What constitutes a compassionate response? The important role of culture.

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American Psychological Association


American compassionate responses (i.e., sending sympathy cards) focus more on the positive (e.g., comforting memories) and less on the negative (e.g., the pain of someone's death) than German compassionate responses, partly because of cultural differences in how much people want to avoid feeling negative (i.e., avoided negative affect [ANA]). However, are these culture-specific compassionate responses considered more comforting and compassionate within their respective cultural context? We predicted that Americans would find responses that focus on the negative less and those that focus on the positive more comforting and compassionate than Germans will and that ANA would mediate these differences. In Study 1, 152 Americans and 315 Germans reported their ANA and rated how comforting they considered receiving different sympathy cards. As predicted, Americans found sympathy cards that contained negative content less and cards that contained positive content more comforting than Germans did. In Studies 2a and 2b, to examine whether these culture-specific conceptualizations of a comforting response would generalize to how people conceptualize a compassionate face, 118 Americans and 80 Germans selected stimuli that most resembled a compassionate (or happy) face using a reverse correlation task. As predicted, people's mental representation of a compassionate face contained more happiness/less sadness in an American than German context. Across studies, ANA partially mediated the cultural differences. This research demonstrates that responses that are intended to be compassionate might not be considered equally compassionate and comforting across cultures, which has implications for relief efforts, which are often organized internationally.