, ingredients and individual differences, just like our soup.
Creating Harmonious, Compassionate, Cross-Cultural Friendships
Consider the creation of multinational friendships, growing through a supported, structured environment, like a receipt that allows for substitutions based on local ingredients, seasonal availability, different cooking tools and time needs. We do exactly that, internationally, scalably (over video with a partner) while providing critical skills that meet not only interpersonal, but organizational and most importantly, civic needs. Working cross-culturally to strengthen ties across cultures, broadening trust and care to set free innovation and comradery we have significantly (and measurably) impact psychological well-being, organizational and community outcomes.