It’s All About Perspective: Measuring Your Own Culture By Another’s Yardstick

Imagine you’ve been living in your host country for two years. 

By now, you know a lot about its norms and values. You know what behaviors are viewed as “good” and “bad.” You respect these views and have adapted your own cultural behaviors where you can.

At this point, you may have even begun to appreciate certain values and norms in your host culture. And, moreover, you can see your own culture through your host’s cultural lens.

In doing so, you might be noticing some things about your culture that no longer sit right with you.

Let’s take a look.

The Wisdom of Elders

Many African cultures highly value the elders in their communities.

They may sit on councils that govern these communities or even judge disputes in the village. They are respected and believed to be wise.

Being as such, elders are often cared for by younger generations and live in the homes of their children. Outside help to care for them is not the norm.

Societal health in such cultures is represented by the degree to which the elderly are cared for in society.

So, imagine for a moment the idea of a nursing home in such cultures. The concept of abandoning an elder to the care of a stranger would be, without question, taboo.

Due to this difference in perspective, these cultures are shocked by the way Western cultures treat their elderly. They view these values and norms pertaining to the elderly as a sign of an unhealthy culture.

And having been entrenched in their culture, in some cases, you might start seeing your own in the same way.

Take Pride in Being Different, Not in Being “Superior”

Managing people from different cultures requires that you check your cultural ego at the door. If you don’t, it will get in the way of cultural integration.

So, think about other aspects of your culture and how they might be viewed by your host.

Consider values and norms surrounding family, honor, hospitality, wealth-sharing, etc. 

How might your hosts see these the standards you place on each topic in your country?

Be aware that measuring the “success” of a culture is always measured in terms of one’s own values and norms. The culture doing the measuring will always set the standards of measurement thereby being the yardstick by which to be measured (see ethnocentricity).

Knowing your host’s standards might help calibrate a picture of your own culture against their yardstick. 

This is not to say that one way is superior to the other, and it is important to be proud of your own cultural heritage. But considering your host culture’s standards of measurement will help to keep your own ethnocentricity in check.

Taking Action: Learning to Admire Other Cultures

Let’s take a trip around the world.

First up, Italy, where you enjoy long leisurely meals full of wine and laughter. Dining is viewed as an active pleasure in Italian culture. Italians spend double the time eating each day on average when compared to Americans. In experiencing this, you soak it in, socialize, and feel more relaxed.

Next, you hop south of the Mediterranean to Morocco, where you navigate through a market known as a souk. There, you haggle with shopkeepers over bits and bobs. You enjoy the “game” and the strategy involved.

A flight takes you to Rio de Janeiro, where you enroll in a samba class. It’s exhilarating to dance in this warm new style, taught to you by a pro.

You next travel to Japan, where you take part in a tea ceremony. You find the tradition fascinating and the emphasis on politeness admirable.

During this trip around the world, you were open to appreciating the customs and attributes of each culture – a trait that will greatly aid your cross-cultural integration

Admiration

We discussed the Colonial Superiority Complex and how it may be difficult for those from Western cultures to shed their ethnocentricity in order to see the value in other cultures.

But if you don’t try, you’re at a net loss.

Throughout history, the West has not always been economically superior to other cultures.

Muslim cultures, for centuries, were more scientifically advanced and economically powerful than European cultures.

In fact, Emperor Mansa Musa of Mali is considered by many historians to be the richest man in world history.

Neither Warren Buffet, nor Bill Gates could compete.

Mansa Musa lived during the 13th and 14th centuries and was so wealthy that he is said to have done his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca flanked by a caravan of tens of thousands, some of whom hauled hundreds of pounds of gold for Musa to splash out on extravagances. He also spread his wealth across Africa in the form of educational centers and mosques.

In today’s money, his fortune is estimated to be around $400 billion. Comparatively, Jeff Bezo’s net worth is currently half that.

Asia’s Economic Growth

More recently, Japan’s economic growth in the ‘80s, with brands like Sony and Toyota booming, made America check their superiority complex at the door.

They faced competition on the global stage, prompting cross-cultural research on a scale never before seen.

Moreover, China’s rise over the last three decades shows that the West does not hold a monopoly over the global economy.

This is all to say that while you appreciate your own culture’s achievements and history, you should also recognize the achievements of other cultures.

Humanity’s heritage is woven with threads of the accomplishments, discoveries, and inventions of people from different backgrounds. All the world is an invaluable part of this tapestry.

Making an active effort to recognize this will put things in sharper relief for you – in a context more objective  – and will ultimately aid your cross-cultural integration.

Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.

The Colonial Superiority Complex: Why Adapting to Another Culture is a Struggle for The West

Do you easily adapt to another culture? Do you find value in another’s values and seek to understand norms and behaviors?

For Westerners, in particular, this step in cultural integration is difficult.

And its difficulty has its roots in history.

The Colonial Superiority Complex

Samuel P. Huntington, American political scientist and former director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, considers two opposing civilizations as particularly dangerous: the Muslim world and Western civilization.

Why did he consider these two civilizations to be dangerous?

1) Their “superiority complex” in relation to other cultures

2) Their willingness to enforce their values and norms on others

In this case, we’re defining “civilization” as a group of cultures that share history and values.

In his groundbreaking book, The Clash of Civilization, he writes, 

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. […] The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” 

Published in the nineties, a number of Huntington’s predictions unfolded in reality. These two civilizations did indeed come to a head in many conflicts along the “fault lines” and continue to today.

Both Muslim civilization and Western civilization have a history of invading other cultures and universally imposing their rule of law and way of life through violence.

While all civilizations enter into war for access to resources, some in history have notably allowed the local culture to remain without much or any interference.

Others, however, attempt to convert cultures to their own way of life, often buoyed by religion.

Consider this: if your belonging to a civilization is based on race (for instance, Chinese or Slavic civilizations), the culture cannot expand.

However, if belonging is built on behavior, values, and norms, then yes, conquered people can adapt to the lifestyle.

European Colonialism in Africa

A vivid illustration of this lies in Africa.

20th century European colonialism exploited the continent both economically and culturally.

Schools, universities, and churches were built, so Western values and norms could be exported.

The political leaders in the West at that time viewed their culture as superior, so imposing it on others came with the territory.

However, as failed attempts at implementing working democracies in North Africa have shown, an external force imposing culture in this fashion does not work and instead results in civil war and failed states (e.g. Libya, Syria).

Although that’s not to say democracy will never work in other countries, a shift from ethnic culture to national culture is required, and such a shift in mentality takes willingness and time.

The West didn’t allow either.

China in Africa

On the other hand, there’s China.

Without anyone noticing, China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner, with more than $200 billion in annual goods exchanged.

During the first decade of the 21st century, a million Chinese expats have moved to Africa, largely as traders and laborers.

But the Chinese approach is different than Western colonialism. No attempts have been made by China to promote their culture on the continent.

There are no Chinese missionaries, think tanks, schools, or cultural centers. China is there purely for economic benefit; not to globally expand their culture and civilization.

African culture and political systems are left untouched by their largest trading partner.

This is the difference in approach. And this historical difference is why those from Western cultures find learning and adapting to another culture to be difficult.

Next week, we’ll talk about how to overcome that.

Sink or Swim: How to Stay Afloat When Thrown Off the Deep-end of a Foreign Culture

Whether you’re an expat adapting to a foreign country or an international manager in one’s own country working in a multicultural environment, you must ready yourself for integration.

To integrate means to “bring together and become part of a whole.”

As a foreign or international manager, it’s your duty to bring your team together – to make it a cohesive whole – and you can do this by taking action.

Sink or Swim

Just as you prepare yourself for negotiations, coming up with your objectives and the strategy you might use to achieve them, you must also prepare yourself for integration into a foreign culture.

As with every aspect of meticulously planned business – from putting together engaging presentations that appeal to clients to scheduling your time down to the minute – a cross-cultural business venture requires an extra layer of planning: preparing for the cultural differences and those potential monkey moments that accompany them.

Depending on your organization, you might not even receive cross-cultural skills training prior to departure.

This leaves you two options: take it upon yourself to prepare beforehand or just wing it when you arrive in your host country.

Either way, your host country colleagues and the friends you make will essentially become your “trainers,” while your entire host country – from its local streets, shops, and restaurants to your workplace itself – will be your training venue.

Daily interactions with locals, friends, and colleagues will become hands-on training.

You’ll be thrown in the deep-end and told to sink or swim.

Here’s how you swim.

Learn How to Prepare

In order to successfully swim when thrown off the deep-end, you must eliminate, as much as you possibly can, the culture shock.

This phase is called “Taking Action.”

Taking action involves a conscious effort to adapt smoothly and quickly, avoiding monkey moments in the process.

Being that you’ve already taken the first step of cross-cultural integration – Awareness – you’re already able to reduce cultural monkey moments by following the next steps: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting.

Accepting, Adapting, and Adopting are generic steps that help you integrate into any culture. 

However, knowing the culture in which you’ll be living, you can take specific action to prepare yourself, for example, by learning the cultural values and norms prior to arrival.

In the next few weeks, this blog will discuss a general methodology to efficiently learn the scope of a new culture.

Active Listening & Empathy: How to Communicate More Openly Across Cultures

Part of walking around in someone else’s skin, in their experience, requires knowing what their experience is in the first place.

This is where active listening comes in.

Why We Don’t Listen Well

Like empathy, itself, active listening is a conscious process.

You can’t leave your ears open and turn your brain off and assume that, just by nodding along, you are honing your listening skills.

Business relations are fueled by the powerful psychological tool of active listening.

Why?

Because active listening results in mutual understanding.

Think of your last face-to-face conversation.

Do you recall what your conversation partner spoke about? In how much detail could you relate what they said?

If your account recalls more of your side of the conversation than theirs, you may want to ask yourself two questions:

1) Are you talking more than listening?

2) Are you even listening when you’re not talking?

We are often distracted while in conversation, splitting our attention between thinking about what we will next share and listening.

Particularly when the dialogue is more of a debate, we tend to turn our ears off, as we’re more focused on formulating our response than we are in taking in another’s conflicting point of view.

Assumptions are made, because we’ve all heard the “talking points” before. So, whether or not the other is making a new and interesting point, we assume they’re rattling off old news.

The focus, then, is on winning the argument.

But the argument would be much more constructive if both parties opened their ears.

The Structure of Active Listening

  1. Focus
    When active listening, your focus should be on the speaker.
    Put down your phone, look directly at the speaker, turn the part of you off that is already formulating your argument, and really listen to what the speaker is saying.
    If you are multitasking or otherwise distracted, you aren’t giving your full attention and consideration to your partner.
  2. Repeat
    The speaker should also be aware that they’re being heard.
    One way to show you’re listening is to repeat what the speaker has said back to them in a way that recounts what you’ve picked up.
    For instance, the speaker is sharing a personal issue with you. After listening to their issue in its entirety without interrupting, you might respond, “So, if I understand correctly, you’re saying…” followed by a summary of what you’ve been told.
    You don’t have to agree with what they’re saying; but in reformulating what you’ve heard in your own words, you are validating their perspective in that you’ve listened with focus and fully understood them.
    It also helps you, as the listener, switch perspective.
    Sometimes you’ll find your own cultural framework has made you misinterpret something.
    By repeating, the speaker can see that you didn’t quite understand them and clear up their perspective, making this communication more effective.
  3. Open Up
    When in cultural conflict, one is often defensive and refuses to see their opponent’s situational perspective.
    Our natural instinct is to then not listen at all and only to have our voices heard.
    We lash out and might even get personal, which is not effective in bridging the divide.
    Active listening combats that, making both parties feel heard and allowing people to open up.
    A solution is more likely to be arrived at through active listening than through combative conflict.

Through empathy and the tools we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, you’ll be able to better communicate and deal with conflict cross-culturally.

QUERY: “How can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based?”

Rules or relationships.

Where is the emphasis placed in your culture? Which is valued more?

Identifying where your values lie will tell you whether you’ve grown up in a relationship-based culture or a rule-based culture.

Once you discover what grounds you, you may wonder how these values impact the mechanics of your culture and your own decision-making and moral perspective.

Let’s take a look.

A Query in Context

I recently received an email query about rule-based versus relationship-based cultures.

The anonymous author wrote:

“I’m a lawyer in the USA, and I tend to be more black/white and rule-based. I’ve encountered attorneys and judges that don’t seem to care about the rules (aka the law) and it can be frustrating…

When I think about it, how can the law have any place in a society that is not rule-based? Your example of lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution for killing someone in a school zone by speeding in a relationship-based society flaunts the law. It supports the whims of men, which may change from time to time much faster than the law. It destroys expectations…

How can I plan for the future when some bureaucrat may decide the law doesn’t apply to my adversary, contract counterparty, tortfeasor, etc? It supports dishonesty and bribery, as is common, at least more overtly, in the rest of the world.

What about judicial and lawyer ethics codes? How can those matter if you live in a non-rule-based society? It’s OK that I lied to the court to protect my client/brother? Really? That can’t be ‘right.’ Moral relativism must have a stopping point…”

Let’s see if we can clear a few of these questions up.

Rule of Law in Culture

The post anonymous is referring to is Rule of Law in Culture: Are Laws More Important Than Relationships?

It describes a study in which U.S. and Venezuelan managers were surveyed about the hypothetical scenario described.

U.S. participants more heavily leaned toward testifying against their friend who broke the law, while two thirds of Venezuelan managers said they would lie in their testimony to cover for the friend.

The scenario illustrates where each cultures values lie.

But just because a culture prioritizes relationships over rules does not mean the rules don’t exist or apply.

All societies have rules. Sometimes those rules are relationship-based, as described in my post, Relationship- vs. Rule-Based Cultures: Socially-Based Control vs. Individual Autonomy.

The post illustrates how the Shona society is ruled by a hierarchy based on familial relationships. It’s a fundamental part of their culture.

Unlike some cultures, where laws strive to be objective, the laws of the Shona society are shaped by relationships. Still, the rules exist.

This is just one example, but perhaps the misunderstanding is in what these two terms mean.

What “Rule-based” and “Relationship-based” Truly Means

Do the terms “rule-based” and “relationship-based” imply there are no rules (and no application of these rules) in the latter and no relationships in the former?

No.

It’s a matter of priority – i.e. do you break rules because of relations, or do you stick to rules, despite harming your relationships?

In rule-based cultures, an individual’s priority is, more often than not, on the law, while in relationship-based cultures, relationships take priority.

This does not mean there is no place for rule of law in relationship-based cultures. In regard to the study example, it wasn’t that the law or the legal system, the lawyer or the judge, was prioritizing relationships; it was the witness – an individual in the relationship-based society – prioritizing them.

The example about lying to protect your friend from criminal prosecution was not to indicate whether doing so is “right” or “wrong.” As we’ve also discussed in this blog, one culture’s “right” is always another one’s “wrong,” and such ideologies are shaped by primary socialization.

Anonymous questions this, writing, “Moral relativism must have a stopping point.” 

In other posts, we’ve described this stopping point. We’ve outlined what active tolerance is, how to accept conflicting cultural values, and when to personally arrive at this “stopping point” when working cross-culturally.

You might choose to draw the line of moral relativism at harm, as described in our post: “tolerance ends where harm begins.”

In this instance, your stopping point might be that your friend should be in prison. Or it might be that your friend’s life and your shared relationship is more important.

Whether or not valuing relationships over rules “flaunts the law” or is unethical is both for the society to decide and for you – on a personal level – to decide.

Prioritizing Relationships Over Rules

In a cross-cultural sense, understanding the rationale behind another culture’s priorities is the best you can do to make that decision for yourself and know where you draw the line.

To see the logic, you must empathize and understand the mechanics of the culture, which are based on the values it upholds.

Once you achieve that understanding, it’s easy to see why those who value relationships might wish to support the relationship over the law. 

Cultural Differences in Business Communication,” by John Hooker, describes exactly why one’s priority might lie with the relationship:

“In relationship-based cultures, the unit of human existence is larger than the individual, perhaps encompassing the extended family or the village. Ostracism from the group is almost a form of death, because one does not exist apart from one’s relatedness to others.”

If you’re part of a clock, do you remove the minute hand?

No.

Just as every part in a clock has a relationship to the other parts, so do the people in a relationship-based society.

When destroying that relationship means death, you’d agree that even the law is less important.

As with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, the concept of flaunting the law – stealing bread rather than letting your family starve to death – brings that idea to the fore.

What would you do? Is what you’d do “right” or “wrong”? And how does your choice reflect your values?

Prioritizing Rules Over Relationships

And, in the other vein, you can understand why those cultures who value rules might stand by the law instead of the relationship.

Rule-based cultures are usually individualist and don’t have the same level of relationship connectedness as collectivist, relationship-based cultures.

Because of this, the mechanics of the society don’t work the same.

You might remove and replace the minute hand of the clock, because it kept getting stuck.

Just as you might testify as a witness against your speeding friend, as you believe him to be a danger to society.

More importantly, your rule-based society won’t ostracize you for telling the truth, because most view justice in the same way as you do; in fact, you’ll likely even be praised for putting the rule of law over your relationship, as this is a difficult decision to face.

In both societies, rules exist. But the individual chooses where to place their loyalty, which is all based on cultural conditioning and the reciprocal relationships between individuals in a culture.

Whether or not anonymous (or anyone in a rule-based society) believes putting relationships over rules is unjustified or unethical, this doesn’t necessarily mean doing so is “wrong” or there isn’t logic and reason in such societies.

What is the Point of Law?

Anonymous ends with the question,

“So what is the point of law and lawyers in non-rule-based societies? How does it work? Is it more about manipulation, sales, and gamesmanship than seeking objective truth?”

There are benefits and costs to both types of governance.

John Shuhe Li’s article, entitled “The Benefits and Costs of Relation-based Governance: An Explanation of the East Asian Miracle and Crisis,” provides some examples of these costs/benefits.

Li first emphasizes that agreements can only be enforced through rules or relationships. If neither exist, governance resorts to violence.

Li then outlines the benefits of relationship-based governance compared to rule-based governance, writing:

“When relation-based governance works, given two transaction partners, it can enforce all mutually observable agreements (by the two parties). When one party deviates from a mutually observable agreement, the other party can punish the deviator by playing (for example) tit-for-tat strategies. In contrast, given two transaction partners, rule-based governance can only enforce a subset of the mutually observable agreements that can also be observed by third parties. Thus, perhaps a large part of monitored-activities, which are mutually observable by the monitor and the monitee but are not verifiable by a third party can be enforced by relation-based governance, but not by rule-based governance.”

He also describes how a small relationship-based market can lower transaction costs over the larger fixed cost in a rule-based market. There are some limitations in this, however, including the small number of partners one can force relations agreements with. 

Rule-based governance has its benefits, as well.

Li writes,

“In contrast, there exist economies of scale in rule-based governance; thus a firm can resort to rule-based governance to enforce contracts (impersonal agreements) with an unlimited number of partners, including strangers.”

The activity coordination of the transaction parties can result in the sharing of more technical information (information not directly related to enforcement) in relation-based governance, which is another advantage. Moreover, without all the bureaucracy, renegotiations in relation-based governance can be less costly.

Lastly, when it comes to business, the fact remains that some economies are catching-up economies and can’t rely on rule-based governance.

Li writes,

“In catching-up economies…relation-based governance is the only available mechanism to enforce agreements. Thus, investing in relations can be profitable and rational, especially in developing countries.”

While this refers to business rather than criminal law, you can see that there is a point of law and lawyers in relationship-based societies; the rules simply lean more heavily into relying on relationships to enforce the rules of an agreement and keeping relationships on good terms.

And across cultures, those terms vary.

Practicing Empathy: “How Would I Feel If…?”

Slipping into another’s skin comes easier to some than others.

Multicultural environments prepare those who grow up in them to imagine how a person from a different background thinks and feels, imagine another’s experience in this world.

In that person’s experience, multiple worlds exist, so slipping fluidly from one perspective and reality to another is often more familiar; it comes naturally.

But for those of us who live in a monocultural environment – that is a single, homogeneous culture – the change in perspective is not innate.

Despite having no experience or natural instinct to shift perspectives, there is a simple way to practice.

Ask The Question: How Would I Feel If…?

A Walmart CEO is heading up a branch in Germany.

He digs his feet in, declaring English the company language there and forcing his German staff to communicate only in English. He refuses to learn a lick of German.

If this Walmart CEO had taken a moment to ask himself, “How would I feel if the tables were turned?” he might experience a shift in perspective that would reverse this decision.

If he had imagined for a moment a German CEO at BMW in New York forcing his employees to speak German, declaring it the official language of BMW, he might have seen how flat-footed such a decision is.

How would American employees react? How would YOU react?

Asking the simple question, “How would I feel if a foreigner was doing this in my culture/country?” allows the shift in perspective you need to see your own obvious cultural blunders (i.e. “monkey moments“).

You can also take this view when accommodating foreigners in your own country.

For instance, if you have a visiting colleague from Japan and you know something of the Japanese culture, you probably understand that physical contact – and especially touching of the face – is considered intimate and taboo in Japanese culture.

Although it’s part of your own culture and this visitor is in your country, you might consider, “How would I feel…?” And instead of going in for a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or even a handshake, as are customary greetings in many cultures, you might offer your visiting colleague a bow. Doing so is respectful and would make this colleague that much more comfortable and at home in your country.

While your colleague may try to adapt to their host country and greet you as is customary in your culture, they will likely appreciate the empathetic gesture that you’ve extended.

Tommy Thompson & Krushchev

A little understanding and shoe-shifting go a long way in cross-cultural relations.

In politics, you might call it diplomacy, which is defined as:

“the art of dealing with people in a sensitive and effective way.”

An example of this by Psychologist J. E. Sherman in Psychology Today illustrates a rather extreme example of how shifting perspectives can truly facilitate cross-cultural relations – and even save the world from war.

Sherman explains that missiles had been installed by the Soviets 225 miles off the Florida coast in Cuba during the Cold War.

President Kennedy had to show a strong front. He was leaning toward an airstrike, which would, of course, have escalated the situation, but he thought he was boxed in.

However, level-headed senior foreign service officer Tommy Thompson offered some keen advice.

Having lived with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, Thompson could adopt his perspective, and he convinced Kennedy to go for a softer front: to make Khrushchev an offer that there would be no U.S. retaliation if the Soviets pulled out.

Of course, we all know the result: Khrushchev took the offer, and the world was saved from nuclear war.

Sherman writes:

“Thompson, a competent shoe-shifter put himself in Khrushchev’s shoes. He recognized that Khrushchev wasn’t expecting the US to find out about the missiles so early and hadn’t foreseen the potential for direct confrontation. He would be looking for a way to save face, to claim that he had saved Cuba from attack.”

You, too, can be a competent shoe-shifter like Tommy Thompson.

All it takes is to ask yourself what your own feelings/reactions might be if the shoe was on the other foot.

The conscious process of shoe-shifting allows you to delve into thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in another’s perspective.

In the end, while practicing empathy and active tolerance, you gain insight into individuals, differing perspectives, and foreign cultures.

Empathy in Action: An Exercise in Developing Empathy

Close your eyes, and picture this:

You are born into a relationship-based culture.

Relationships are the most important thing to you, because they are so integral to society.

Not only do they help you rise in the world, but they have your back when you fall.

Everything is tied to these relationships.

How do you see the world? How does this foundation impact your behavior, values, and norms?

Exercise in Empathy

The above was an exercise in empathy

Being able to put yourself into another’s shoes and imagine things from their perspective builds empathy – a tool that you can wield to your advantage.

Last week, we talked about how empathy is an essential personality trait when managing across cultures.

It’s not easily alterable or acquired; some are naturally more empathetic than others.

But like every trait that doesn’t come naturally, one can take actionable steps to develop it.

Developing empathy is an active, voluntary act.

And when working in a cross-cultural environment, you must be willing to volunteer this shift of perspective in order to adapt to your host culture.

We’ve talked a bit about the “monkey experience” in this blog and in my book I am the Monkey.

It’s one example of an exercise in empathy: viewing the world through the eyes of a monkey – and imagining others’ perceptions about you, the monkey, in turn.

It’s a radical shift in perspective, but a necessary exercise in understanding other individuals, other cultures, and better responding to differences in behaviors and values.

Another Exercise

You teach the third grade in New York City.

A new student enters your class. He just moved to America from the U.K. He is timid and visibly shaken. 

How do you sympathize with the student?

You comfort him, sharing with him that you understand his fear in this new situation.

But how do you demonstrate empathy?

Here’s how:

Picture yourself in his shoes: a young foreign child in a new school, new country, new culture.

Although you may never have been in this position yourself, drawing from your own similar well of experiences in unknown places, you may have a sense of what he’s feeling: the fear, the discomfort, the vulnerability, the confusion.

Sympathizing is the first step to creating a cross-cultural warmth of companionship and camaraderie; empathizing goes far deeper.

In this instance, you understand the child’s inner turmoil and are thereby better able to provide support and confidence through your words and actions.

With more information, you can make informed decisions about how to address his discomfort. And empathy gives you that information.

Visualization is the key to empathy – placing yourself into the untied shoes of that third grader, and viewing the big, scary world through his eyes.

This is empathy in action.

Next week, we’ll provide some examples of empathy in the workplace.

Empathy: A Trait That Facilitates Cross-Cultural Relations

What makes good leadership?

Charisma comes to mind. Communication and organizational skills; the ability to influence and delegate; confidence, integrity, accountability, empowerment.

All of these characteristics make for an exceptional leader.

But perhaps one of the most important attributes when working in a cross-cultural environment is empathy.

Putting Yourself in Another’s Shoes

Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy regularly emerge as principal attributes of those who facilitate cross-cultural relations.

Empathy is defined as

“the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

When you put yourself in another’s shoes, you start to identify with their beliefs or their actions.

You attempt to understand from multiple perspectives, drawing on different cultural backgrounds and the complex nature of human lives.

How Does Empathy Differ From Sympathy?

Sympathy is sometimes used interchangeably with empathy, but they are not one and the same.

When you sympathize with someone, it means you share their feelings; you commiserate with their grief, sorrow, or misfortune.

Often, you offer compassion and comfort simply by acknowledging the person’s difficulties.

“Thoughts and prayers.”

“Sorry for your loss.”

“Thinking of you.”

These are offerings of sympathy.

Empathy, on the other hand, goes a step beyond.

“In Feeling”

From the Greek, “empatheia,” the word is a combination of the prefix, “en,” and the root, “pathos,” meaning “in” and “feeling.”

So, empathy literally means “in feeling.”

When you empathize, not only are you commiserating with someone else’s hardship, you’re taking their feelings upon yourself, feeling what they feel, assuming the emotional anguish or hardship of said individual.

John Steinbeck described the power of empathy, writing,

“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.”

As you can probably recognize, empathy in cross-cultural relations is a powerful tool.

When entering a foreign culture, you must be able and willing to understand your colleagues or staff by feeling them in yourself.

Once you empathize and relate to their experiences, you are better positioned to understand their mentality and behavior.

Understanding will help you better navigate any conflicts that arise with individuals or groups.

And that empathy goes both ways.

As a foreign manager, you are the monkey.

So, you can only hope that your colleagues do you the same courtesy by putting themselves in your shoes and trying to understand your foreign ways.

Thus, both sides will observe the golden rule, “treat others as you would like to be treated,” which is what empathy is all about.

Next week, we’ll offer ways in which you can develop this important trait.