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.

Time as a Measurable Substance: What are Chronemics?

Daily life is dictated by time. And time is dictated by daily life.

Both vary across cultures.

You can set your watch by a Swiss train, but to do so in India may very well put you in a different timezone.

Cross-cultural expectations in the workplace are impacted by how cultures conceptualize time.

A breach of expectations in meeting deadlines or appointments can be detrimental to cross-cultural relations, particularly regarding countries that are time-sensitive.

So, how do you even begin to understand another culture’s time expectations?

You start out with the basics.

Concept of Time

Time is a measurable substance. If you think of time in linear terms, it is portioned in intervals, based on activities.

That’s why “time lines” exist.

At any point along the line, one activity has ended, and another has begun.

But not all cultures measure time with the same yardstick.

And the measurements that they use can influence everything from their lifestyles to the speed of their speech.

This is why a firm understanding of a cross-cultural business partner’s measurement of time will allow managers to account for these differences in expectation.

Knowledge of the culture’s time etiquette enables managers to plan accordingly.

For instance, when you make an appointment, understanding the other culture’s expectations about punctuality or tardiness will direct you to behave according to their concept of time – or at least prepare you to allow for their cultural norms without feeling disrespected.

And these norms are largely dictated by whether the culture is polychronic or monochronic.

Chronemics

Chronemics is the study of time’s role in communication – particularly non-verbal communication.

What does chronemics cover?

It evaluates a culture’s:

  • Perception of time
  • Structure of time
  • Time values (i.e. punctuality)
  • Response to time frames (i.e. patience in waiting)

The perception of time, itself, is like a cultural time capsule. Cultural norms in relation to time encapsulate so many aspects of a culture, you can almost sketch out a general idea of their cultural baobab, simply from their concept of time.

Chronemics is divided into two different time systems: monochronic and polychronic. We’ll discuss both at length next week.