3 lessons in empathy from the warm people of Ecuador

America ranked #7 on the world’s most empathetic countries list, released just this month. While being in the top 10 isn’t bad by any means, we can still learn a thing or two from the #1 seat: Ecuador.

The Quilotoa lagoon, Cordillera, Ecuador.

Is it just our imaginations or are people generally just a little more self-centered these days? Consider skyrocketing social media use (where the #selfie is king), spikes in bullying and violence, evolving parenting practices and family structures, and the ever-growing consumerist pressure to make more money and keep up with the Kardashians. How did a me-first mentality replace the Leave It To Beaver era of family-and-community-first values? Somewhere along the way, it seems we lost something. And that something might be empathy.

A new study out of Michigan State University suggests Americans may be focusing too much on themselves as individuals and not enough on each other. According to the study, the United States ranks number seven for empathy out of countries around the globe. Who earned first place? Ecuador! Next up came Saudi Arabia, Peru, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, and then the good ol’ US of A.

And though these rankings are by no means set in stone, the lead author of the study, William Chopik, says that the study suggests that the American nation may no longer deserve its long-held reputation for being an “empathetic and generous giant,” noting that “the United States … has experienced really large changes in things like parenting practices and values.” The data Chopik is is referring to was collected from an online survey taken by more than 104,000 people worldwide, comparing 63 different countries. The survey gathered information about participants’ compassion toward others in general, such as their tendency to imagine others’ point of view. Any country that had too few participants relative to other countries were omitted.

While coming in within the top 10 countries in the world isn’t too shabby, we have to wonder: What makes Ecuador number one? And how can Americans be more empathetic?

Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, writes that 98 percent of us have brains that are wired to be empathetic, but most of us live far below our “empathic potential.” Here are three ways that all of us can be more compassionate human beings.

1. Open up your ears

Listen. Are you listening? OK, now listen harder. If you were in Ecuador, that’s what you do because, there, cutting to the chase in conversation is considered very rude. Listening sounds so simple, but truly listening to others is a lot harder to do than we often realize. Your own train of thought often overpowers what the person in front of you is saying, unintentionally. Psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, says that empathy isn’t about speaking from the heart. “You speak with the eyes,” he says. “You speak with the body. If you say any words at all, it’s because you are not sure you are with the person. So you may say some words. But the words are not empathy. Empathy is when the other person feels the connection to with what’s alive in you.” According to Rosenberg’s research, employee-employer disputes are resolved 50 percent faster if each side repeats what the other person has just said before speaking.

2. Ask people about their lives

In Ecuador, you say Buenos días to everyone. The idea that there’s always time for pleasantries is something that’s culturally ingrained. In many parts of the United States, such an attitude would be considered quaint—and not in a good way. But there’s really something to be said for small talk. After all, it’s easy to make assumptions about people and their habits or professions when you don’t know them. It’s not so easy to learn how wrong we may have been about someone. Krznaric suggests talking to strangers or sort-of strangers like your barista. Ask her how her day is going. You don’t have to be intrusive to find out just a little bit about her. “A good prescription for empathetic health is to have a conversation with a stranger at least once a week that gets beyond superficial talk,” he writes.

But, beyond strangers, lead researcher Chopik suggests cultivating and tending to your deep personal relationships, too: “People are struggling more than ever to form meaningful close relationships,” he said. So don’t just interact with your friends on Facebook, set up a real dinner, or even just a phone call. Those meaningful relationships with others help us care about another person’s hopes and dreams, as well as their problems.

MORE TO READ: Anxiety on the rise: how empathy & understanding can help sufferers cope

3. Swap shoes for a day

American culture has a lot of great drive, always striving for success, but sometimes that can create tunnel vision, too. We get caught up in our routines and our jobs, and lose sight of other people’s lives and their day-to-day struggles. Are class divides a big issue in Ecuador, too? Yes, no doubt, but family time is also a huge priority there and something that just about everybody understands. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in the United States. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be applauding retailers for giving their employers the day off for Thanksgiving.

Though, it’s worth pointing out that there may be more cultural understanding across Ecuador than in the U.S. because the communities there tend to be less diverse. It’s easier to understand someone who has a similar cultural background as your own. Ninety-four percent of Ecuadorians are Catholic; 65 percent of Ecuadorians are mestizos (people of Spanish, Amerindian, and African descent). In the U.S., we have just about every religion, every race, every ethnicity, every linguistic group—you name it. We’re one big melting pot, which can be hard sometimes, but it’s also one of the things that’s so beautiful about America.

To build more compassion for others, volunteer at an organization that helps people you wouldn’t normally be exposed to. Or, boldly ask to shadow or swap places with someone for a day on a weekend or your day off, to get some insight into their challenges (and triumphs. There’s always some good with the bad, right?) If you can’t literally follow someone for a day, you can follow someone with a different world perspective on Instagram, or you can read books and watch movies that will broaden your horizons. For starters, check out Krznaric’s online Empathy Library.

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