The Universal Language of Empathy

March 20, 2017


It’s the morning of my son’s first online French lesson. His tutor, Patrice, lives in Marseille, on the southeast coast of France. Trey, an unabashed five-year-old, says, “Patrice sounds like a girl name.” "We shall see," I say to drum up some suspense, even though I know from his profile that Patrice is a monsieur. 


The 30-minute lesson starts at 7:30 am (that’s 1:30 pm in Marseille). We’re up early and all set by 7 am--laptop front and center, a bowl of dry cheerios for Trey and a big mug of brown-sugar coffee for me. At 7:25 am, Trey is buzzing--a ball of nervous energy mixed with cereal power. And then, “Brrmm-Brm-Brm-Brrmm!” Trey nearly jumps out of his seat as I fumble to answer the video call.


“Bonjour, Trey!” Patrice chirps, sitting in what appears to be his dining room, a painting of an elephant hanging on the wall behind him. Trey looks at me and I nod. “Go ahead, Trey.”   


“Bonjour,” he whispers.


Patrice, a middle aged man with round glasses and a trendy haircut, waves wildly like a cartoon character and gives Trey a thumbs up. Trey smiles shyly and gives him a reluctant thumbs up back.


Patrice starts the lesson by asking Trey about his school--in English. He asks him about Virginia where we live, his family and his best friends. And then Patrice says, “Trey, comment dit-on ‘sandwich’?”



“YES! You got it! Go, Trey, Gooooo,” Patrice cheers. “Comment dit-on ‘zoo’, Trey?”



“WOOT-WOOT-WOOT! Trey, that’s right! You know so much French already!”


“Okay, now, this is a tough one, Trey,” says Patrice. “Comment dit-on ‘taxi’?”


“Hmmm…,” Trey thinks. “Taxi!”

“Yayyyyy! That’s right,” Patrice hooted and virtually high-fived.


As Trey beamed, I thought to myself how smart of Patrice to start his introductory lesson with words that are the same in both English and French. It was an instant  barrier breaker for these two individuals who, on the surface, couldn’t be more polar opposite.

What if all encounters began like this--first celebrating the ways that we are the same, rather than going straight to picking out all the myriad ways that we are different; looking for common denominators and trying to understand how another person's life might mirror your own? My theory is that tolerance and respect would skyrocket, shame and insecurity would plummet, and there’d be way more multi-linguists walking around this beautiful planet of ours.


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