Cultivating Cultural Empathy Guide

Cultivating Cultural Empathy in the Workplace – A Mini Guide

by | Oct 2, 2020 | Collaborations Across Cultures

One of humanity’s most remarkable abilities is the ability to put ourselves aside and step into the shoes of another, so that we can understand other’s thoughts, feel the emotions of others and adjust our behaviour. Empathy evolved from humanity’s need to survive. Without empathy, individuals may find themselves isolated from tribes and left alone to defend themselves in a dangerous world of predators and natural disasters.

Today, we no longer need to face the dangers of being maimed by predators in our modern world. However, we need empathy much more in our highly complex and interconnected world than ever before, in particular cultural empathy. Instead of defending ourselves against the animal world, we now face more complex issues amongst ourselves, such as microaggression, discrimination, conflict and even war. Cultural empathy is a crucial ingredient in helping to solve these complex issues, and it brings many benefits to ourselves and society. Yet, as we face both internal and external barriers, developing cultural empathy may not be easy.

The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. Meryl Streep

The Importance of Cultural Empathy

We need Cultural Empathy more than ever before. With Cultural Empathy, we reap significant benefits, not just for ourselves, but also in helping to heal rifts in our society. Cultural Empathy differs from empathy as we know it because it is applied specifically with people from different cultural backgrounds. Because people from different backgrounds may express their thoughts, emotions and behaviours differently from people in their own cultural experience.

For example, researcher William Tov found that emotions, such as happiness, in a culture may be expressed with cheerfulness and excitement. In contrast, another culture may express happiness with calmness and serenity. If misinterpreted, cultures that express excitement and cheerfulness may be seen as superficial, while cultures that express calm and serenity may be seen as stoic and unfeeling.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we see greater diversity in every industry and the workplace. Hence, equipping ourselves with Cultural Empathy can bring us and society many benefits.

Improved Subjective Well-Being

According to the Journal of Personality, researchers have shown that practising empathy supports in improving one’s subjective well-being. Subjective well-being is the level of satisfaction and positivity in one’s emotions and thoughts about life. People with high subjective well-being frequently experience positive emotions such as joy, pride, confidence, support, and much more with regards to various aspects of their life, such as family and career.

How does Cultural Empathy improve one’s subjective well-being? When one shows empathy towards others, especially people who are different, others will feel grateful and may respond with kindness in return. Also, when one practices empathy, we may feel as if you’re doing good for others and thus increase our sense of happiness and confidence. With the additional hurdle of cultural differences and language barriers, our ability to practice empathy affirms our sense of humanity and togetherness.

Prosocial Behaviour Encouraged

Prosocial Behaviours are thoughts, speech, actions or decisions taken by an individual that extends support for the benefit of others and the society at large. Another word for prosocial behaviour is altruism, for examples co-operating, donating, helping, sharing and volunteering. The opposite of prosocial behaviour is antisocial.

Hoffman (2000) suggested that empathy is a necessary skill to motivate individuals towards increased prosocial behaviour. Empathy allows one to value other’s welfare and to change our view of people from different backgrounds. It is easier to empathise with people from similar cultural backgrounds because it does not require additional effort to understand language, context, customs, values and beliefs.

Cultural Empathy has the power to humanise groups that were dehumanised or marginalised by tapping into our inner sense of the collective good and by sensing the inner pain and suffering experienced by others. Empathising with people from diverse backgrounds requires faith, courage and a strong belief in humanity as a whole. Cultural empathy compels and propels us to take prosocial action to reduce the suffering and injustices of others.

Cultivating Positive Relationships

One of the core benefits of practising empathy is that it fosters openness, attentiveness and presence, which are the building blocks to cultivating positive and caring relationships.

Practising empathy, especially with people from culturally diverse backgrounds, can help to strengthen relationships in the workplace, neighbourhoods, communities and even within family members. Positive relationships, in turn, can help to nurture supportive and positive environments where individuals are encouraged to flourish. Research by McAllister (2000) has found that teachers who demonstrate empathy can foster caring relationships with their culturally-diverse students, who then motivated them to excel academically.

Cultural Empathy becomes the glue of the workplace and the community, helping to build positive relationships with each member, despite differences. Reciprocity of prosocial behaviour happens in supportive and positive environments. Subsequently, everyone’s subjective well-being improves.

Career Development

As robots and artificial intelligence take over the more mundane and mindless tasks, other professions skills, such as creativity, problem-solving, researching, investigating, service, caring and much more, require more effort and focus.

Professions such as teachers, therapists, customer service, consultants and many others are facing greater diversity in the workplace and their clientele. A Singaporean doctor I once met was contemplating on her communication approach with her Filipino patients, who spoke with a heavy accent. The doctor weighed “Shall I change my way of speaking to suit the patient’s understanding? If I do, will they see it as condescending and offensive?”

While the doctor was practising empathy, deciphering cultural cues from her patient was a struggle. The doctor was not able to interpret the emotions of her patient or whether her patient understood her messages. Without Cultural Empathy, one may find themselves ineffective in their profession.

Resolve Conflict

Conflict is part of life. Living in a diverse world with people from various backgrounds, it is only natural that people will have differing views, perspectives, values, beliefs, customs, and much more. When there are differences, there is the potential for misunderstanding and for conflict to arise. Misunderstanding happens when two or more people fail to understand each other. Misunderstandings can result in disagreement of ideas, opinions and even hurt feelings. When unaddressed, the underlying emotions of discomfort, frustration, annoyance between may result in conflict and severed relationships.

However, when conflict arises in the most critical areas of our lives, we should work towards a resolution. Empathy is vital to ensure effective conflict resolution.

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, a professional in developmental psychopathology, says that

Empathy is our most valuable natural resource for conflict resolution.

An empathetic person listens to the other person’s perspectives and emotions. Essentially, an empathetic person searches within their character or life experiences that connects and resonates with the feelings and experiences of others. By doing so, empathy serves to prevent conflict from escalating and enables conflicting parties to build trust, strengthen relationships, and increase understanding.

From a cultural perspective, practising empathy requires a greater degree of openness, curiosity, suspension of judgements and patience. Conflicting parties from different cultures may express their thoughts and emotions in an unfamiliar manner and require additional effort to interpret them. Also, others might not be aware of nuances in the cultural context. For example, it might be your first time using chopsticks, and instead of placing it on the table, you stick it into the rice, so that it stands up. In Japan, doing so means wishing death upon the hosts as it resembles incense used to pray to their ancestors. With empathy, both the host and the guest will be able to resolve the misunderstanding with an empathetic conversation.

Cultural Empathy Image by Culture Spark Global

📸  by Tim Marshall 

The Barriers to Cultural Empathy

There are many benefits to one’s self and to others in practising cultural empathy. While one can have an innate sense of compassion, cultivating Cultural Empathy can be challenging. Here we will discuss some possible barriers to developing cultural empathy.

Cultural Awareness is not Cultural Empathy.

Cultural Awareness is often mistaken for Cultural Empathy. Cultural Awareness is the ability to be conscious of and recognise one’s own culture and the culture of others. Cultural Awareness encompasses one’s sensitivity towards the similarities and differences amongst people and without assigning a value of either positive or negative, right or wrong. Cultural Awareness means recognising there are differences.

While Cultural Awareness is essential in establishing and building intercultural relationships, awareness alone is not enough. Being Culturally Aware does not mean that one would change their minds or adjust their behaviours when interacting with another culture. For example, two managers from different cultures spoke with varying styles of communication, one was direct, and one was indirect. The direct manager, who was more senior, gave “constructive feedback” and instructions to the more junior manager in front of their subordinates. The indirect manager felt offended because it made them lose face in front of others. Tensions arose, and the HR manager stepped in to mediate a conversation between them. While both the managers are aware and recognise the different communication styles, the junior manager bitterly accepted the reality. In contrast, the senior manager refused to adapt their ways, stating that “I’m just being myself.”

Cultural Empathy requires us to take it a step further. By translating Cultural Awareness meaningful behaviours, thoughts and actions that can improve our communication, professions and even our relationships.

Stereotype and Prejudice

Stereotypes are generalised beliefs of a particular group of people. There can be both positive and negative stereotypes. The clear advantage of stereotype is that it helps us to respond to situations quickly if we had similar experiences before. However, stereotype encourages us to ignore individual differences. Most importantly, the stereotypes are often caricatures of reality.

Culture has provided us with ready-made stereotypes, such as the young are reckless, the elderly are stubborn, the Chinese are good at math, Indians like to negotiate, the French are romantic, and many more. However, stereotypes impose expectations on a group, whether it’s necessary or not. The root word of prejudice is judge. Prejudice refers to the act of judging before, which is to form a negative opinion, feeling or attitude towards a group of people, without first evaluating the situation. Prejudice came from stereotypes and evolved to be a deeply rooted belief and attitude towards a particular group.

People who hold firmly to their prejudice will only look for information that confirms their beliefs and ignores any information that opposes it. Prejudice is a mental and emotional filter. Both the heart and the head are closed to anything new or different. Prejudice does not just impact a group of people; it can also cause one to perform poorly in their profession. For example, a doctor may hold prejudice against a particular race. Subsequently, they may provide indigent health care or may refuse to provide treatment entirely.

However, Cultural Empathy requires us to do the opposite, to have our hearts softened and our minds broadened to the diversity of people and situations in the world. Cultural Empathy beckons us to deeply recognise that not everyone follows their stereotype and to connect with others at a person to person level. Thus, people who hold prejudices will find it challenging to practice Cultural Empathy.

Competitive Threat

Competitive Threat means that one group perceives another group to be a potential rival when competing for resources, status or power. Research has suggested that empathy is not inevitable and that humans have a tendency to empathise with people from the same group rather than people from other groups. The research goes further to say that people feel pleasure when they see people from different groups in pain. Likewise, feel pain when people from other groups feel pleasure.

For example, in football or soccer, it is a common occurrence for fans of winning teams to provoke the fans of the losing team by mocking, criticising and heckling. By acting out and expressing the pleasure of winning towards the fans of the losing team who are in pain, when in the extreme, may provoke threats, mobs and even rioting.

When you view an individual as “other” AND a possible threat, it is challenging to practice empathy. An individual identified as “other” stems from your personal beliefs in the stereotypes of the group. When you view individuals as “others”, it will be challenging to establish a connection, build trust and strengthen relationships. It also encourages toxic workplaces and communities to fester as well as signals to others in the same group that it is normal to treat “others” poorly.

The Universalist Approach

On the other hand, some people do not believe that we should not look at differences, but rather similarities instead. We are all humans that come from the same genetic lineage from our ancestors in Africa. As humans, we all experience similar emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and surprise. Also, as humans, our life experiences are similar in that we are born, study, work, marry and die.

By searching for similarities, a common ground can be the foundation of building a strong team or community. While this approach is effective in building strong teams, extreme reliance on this approach may inadvertently dismiss the crucial differences in culturally-diverse individuals. For example, the “All Lives Matter” appeared in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Many have criticised the “All Lives Matter” movement dismisses and belittles the concerns and social injustices faced by African Americans.

This Universalist approach looks at the group and not at individuals. By using the Universalist approach, one may not be practising Cultural Empathy which requires attention, and recognition of the individual differences. The Universalist approach should be used consciously and mindfully by taking into consideration cultural nuances of individuals and when it’s most beneficial to the team or community.

Human’s aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathise with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Cultivating of Cultural Empathy

There are many available frameworks on Cultural Empathy. Generally, the framework looks at three major components which are:

  • Cognitive empathy – the ability to understand thoughts and perspectives of the other person in a particular situation.
  • Emotional empathy – the ability to sense the feelings of the other person in a particular situation.
  • Behavioural empathy – the ability to adjust our actions and demonstrate that their thoughts and emotions are understood

When we practice Cultural Empathy, there is a delicate dance between the interaction, where parties respond to each other’s cues, and the adjustment of behaviours. Cultural Empathy is a skill in which one needs

  • observe and detect cognitive, emotional and behavioural cues

  • to respond to the cues,

  • monitor the response of others,

  • reassess and adjust one’s assumptions mental models concerning the other

  • and to go through the cycle again.

Here are three methods in which we can cultivate Cultural Empathy within ourselves.

Get some life experience with diverse groups of people and write in journals.

If not through interaction, expose yourself to different media. Gain a deeper understanding of your cultural values, beliefs, norms and how you react to various situations. When you are out of your routine environment, either on holiday or visiting an unfamiliar place, your values and beliefs will be made conscious. They will be used as a guide to navigate unfamiliar territory.

For example, you arrived in a new city for a business trip. As you were walking to the office, an old lady who is a street vendor started shouting at you in a foreign language. What would you do? Do you run? Do you shout back? Do you look curiously at her and walk off? Do you approach her and ask ‘what’s the matter?’ Whatever the action may be, it stems from your values and beliefs of confrontation. This allows you to reflect and make notes of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the moment.

As we continue to build on our life experiences, and being conscious of our emotions, thoughts and behaviours, it’ll be much easier to use these experiences to connect with another person who might be going through a similar situation. Although, we must always be careful not to project or impose our thoughts and feelings onto the other. For example, two different people who go through a divorce may not feel the same way about the situation, one might be grieving, and one might feel a great sense of relief. 

Be curious. Ask and listen.

We will not be able to empathise with all types of people and in all situations, and that is okay. When it happens, keep an open mind, be curious and ask. You can ask simple questions such

  • What are your thoughts?

  • What are you feeling right now?

  • What does this action or word mean to you?

Once you ask, listen deeply to their answers. This is incredibly difficult when the person holds opposing values from your own. For example, if you believe in pro-life, where we should protect the lives of unborn children, it would be challenging to practice empathy if we were to connect a woman who had an abortion. If you do find yourself in this situation, note it in your journal. Take the time out to think about how you can respond to such situations that reflect your values and beliefs authentically. Taking the time out will give you a chance to formulate a response that is not marred or blinded by emotions.

Practice and observe some more.

No one can develop their skills unless there is practice. One way to practice empathy is to imagine yourself in the other person’s position as they describe their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Link it to your own life experiences. To confirm, you can summarise and reflect to them what you have heard and then observe their reaction.

If it’s not done successfully, the other person may show greater distress, shut down, or may start to argue. With Cultural Empathy, the other person will be more engaged in the conversation, will be more open to share their story and seek a deeper connection with you. Whatever the outcome might be, keep practising, observe and write in your journal.

Cultural Empathy makes the world go round

Empathy is one of our most extraordinary abilities. Empathy helps us to connect with others and thrive in groups. It is essential for survival. In our highly connected, diverse and globalised world, we need empathy, Cultural Empathy in particular, more than ever before. Developing Cultural Empathy has many benefits, as well as challenges. We hope this mini-guide, will get you started your journey in developing Cultural Empathy and grow your global tribe.

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Ling Ling Tai's Animated Photo

Ling Ling, Tai

Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Her lifelong work spans across 21 countries and across various industries such as manufacturing, technology, travel and non-profit. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and inclusion creates  thriving and engaging workplaces.

Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.

Mohsin Hamid

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