The use of pronouns and other functional words may provide a clue about our social status, our tendency to tell the truth, or how well we perform in academics. However in many circles today the desired characteristic is “emotional intelligence.” What exactly is this? Empathy, or the ability to sense what others are feeling usually ranks high on the lists of characteristics used to describe emotional intelligence. Is it possible to tell how empathetic a person will be by their speech patterns?
In order to find out, it helps to be able to judge the level of empathy in people. Ways of measuring empathy for research include a self-report survey such as the emphatic concern scale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index developed by M.H. Davis. According to Davis empathy is defined as “reactions of one individual to the observed experiences of another.” It doesn’t measure this trait by how often a person says “Ah, I feel for you.” Rather it is how much an individual agrees or disagrees with statements such as: “I would describe myself as a pretty soft-hearted person.”
Evidently empathy is not shown by uttering certain words as much as body language. Empathy is evidenced by “more head nods, more eye contact, more smiling, more open body posture” according to Aleksandr Kogan, at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. Kogan measured empathy in his research by rating scales used by observers watching touching scenes between couples talking about a painful experience in their life. However Kogan used this research to validate another way to measure empathy – the level of the hormones, oxytocin. Variations in increase in the level of two hormones: oxytocin and vasopressin create the feeling of empathy according to University at Buffalo researchers Michael J. Poulin and Annette E. K. Buffone.
But the action of seeing oneself in another’s position is a two-edged sword. Let us look as one of the statements indicating greater empathy on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index: “When I see someone being taken advantage of, I feel kind of protective towards them.” The person that you are being protective towards may sense the kindness of your word and actions. However the person that you are protecting them from will sense something more like aggression. The expression of empathy may be shown by two different behaviors. Indeed Poulin and Buffone studies have shown that oxytocin and vasopressin increase both when a person shows greater compassion towards an individual and greater harshness to the individual’s adversary.
What words show a person is empathetic? It depends whether you are the object of their empathy or the brunt of their reaction to empathy for another.