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What other cultures can teach us about forgiveness
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Forgiveness can mean different things depending on your culture (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)
Forgiving someone else can have a positive effect on your life, but exactly how you forgive someone depends on where in the world you are from.
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There is a simple step we can all take that could reduce our stress levels, our risk of heart disease and mental illness. It can prevent cognitive decline in later life, help you live longer, earn more money and be happier. While it is no substitute for a healthy diet and regular exercise, it costs nothing and can be done in seconds. All of this can be yours in exchange for three little words: “I forgive you.”

It is remarkable to think that this simple phrase can be so impactful. And these are just the benefits to the forgiver – so consider the unburdening of guilt on the part of the transgressor too. But an act of forgiveness doesn’t have to follow an apology. Even if the person who offended you shows no remorse, you can forgive them and reap the benefits.

“I don’t know if there is a sphere of your life that will not be positively impacted by being more forgiving,” says Loren Toussaint, a psychologist who studies forgiveness at Luther College, Iowa, US. For Toussaint, there’s no argument for holding back an olive branch.

If you think of our cultural influences, too, forgiveness is everywhere. Is there a culture or religion on this planet that does not encourage reconciliation whether with your God or fellow human?

However, despite how seemingly near-universal forgiveness is, not all acts are created equal. Our cultures and our personal psychologies affect how we choose to offer forgiveness, and the benefits that come with it.

The English translation of “ho'oponopono” doesn't quite do justice to the practice of reconciliation and forgiveness it encompasses in Hawaii (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

The English translation of “ho'oponopono” doesn't quite do justice to the practice of reconciliation and forgiveness it encompasses in Hawaii (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

“When you cross cultural borders, it becomes not important, but crucial, that the approach towards forgiveness be culturally sensitive and appropriate,” says Toussaint. An act of forgiveness in one culture might mean something completely different in the other – it might actually make tensions worse.

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Are there universally-recognised qualities to forgiveness that are the same around the world? And what can we learn about the differences between our forgiving tendencies?

The reasons we forgive

Western countries like the US or the UK tend to have more individualistic cultures, which means Western people often put personal gain before helping the wider group (whether that is their family, friends or colleagues). Other countries, like those in Asia and Africa, are more inclined to put the group first – these are called collectivistic cultures.

It is broadly true that individualists use forgiveness to relieve a burden, clear their conscience, or to feel they have done the right thing. Collectivists by comparison, use forgiveness to preserve social harmony. For the latter, forgiveness might be offered even if that individual still feels resentment towards their transgressor, because it is their duty to keep the group happy.

To decide you will forgive and then withhold it emotionally for most individuals would be very disconcerting – Loren Toussaint

These are broad observations – some people from the West can have more collectivistic traits and vice versa. “There is typically as much variability within a group as across groups,” says Toussaint. “It really amounts more to an individual worldview than cleanly sliced across cultures.”  But on average cultures tend to divide along these lines, and as a result, the language and strategies we use for forgiving are similarly divided.

Some psychologists describe forgiveness as having two separate types.

On one hand is decisional forgiveness, which is colder, cognitive and analytical. A collectivist might decide to forgive after weighing up whether it will keep the group happy. The choice to be made by a collectivist is: will drawing a line under this offence be the best thing for everyone else?

The other type is emotional forgiveness – where reconciliation is offered to satisfy an emotional need in the transgressed and as a result is more common in individualistic people. This is sometimes used to explain the difference between collectivistic and individualistic approaches. But it might not always be that simple.

The word “ubuntu” in the Zulu language is more of a philosophy of forgiveness and reconciliation based on a shared humanity (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

The word “ubuntu” in the Zulu language is more of a philosophy of forgiveness and reconciliation based on a shared humanity (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

Does putting the needs of the group first leave the forgiver dissatisfied? What about their emotional needs?

“The question is whether emotional forgiveness follows decisional forgiveness in collectivistic people,” says Toussaint. “Something called cognitive dissonance might interfere.” In short, it’s difficult for people to say one thing and believe another – our brains struggle to allow two contradictory thoughts to exist and it creates additional psychological stress. As a result, if we say we believe something, that belief tends to materialise.

“To decide you will forgive and then withhold it emotionally for most individuals would be very disconcerting,” says Toussaint. “Sometimes, especially when acts of forgiveness are made public, they draw us emotionally in line with those commitments.”

This reasoning is one reason why vegetarianism and veganism can become an entire life philosophy for some people, and not just a diet. They believe the reasons for their diet are important and it permeates elsewhere – such as in the clothes they buy and charities they support. Likewise, for someone who arrives at a cold, calculated reason to forgive, it is likely that the emotional satisfaction will follow suit. Perhaps then, if you want to benefit from being more forgiving, you can start by deciding to forgive even if you are not yet emotionally invested.

How do you say “I forgive you”?

Language plays an important part in our interpretation of emotions. It’s very common for feelings to manifest in different ways depending on the language you speak. The people of Tahiti, for example, have no word for “sadness”, writes Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, and author of How Emotions Are Made.

“When Tahitians are in a situation that a Westerner would describe as sad, they feel ill, troubled, fatigued or unenthusiastic, all of which are covered by their broader term ‘pe'ape'a’’, which means ‘worries’,” she writes. Sadness is not one of their worries, instead their language is more specific and sophisticated. So, when a Westerner might say they feel sad, a Tahitian might say they feel physically sick, and due to cognitive dissonance, a physical sensation follows.

Ghana has more than 50 languages, which makes choosing a definition for “forgiveness” tricky if you want to study it there

The same is true of forgiveness. Take Hawaii, for example. As a US state, it is something of an outlier. It is the only state never to have had a white majority and scores 91 on the collectivism index (19 points higher than the second most collectivistic state).

In Hawaiian there is a term called “ho'oponopono”. “‘I am sorry, please forgive me, I love you’, is the really grossly oversimplified way to describe it,” says Toussaint. Like other collectivistic values, this culturally-unique saying is taught from an early age in Hawaii. Similarly, the Zulu language from South Africa has “ubuntu”, which roughly means “showing humanity towards others”, and in Sierra Leone people use “fambul tok” (literally, “family talk” in Krio, one of the local languages) to offer forgiveness.

“These are conceptualisations of what I might call a ‘forgiving spirit’ that likely do not have cultural equivalents in Westernised [individualistic] cultures,” says Toussaint.

Ghana has more than 50 languages, which makes choosing a definition for “forgiveness” tricky if you want to study it there. Annabella Osei-Tutu, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Ghana, interviewed Ghanaians in English for one study, but acknowledged that for many people “forgiveness” does not translate well – often the closest term is an entire phrase.

The Krio phrase "fambul tok" stems from the tradition of discussing and resolving issues within a close family circle (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

The Krio phrase "fambul tok" stems from the tradition of discussing and resolving issues within a close family circle (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

In Akan, one of the languages Osei-Tutu speaks, forgiveness translates as “bͻne fa kyɛ” or “bͻne fa firi”. “‘Bͻne’ loosely translates as ‘wrong’ or ‘transgression’ and ‘fa kyɛ’ and ‘fa firi’ both loosely translate into English as ‘let go’ or ‘forgive’,” says Osei-Tutu. “However, they are qualitatively nuanced. ‘Firi’ has the connotation of borrowing or giving someone a loan, whereas ‘kyɛ’ carries the notion of ‘gifting’.

“The moment you try talking to people in local languages you get some richer meanings than when they communicate in English.”

Like other African countries, Ghana has a largely collectivistic culture, with strong norms around deferring to gender and age. It is normal for a younger person to offer forgiveness to an older person, even if the older person was the transgressor, in order to maintain social harmony. Young people are expected to hide their annoyance. Likewise, deference is paid towards men. Within couples, an act of forgiveness is more likely to be offered when the offending party accompanies their apology with physical gestures, such as kneeling, prostrating, clasping their hands and generally changing their body position to be submissive towards the transgressed.

“It is not enough to say ‘I’m sorry’, they want to see the orientation change to show how terrible you feel,” says Osei-Tutu. “This was very important to them. If you have wronged a partner and are not willing to go down on your knees it means you are not sorry.”

When people come across a transgression, they put it under the table – and in doing so they transform their emotional behaviour towards the transgressor – Man Yee Ho

Osei-Tutu says there are similarities with other aspects of Ghanaian culture, such as demonstrations of grief, which might be accompanied by flamboyant gestures.

Chinese cultures are “not quite used to using the term ‘forgiveness’” either, says Man Yee Ho, a behavioural scientist at City University of Hong Kong. Translated into Mandarin Chinese, "宽恕” [kuānshù], is quite formal and gives the impression that the committed offence was very serious. Kuānshù is closely related to religion – this type of forgiveness conjures images of divine forgiveness handed down from a god – and would be quite inappropriate for one person to offer another unless there was a really serious transgression.

There is another term that is used by Chinese-speaking people: “原谅” [yuan liang], which is a bit like “forbearance” in English. Taking the maintenance of social harmony to another level, the transgressed might completely overlook someone’s mistake so as not to even mention it. “People don’t like the idea of directly addressing a transgression,” says Ho. “Forbearance” comes more easily to mind, she says.

It is usually associated with trivial problems, like lateness or untidiness, and generally means that the transgressed is prepared to ignore the problem in order to maintain harmony. “When people come across a transgression, they put it under the table – and in doing so they transform their emotional behaviour towards the transgressor,” says Ho.

The Chinese Mandarin word "kuānshù" is reserved for the most serious of transgressions (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

The Chinese Mandarin word "kuānshù" is reserved for the most serious of transgressions (Credit: BBC/Getty Images)

Clearly there is potential for causing offence if in one culture it is customary to ignore a minor transgression and to raise it at all would be offensive to the group, while in other cultures a more direct approach is normal. This poses questions for how apologies might be offered by nations to indigenous peoples for crimes against them. As Francesca Dominello of MacQuarie University, Australia, says little attention is paid to the responses of indigenous peoples, which might not be what Westerners expect.

The good news is that on a personal level you can learn to be more forgiving. And, like any other skill, “the more time you devote to working on forgiving the better you become at it,” says Toussaint.

The Reach intervention (Recall, empathise, show altruism, commit and hold onto forgiveness) is a commonly taught way of promoting forgiving qualities. It has been shown to work in both Western and Eastern cultures, though Reach works better when the transgressor and transgressed share a belief system. The simple acronym is easy enough for anyone to follow, says Toussaint.

The intervention teaches that forgiveness has to start with understanding why you felt hurt by the offender and why they might have caused that hurt. Was it malicious of them, or accidental? If there was malice, had you done anything to upset them? The acronym finishes with two similar points on commitment: forgiveness is not a one-time decision. You might need to see the offender again if they are family or a colleague, so you have to be prepared to stand by your decision to forgive them and not renege on your commitment.

Toussaint encourages us all to work on our forgiveness, though he warns it is important to be considerate of other people's differences, whether a result of their culture or worldview. But if the benefits are just one tenth of those highlighted at the start of this piece, surely we can all find room in the current climate to be a little more forgiving.

William Park is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets at @williamhpark

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